I thought that it would be interesting to talk menu for a change. What we relish most is the opportunity to create dishes and cook in a manner that pays justice to the ingredients and the heritage of a dish. The menu is thus the most important part of the restaurant experience for both the guest and the cook. I have often wondered how many chefs engage their cooks in the process of building their menu and how familiar every cook is with the history and cultural underpinnings of the items on a specific menu. This document should reflect:
- The Philosophy of the Chef and the Kitchen as a Whole
- The Heritage of those Involved (at some level)
- The Collective Skills of the Kitchen Team
- An Understanding of the Ingredients and all of the Factors that Impact on the quality of those Ingredients
- The Potential Audience for the Menu and what will Excite them and Draw them in
A menu that fails to consider these points will never be true, never meet the overall expectations of the guest, and never take full advantage of what each cook brings to the restaurant experience. The menu IS the restaurant and the menu IS a reflection of the people who prepare and serve the food. Many restaurants overlook the importance of these two facts. Everything about the operation should stem from the design of this menu that begins as an extension of the people involved. People make the menu real and define how the restaurant will be perceived.
 THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE CHEF AND THE KITCHEN AS A WHOLE
On one side of the equation, the business side, philosophy might seem to be something that should have little impact on the restaurant and menu concept. After all, isn’t it the responsibility of a good businessperson to simply provide what the customer wants? While this is an approach with definite merit it is important to note that when the concept truly reflects what the chef and his or her team believe then that passion will be evident on the plate. It would make sense to build the truth of belief into a concept if you want the guest to feel the commitment of the team in the food presented.
“Stay true to your brand and true to your voice and audiences will respond to that authenticity with enthusiasm and passion.”
 THE HERITAGE OF THOSE INVOLVED
One of the greatest assets that a restaurant can claim is the heritage of the staff- both front and back of the house. There is some level of truth to the statement that “You Eat What You Are” (not You Are What You Eat) just as there would be some truth to “You Cook What You Are”. A well trained cook can certainly be expressive with a variety of ethnic cuisines, yet there is something about an Italian cooking Italian, a French chef cooking French, and a Mexican Cooking Mexican that just seems “right”. This can be overcome with a commitment to study and experience just as Rick Bayless did with Mexican cuisine, but without the heritage or the commitment to study; a replication of any ethnic cuisine will be shallow at best. Chefs need to create an environment where real understanding of a menus core cuisine must be a call to arms. This training must include all of those factors that impact on the uniqueness of a cuisine: history, language, economics, art, music, farming, ingredients, and cooking methods.
The story of everyone’s background in your kitchen becomes the collective story of your menu and your restaurant’s brand. Don’t overlook the importance of this reflection.
 THE COLLECTIVE SKILLS OF THE KITCHEN TEAM
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Since full knowledge of a cuisine and those factors that impact it can be exhaustive a team can build a base of knowledge whose components are delegated to a variety of people – allowing the sum of their knowledge to complete the package. Authenticity can be a collaborative process with each person contributing an essential part.
 AN UNDERSTANDING OF THE INGREDIENTS AND ALL OF THE FACTORS THAT IMPACT ON THE QUALITY OF THOSE INGREDIENTS
Think about an authentic cuisine and how simple some processes and ingredients can be while others require a depth of study that would rival the complexity of any college course. Take Mexican cooking as an example – most American’s may think of this type of cooking as relatively simple, but authentic Mexican cooking is quite complex. There are well over 100 varieties of peppers – not all used in Mexican cooking, yet each has a unique flavor profile that goes beyond the heat measured in Scovil units. An Oaxacan Mole Sauce can have more than 30 ingredients and take years for a cook to perfect. Knowing the role that each ingredient plays in a product and how it interacts with others is essential to creating authentic food.
 THE POTENTIAL AUDIENCE FOR THE MENU AND WHAT WILL EXCITE THEM AND DRAW THEM IN
Every guest in a restaurant is an important guest, yet those who come back time and again are your friends who will help to define the operations brand and serve as ambassadors for your authenticity and consistency. Finding out what excites their palate, what part of your authenticity is critical to them, and engaging them in the process of learning about that heritage, the philosophy of the chef, and the nuances of ingredients will convert them from guests to clients. Clients have little need to patronize anyone else. It is your authenticity and connection with them that sets a chef and his or her restaurant apart from the pack.
The menu needs to be real, there must be a connection that is obvious and well executed if a restaurant is to expect positive brand awareness and long-term success. These characteristics of “real” are the secret spices that define the operation and build the brand of individual team members.
“KNOW THE STORY, BE THE STORY, TELL THE STORY, LOVE THE STORY”
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
*PHOTOS: The Left Bank Cafe- Saranac Lake, NY
Cafe du Monde – New Orleans, LA