Building a Great Seasonal Menu
Creating a great seasonal menu is time-consuming and costly, and this is the biggest reason that so many great restaurants avoid a seasonal menu. Businesses focused on the bottom line tend to stick to a specific formula for success, sometimes at the expense of an evolving menu. But a seasonal menu shows guests that the kitchen truly cares about providing a unique dining experience.
A seasonal menu can only be the product of an expert Chef with the time and resources to put together a one-of-a-kind menu. Seasonality should be a part of every kitchen because of the nature of commodities like produce and proteins. A kitchen willing to create a dedicated seasonal menu signals to foodies and lovers of great dining that something special is happening in the restaurant.
While building a seasonal menu depends on the specifics of the region and time of year, there are a few steps that should be followed in each case. This template can ease the burden and turn building a seasonal menu into a cost-effective venture for any restaurant.
The most valuable commodity for creativity in most kitchens is time, and this is no exception when creating seasonal dishes. A chef needs time to consider seasonal ingredients, work with vendors, and think creatively about different elements that stand out. He also needs to be able to work with a Sous or other kitchen staff to brainstorm for ideas and flesh out entree components.
The creative spark often begins with a single ingredient that speaks to the Chef. However, it also helps to have colleagues nearby to challenge inspiration and work to create a dish that will appeal to a wide audience.
The Chef or Kitchen Manager should usually work with vendors and local produce growers to get ideas, cost out products, and even learn about what ideas are working in other restaurants in the area. A vendor rep can be a great resource, especially for the Chef working to create a new seasonal menu for the first time.
A seasonal menu might start out with a few dishes that are the product of real inspiration. However, a well-rounded tasting menu needs every component of a multi-course experience. Strong vendor relationships can help fill in the gaps with ideas about seasonal availability.
Testing and Tasting
Too many chefs fail to prepare their dishes and get enough feedback from staff. Many chefs work best when alone, especially in a small kitchen. This can be an effective mindset most of the time. But new and seasonal entrees comprising a tasting menu should be carefully vetted; first by the chef alone and then with the help of trusted staff members with discriminating tastes.
The idea of tastings is to decide what works, what does not work, and how to tweak a dish to improve it. The chef should absorb suggestions and be willing to take another crack at it, if necessary. Tastings tend to provoke ideas and educate the staff, and they are really what menu development is all about.
Cost it Out
Costing out entrees is the backbone of new entrees. The top priorities are thoroughness and accuracy. Costs must accurately account for portion control. They also must include a plate/table wraparound or other device to accurately account for non-component costs (i.e. bread, butter, salt, parsley). Costs must be accounted for in relation to targets, and measures must be taken to get costs under a target cost percentage.
This is another instance in which vendors can be a great asset. When buying seasonal ingredients, do not hesitate to shop around for the best prices. In many cases, the hardest part of creating a new menu is getting ingredients at the lowest possible price.
Whether you are rolling out a single-night tasting menu or a long-term menu insert, be sure to account for all the details. This includes:
Seasonal menu rollout gets easier with regular practice, so be aware of bumps in the road and do not be afraid to stick with it to get it right. A seasonal menu can be a great sign for the health of a kitchen and a business, and it is a great way to create buzz about the restaurant.