Thursday, January 22, 2009

Writing a Menu Entry (The Joy of Cooking...Raccoon)

Thursday is the day for 'In the News', and today it took up almost half the class. Upfront and center was the Bruni's review of Daniel, a slavish 4-star ode to a beautiful space and pretty food. I questioned Richard about Bruni's view of the service as incredibly present and detail oriented -- surely the staff knows who he is and caters to him? It seems Bruni has a legion of less high-profile foot soldiers who also hit up the restaurants at other times to help confirm what the reviewer interprets.

It seems Gordon Ramsey has a 3rd show being imported, the F-Word. According to Richard, celebrity chefs control a lot of what the public think about food and dining, but the danger in that is that the celebrity chef industry gives control to a lot of non-food experts. Case in point: according to polls, the highest paid chef in America today is....Rachel Ray, a woman who isn't actually a cook.

We reviewed this blurb about the recent closing of NYC's Fiamma, a bellwether of bad economic times to come for a lot of fine dining establishments. Another story from the Times shows a restaurant which needs $6 million gross minimum to stay open it's first year, and based on it's model and the times, is absolutely doomed. Richard briefly told an anecdote, but held back some details because he hopes to have the main character come in and speak to us. It seems some South American baker wanted to open up a second location in NYC. By hiring the wrong people, the budget want from $1.25 mil to over $5 mil -- which is a tough nut if your selling cakes and coffee. On top of that, the lease for the space which all this money was spent on was improperly negotiated and ended up with a 1 year lease! Suffice to say, the place didn't stick around.

Richard left us with a story from the Kansas City Star: Raccoon: It's What's for Dinner, most appropriate after last week's NY Times feature on squirrel. Who knew that the 1938 1st edition Joy of Cooking contained raccoon dishes?

Next we broke into groups for another menu entry workshop. Every student was supposed to write three menu items from their concept restaurant. My concept is in flux and will try to write it this weekend. Pastry didn't write anything, and Northfork was absent today. Chicago gal's concept is for a neighborhood authentic Mexican eatery. I won't go through the whole process, but I'll show you one entry, along with Richard and the class's work on it:
Mole Negro: Braised Chicken Breast smothered in traditional Mexican mole sauce (an unsweetened savory sauce of herbs and chocolate.) Served with our traditional rice, refried beans and choice of corn or flour tortillas.
And the commentary: Braising is not the best method for cooking chicken breast -- it will be tough and dry, and will fall apart. Either offer multiple parts of the bird or change the method. It says it's 'smothered' in sauce, while 'smothering' can be read as another, contradictory method. No parentheticals. Don't repeat the word Mole from the name of the dish, just describe the sauce. And if we're aiming for authentic, you must be accurate -- Mole is about the chocolate, but also very much about the chiles. As much as you may want authenticity, it may be compromised to suit your clients -- if you're opening shop on the Upper East Side for Ladies Who Lunch, then whole chicken breast and tamed spices may be in order. The language of the sides miss some opportunities to show value -- "refried beans", what, from a can? Or some marvelous concoction brimming with smokey pork and cooked for 36 hours?

Slovak Ricky Martin's 3 menu items were a notable disaster, notable not for the technical side of their composition, but their content and contempt for the average eater. Beef tar tar with quail egg, goat cheese croquettes with panko, petit lobster rolls -- small dishes for twits. Raw ground beef with raw egg may be the one 'out there' dish on a more comforting menu, but then lumps of goat cheese? Blechchch!

Richard finished up the class with listing the main food groups of a dessert menu. They are:
  • Chocolate
  • Fresh Fruit
  • Cake (texture)
  • Pastry
  • Creamy
  • Crunchy
  • Hot/Cold (can depend on season)
A good dessert menu will hold all seven of these groups, but doesn't necessarily have to be 7 dishes -- they can overlap. Something like Chocolate Hazelnut Cake has chocolate, cake and crunchy all in one. There should be a variety in the level of sweetness -- a fruit and cheese plate would be on one end of the spectrum, while a pecan pie would be on the other.

Next week, we delve further into the details of writing a menu.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Writing A Menu Entry, Continued (Mobbed Up)

The class started with Richard opening up the floor to stories from the students, a.k.a. 'odds and ends'. Russian Pam Anderson went to One if By Land, Two if By Sea with her husband and unsurprisingly were impressed by the 'romantic' decor but underwhelmed by the just-good food. Baseball Cap Kid, with out a hint of irony, told us about he and his girlfriend ordered from TGIFriday's, and when he drove over to pick it up, he had to walk through a crowded bar and get the attention of a bartender, just so he could retrieve his order. According to Richard, similar places like Applebees have a curb-side pick up service to avoid such silliness. On top of that, the order was packaged in an nondescript paper bag.

Queens Restaurant Lady said her restaurant recently installed cameras in and around the dining room, and has noticed the front of house staff spending more time in the dining room and engaging the customers. Some discussion came of this, with Richard explaining that it perfectly legal for the owner of a public space to video monitor (and/or audio monitor) people with no expectation of privacy. Bathrooms, where it is expected to be private, is another topic.

Most of the rest of class was dedicated to a menu writing exercise. After reviewing the basics of a menu entry (temperature, method, main ingredient, part and modifier), Richard distributed bits of paper with a basic concept on it. Each table were to write four menu entries based on this concept, then the rest of class would guess the basic concept from only reading the menu items.

One table got "upscale feminine",  another "moderate masculine". We got "moderate/themer". There had to be a fish & mayo dish, a beef and onion dish, a chicken and mushroom dish, and a shrimp and herb dish. Here is what my table came up with, along with criticism from Richard and the class. Apologies to all the Italian Americans out there, it was based on the Outback Steakhouse attitude, but literally only 5 minutes to write the menu....
  • Sleeping with the Fishes: Swordfish Milanese resting peacefully on a bed of greens and a side of garlic aoli. Does the target market understand what 'Milanese' means? Maybe make it make Italian with "polenta-breaded or something. Aoli is French, not Italian, perhaps "olive oil Mayonnaise" would work more. What kind of greens? "Greens" is just abstract.
  • The Goodfella's Beef:  Braised Osso Bucco & Balsamic-Glazed Onions over Egg Noodles. What's the braising liquid? Italian wine like Chianti would make sense. Egg noodles not Italian - name the noodle, like parpadelle.
  • Omerta Chicken: Chicken Rolatini Riddled with Ricotta and Mushrooms. Needs method -- baked or fried? Needs a sauce or liquid. 
  • Wiseguy Scampi: Tough but Tender Shrimp sauteed with garlic butter and oregano with linguine
Richard noted that we were consistent in naming the dishes -- naming some but not others would be awkward, and the names clearly communicated the theme. No, I will not be opening a mob-themed restaurant anytime soon, though it makes me wonder what the menu at the 'Bada Bing' topless bar in NJ contains...

We finished the day with the basic menu food groups, and preconceived notions people bring to them. These are not the reality of these groups, just the baggage people bring to your spot and influence their view of your menu:
  • Beef: filling, expensive (depending on cut)
  • Veal: lighter, luxury, more expensive, smaller portion, cruel
  • Pork: fatty, boring, cooked well done
  • Poultry: boring, safe, easy to over cook, light, lean
  • Lamb: gamey & complex, less digestible
  • Game: interesting, variety, a talking point
  • Offal: challenging, ethnic, variety
  • Fish: healthy, lower in calories and fat, expensive, fresh
  • Shellfish: expensive, fresh
  • Vegetable: healthy, boring
  • Pasta/grain: less expensive
  • Dairy/Fruit: usually breakfast or lunch
Any good menu will need 7 food groups represented to offer a good variety.