During your time in culinary academy, you’ll learn everything you’ll need to become a successful chef. But aside from how to properly roast a duck or the best way to shuck oysters, there is one skill that not all chefs have mastered or even fully recognized: menu planning. As the de facto leader of your restaurant’s kitchen, it’s up to you to develop a menu that is not only delicious and appealing, but adheres to the values and aesthetic of your eatery. Here are a few helpful tips and tricks to keep in mind the next time you have to map out a menu of your very own:
1. Plan for the seasons: Certain foods only work in some seasons. That could be because it’s better to eat a cheeseburger on a warm summer day, or because some ingredients, like berries, simply aren’t in season in November and December. Speaking to Epicurious, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay said that all chefs need to be aware of this seasonal relationship and plan ahead accordingly. If your local farm’s market has an abudnace of oranges available, create dishes heavy with this citrus flavor. Meanwhile, don’t waste your time searching for some hard-to-find ingredient. Above all else, you always want to seek out the freshest ingredients possible for your menu items.
2. End with an exclamation point: According to Chef Ramsay, so many chefs and patrons alike assume that dessert is simply an afterthought. However, this section of the meal is the last thing your customers will eat, and its quality – or the lack thereof – will help shape their opinion of the entire meal. That’s why it’s so important to have a great dessert to wrap things up with. Again, remember the importance of seasonality, and always rely on fresh ingredients. However, dessert is your time to express yourself, so don’t be afraid to go extravagant or try something new. A wild idea – like this rainbow cookie hot fudge sundae from New York’s Kutsher’s diner – may be just enough to seize your patrons’ attention.
3. Find your theme ASAP: As mentioned above, great menus will always stick to the aesthetic of the restaurant. Having that kind of cohesion between the food and the ambiance is important, as it sends a message to your patrons that you’ve planned ahead and you’re deliberately crafting a very specific dining experience. However, as Hospitality Net noted, you need to have some kind of balance when creating a menu. You don’t want to deter people by having items that might be unappealing just because it matches the way the restaurant looks or some kind of perceived imagery. To help avoid this, be sure to include some classic dishes into your menu, and build off of those as you see fit.
4. Be deliberate: Before landing at the famous Harry & David producer and retailer outlet in early 2014, Tim Keller was a chef with over 28 years experience. His key to successful menu planning and implementation? Proper execution. Part of that is letting your guests know why you’ve chosen certain ingredients or other items.
“The guest should know why you’re doing something,” he said. “Why you chose eel and rabbit to go together. One is fatty and one is a slim meat. Create purpose in every food pairing.”
He also said that presentation is important. Even if you’re cooking the same chicken plate, certain garnishes or other embellishments – even something very light or subtle – can make each individual dish seem totally unique.