New Menu Day
Human emotion is too vast and complex to understand; so in researching the number of emotions that humans experience, it’s no easy task to define and list them all. But I’m here to tell you, during the time in which a new menu is being planned and executed, I experience ALL OF THEM.
For me, it always starts with a tiny seed being planted into my brain by Chef when it’s getting close to a new menu. The seasons are changing, products are about to come and go and how do we create a new narrative of dining for the guest. It’s a time to show creativity with new ingredients and explore new avenues with familiar flavours and plates.
Now, I would love to say that I’m constantly thinking about new food but I’ve always been of the mindset that it’s good to focus on what I have in front of me and make the current menu the best that it can be. Working hard to make effective little tweaks each time I plate a dish to strive for as near perfection as I can. Is there such a thing as perfect food? Maybe or maybe not; and maybe I’ve become too cynical and believe there will always be a tiny criticism of even the most concisely constructed plate.
My first step is to print off about 5 copies of the current menu since I’m going to be jotting down a ton of thoughts and ideas that are going to look like chicken scratch on the page by the end of my thought process. I write down questions to answer later, circle things to research further and most definitely mark off-menu items that have clearly had their time and don’t owe me anything anymore. In the back of my mind I know even though I’ll love everything that goes into a new menu, when it’s time to think about the next one there’s going to be a dish or two I’m happy to say goodbye to.
It’s kind of like a relationship that doesn’t end up working out. You’re glad they were there for a certain time in your life, but when it’s time to go your separate ways, you’re ready to move on. Now that I think about it, every menu creates these micro-relationships you have with each dish. The mainstays or “fan-favourites” are your long-term relationship; those you’re happy with and love to cook day in and day out. Then there’s some you can’t get rid of because everyone loves them too much and you’re looking back and wondering if you could do something different, would you really have to continue to deep fry calamari? At the end of the day, whatever comes and goes on a menu, I’m always happy because I get to cook.
Alright, let’s snap-back to it. With my chicken-scratched menus on my desk, I pull out a couple of cookbooks and have Google at the ready. My go-to reference guide which I think a lot of people will agree is “The Flavour Bible” written by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. When creating recipes, this guide is so helpful for showing how flavour profiles match up and help me figure things on my own instead of following the steps of someone else’s pre-written recipe.
It’s also great to have discussions with Chef as to what he’s looking for in the new menu and to be able to bounce ideas back and forth between each other. The best advice I can give a young cook or someone in my position as Chef de Cuisine is to be humble and take criticism as a building block to get better and more focused at creating new recipes. Not every idea is going to be a home run, and even if it gets past the discussion phase and into actual development, the whole dish might go to shit and it gets trashed. The thing to remember is that it’s going to happen all the time throughout your career. Once you get over that mental hump of seeing your food fuck up badly and getting past it, you’ll be in a much better position developing recipes in the future.
The development phase is another layer of stress that you gotta have a thick skin for. Pork too salty, try again. The skin of a new fish you’re working with isn’t getting as crispy as you’d like it too, back to the drawing board. The new vegan dish that looked so good on paper is bland as hell and you don’t know what else to add to it without it looking like you’re throwing the kitchen sink at it, well it looks like you gotta try that again too.
But there are moments of bliss where everything seems to work out and you get that feeling like Hannibal from the A-Team smoking a cigar saying “I love it when a plan comes together!” There are some surprises along the way which will stumble onto moments of genius. Accidentally putting coriander instead of cilantro leaves in a dish, but the seeds of coriander make it all pop and come together is one of those happy little accidents. There’s an infinite amount of variables happening at this stage of the menu creation process and it’s best to roll with the punches and keep cooking.
Now comes the launch day, and these days are long. Everyone comes in, hours before service and Chef’s been in the kitchen till around 1am the night before and back at it at 9am the same morning. Things have to get done a certain way and when it all comes from a particular vision; it's easier to do it yourself then worry about delegating the small tasks to the other cooks. I live in a constant state of asking Chef “what can I do next?”, as my job is to make it as easy as I can for him on a day where stress levels are at peak volumes. The clock ticks away as you think you have hours on end to continue to mise out the prep list and get everything done on time, but in reality, it’s a day of constant catch up.
Staff come in and crowd around a designated area to see how the new plates are gonna look and I’ll always get a kick out of seeing their eyes light up once we set down what’s in store for the upcoming menu in front of them. It’s fun to see who’s looking at diving into which plate first. It’s awesome to watch the note-taking and the excitement that comes from learning about the concepts behind new dishes and not just how it’s going to taste. Taking questions and having a discussion about the food is a key component in sharing that knowledge with the guests as well. The staff know that every plate tries to tell a story and the front of house are the ambassadors of the stories that Chef’s going to tell.
Service hits and it’s a heavyweight fight between the cook and getting used to the new menu. The station is set up the way it’s perceived to work, but then you find out that the motion of grabbing something in the lowboy instead of having it up top makes more sense. Or keeping something in the walk-in is going to clear a bunch of space on your station. There’s always inquiries to the FOH about feedback on new plates. Quick reviews on those first nights from the guests go a long way in figuring out what works and what’s completely off, or certain critiques are ignored for a time because yes we’re stubborn and want the guests to get out of their comfort zone and join us on this new culinary journey.
Service ends and its drinks all around for the crew. Unwind and talk about the night like it’s game 3 of the NBA Finals and even though we were down by 10 at the half we still came out of it with a W. No rest for the weary as it’s right back to it the next service and the drive to be better than the night before. That’s why we do it, to achieve as close to perfection with our food as we can and to share our stories with those that come to dine with us.
Until next time, have a good service.