You know that every chef has wrestled with this – should the menu reflect a personal philosophy to move the bar or stick with time-tested standards? Chefs are, for all intents and purposes, inherently creative people who are always looking for a way to express that creativity and place their signature on the plate. That is in our DNA, we can’t really help ourselves. Without the avenue for creative expression we feel the weight of complacency. Most professional cooks feel the same way, knowing that working in a property that does not push the envelope does very little to build their resume.
To these individuals – the menu planning process is a license to think differently, study those chefs that they admire, experiment with different ingredients, and push their palates in the process of creating something unique and cutting edge. There is a percentage of the consumer population that responds very well to this. These “innovators” are constantly looking for the next interesting interpretation of food – the restaurant chef who teases them with food preparations that strike a chord, who makes them challenge how they think about food, and puts a smile on their face. To a chef, these are the people we love to cook for – they challenge us and keep us on our toes.
The problem is that this is less than 3 percent of the population of restaurant consumers. Yes, there are a slightly larger percentage of diners right behind them who are simply waiting for a nod of approval from the innovators, and yes, the press loves to focus on them, but the reality is that this population is fickle and they tire of a unique restaurant as soon as another innovator comes along. Restaurants survive and thrive on the “early and late majority” that represents over 60 percent of the dining population. These are the customers that keep restaurants afloat, tend to be loyal, and remain ambassadors for a restaurant for years to come.
We should understand that a major part of a chef’s job is to create and execute menus that address the majority and that are geared towards profitability. The chef’s ability to be creative and put his or her signature on a plate rests first on the ability to run a financially viable operation; thus the dilemma.
You have all experienced the menu pundit (sometimes the restaurant owner) who asks where the shrimp cocktail is. We roll our eyes, and try to explain our theory that this is far too “old school”. I can vividly remember a chef position at a fine dining operation that I walked into and faced planning my first signature menu. The cooks ribbed me for placing French Onion Soup on the menu, saying: “Chef that may have been appropriate in the 1970’s, but this is the 21st century.” Don’t forget the reluctant agreement to add prime ribs on the menu for a consistent Saturday night feature: “Really chef – prime rib? That’s what my grandfather would order.” Well – here is the answer: THEY SELL!
That operation with the French Onion Soup saw the item become the number one appetizer on the menu with rave reviews. The shrimp cocktail was consistently popular, and the Saturday night prime rib was not only popular – it took a considerable amount of pressure off the line on the busiest night of the week.
The initial reaction from a chef is to feel like he or she needs to apologize for being submissive to these “common” menu items, until it becomes apparent that those items give the chef the opportunity to run a profitable operation and find room for those highly creative features and rotating menu signature items.
I can remember the chatter about Gavin Kaysen when he was the chef at Café Boulud in New York when he featured his version of fried chicken on one of the more exclusive fine dining operations in the city. Daniel Boulud offered his massively creative burger on his menu to rave reviews, and Nancy Silverton had a cult following for her California Grilled Cheese Sandwich at Mozza. A chef’s pride should be focused on the care that is given to preparing any item exceptionally well, rather than if it is “off the wall” innovative.
So, how does a chef approach the dilemma of creativity vs. business sense? Here are some thoughts:
 EXCEPTIONAL IS ALWAYS CREATIVE
Gavin Kaysen’s fried chicken was a successful fine dining entrée because it was knock your socks off exceptional and people historically love fried chicken. Daniel Boulud’s burger was successful because it was adapted to a high end environment with the addition of foie gras and high quality, fresh ground meat, and because American’s were raised on burgers. Nancy Silverton created a cult following for her crunchy, butter rich, California focused rich cheese sandwich because who doesn’t love grilled cheese and very few operators do it right. When we focus on making the best of anything we have opened the creativity door to success.
 PUT YOUR SIGNATURE TWIST ON THE CLASSICS
When your cooks complain that an item is too “old school” then help them to put a unique twist on the classic standard. Offer that shrimp cocktail with a few ethnic twists – maybe a Thai, Spanish, or Japanese twist. The French Onion soup that I offered became a bar-b-que onion soup that was out of this world, and maybe the prime rib feature includes a sampling plate of sauces, a bleu cheese popover, and family style vegetable platter. Make it your own while maintaining the core character of a timeless dish.
 THEY ARE CLASSICS FOR A REASON
Classic rock is timeless, classic paintings attract viewers of all ages, and classic menu items will remain popular – always! Why? Because the flavor profile stimulates the palate, the item prods some memories that put a smile on a guest’s face, and familiarity is comforting. Why argue with these facts? Remember what is universally enjoyed and keep that in mind when you contemplate what items should find a home on your menu.
 PAY ATTENTION TO THE HISTORY OF A DISH
Know when and why a dish became popular. Study how it was developed and how it came into prominence. The story counts and adds to the validation of a product. Waldorf Salad is a 1960’s menu classic and is to some – past it’s prime. When you add the story about Oscar of the Waldorf and how the dish was originally developed, then the salad takes on a whole new level of significance. When Peach Melba is properly made and presented as a dessert created by Escoffier when he was the chef at the Savoy Hotel in London – then it peaks customer interest. It was created for the Australian soprano singer – Nellie Melba who he apparently had a crush on. That simple grilled cheese is just another sandwich until you point out that it was first developed by Otto Rohwedder who also designed the bread slicer. After all how many times do we reference something creative as the best thing since sliced bread? The story counts.
 FLAVOR FIRST
When it comes down to it, everyone responds best to food that tastes great. It is flavor that keeps customers coming back. Whatever the dish, whether it is cutting edge or a throwback to the 1940’s – if the flavor is there then people will order it time and again. Flavor first – flavor brings them back.
 IT’S ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE
When you build an experience around a dish then excitement builds among employees and customers. Look at how any dish on your menu fits into that experience formula of appealing to every sense, when it stimulates interest through storytelling, and shines as being perfectly executed. Note these stories about Gavin Kaysen’s Fried Chicken at Café Boulud, Nancy Silverton’s Grilled Cheese at Mozza, and Daniel Boulud’s db burger.
 MAKE EVERYONE FLAVOR ADVOCATES
If there are doubters among your stakeholder network then let the flavor be the spokesman. Have tastings with your staff, tell the story, and build your advocate base. When they are excited and convinced then they will pass that enthusiasm on to the guest.
Find that happy medium of understanding what sells and how to make it your own, and allow this understanding to set the stage for levels of creativity to follow. This is what a chef does.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC