Mind of a Chef: A Lesson in Menu Creation with Brian Cartenuto


Mind of a Chef:  A Lesson in Menu Creation with Brian Cartenuto

Menu creation requires the respect and time it deserves because when art meets science, the wait is always worth the result…

My name is Brian Cartenuto, I am the General Manager & Executive Chef of Queen City Grill.  I have spent 25 years training and working in professional kitchens.  Today, we are going to discuss the art of seasonal menu creation.  Creating a menu is the easy part, anyone can put a menu together, but creating THE menu is the struggle.  I used to just throw things together and shoot from the hip, but I have grown older and have gained more experience in the art of menu writing.  It truly is time consuming, with plenty of debate, planning, research, development, failures and restarts.

Composing a Dish

This winter we are adding a classic french dish Cassoulet to the menu, our version has duck confit, confit pork belly, duck sausage (traditionally it would be pork sausage), white beans and herb bread crumbs.  We have made each component separate throughout a months time, some of the items we have made before and used in other dishes.  I like to find another use for a component I may have used in a completely different way previously (an example would be the pork belly confit).  This gives me an opportunity to teach my kitchen staff and to refine our work.

Finally after so many hours of trial and error the whole dish comes together, we have tasted each component at the very least 15-20 times and truth be told sometimes we are sick of it!  However,  it is a necessary evil to get our recipes down pat and perfect how we are going to present the dish.  It is  also extremely important to give our front of the house staff a base line of what to expect and the ability to accurately describe the flavor profile of each dish.

Using the Entire Brain

Creating a menu is the hardest of tasks, both creative and technical.  Why is something creative and technical so hard?  Consider that the left side of the brain is technical, the right side of the brain is creative and most people rely more heavily on one.  It is definitely an exercise in brain power to use both equally that I enjoy.  I would imagine if I was hooked up to a machine to gauge the use of my hemispheres when working on a new menu or dish, both would light up equally, because the process involves not only imagination but hard facts.

When testing out ideas for a new menu you are going to get the opinion of everyone and their brother.  For example,  a particularly vocal regular patron that loves shepherd’s pie.  We want to make our core clientele happy of course and the request seems innocent enough.   But, when it comes down to it putting shepherd’s pie on the menu because only one regular loves it is a mistake. Why?  Consider that the other regular sitting next to him is into sardines, another loves … you get the idea.  The menu will be a disaster, a collection of oddities.

Before dropping back into our subject of menu construction here are some facts about regular patrons:
  • Regulars are typically only 15% of the customers but are 33% of the revenue.
  • They spend more, tell people about your restaurant.
  • A Harvard business study showed that if a restaurant increases repeat business by 5%, profitability grows significantly.

Back to Menu Construction

The theme of the restaurant is an overused guiding light in menu planning. The regional base dictating the cuisine of the restaurant is a legitimate guiding light because any customer entering an regionally-oriented restaurant expects a certain spectrum of food.  This restriction is causing modern restaurant planners to go for more modern themes, combining the regional orientation to give the Chef the flexibility to make great food, blending flavor profiles that otherwise would be taboo.

The range and complexity of a menu depends on only one thing, the kitchen team.  I have trimmed down my menus when forced to hire apprentices that need on-the-job seasoning.   As the kitchen gains momentum and the skills of my team expands, I have an opportunity to create a  menu with expanded range and complexity.  I generally use the daily specials to train the team and have them participate in testing out new recipe ideas.  The kitchen staff is under pressure – granted –  but apprentices are there for precisely this kind of training.

A lot of my time is also spent talking with my Chef de Cuisine Dominic on a daily basis weaving new menu ideas and topics through our daily talks of what needs to be prepped or learning the nuances of local produce available during the seasons of Seattle compared to Florida (where we both came from).  It is a constant conversation that takes many forms, from reading cook books to scouring social media, sending each other pictures of food and dishes for inspiration.

Inspiration comes in many forms, I have always said that we (as Chef’s) are here to create and evoke memories, especially as it relates to food.  I find it hard to create new food memories for people, but i can always build on or add another “story” to an existing fond food memory.

Costs…

Food cost is not a weapon, it is a measure.  Over time it has become the chains used to bind the professionals in our kitchen instead of being considered a fence to limit excess. So where is the benefit to the restaurant to unchain the kitchen from rigid food cost controls?  The answer is traffic and capacity.  If a restaurant can significantly increase traffic, SALES will fix everything!

Stop slinging the cheapest possible and move to the healthiest, tastiest, and most beautiful menu.

It takes a ridiculously small number of extra customers to cover buying a few key higher-quality ingredients and it is those ingredients that make a new menu work.  Food cost is an economic straitjacket that restricts any Chef from constructing a menu that will not only make a profit … but grow the customer base and that is the name of the game … grow the business.

Wrapping Up…

A new menu takes a few months to write, plan and execute.   The conversation of every new menu pretty much starts at the beginning of the prior season, or once we have finished and executed the previous menu.  I start talking about spring menus around early to mid winter, and summer menus about mid-spring and so on.  There is a lot to factor in when considering the big picture, labor, proteins, vegetables, availability and team ability.  It is a challenge and there are a lot of opinions to filter through, but at the end of the day if the staff is proud to be serving the food I create and our customers are enjoying being served well thought out, tasty food that has soulfulness, my job is done.

I love creating THE menu.

 

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