Thursday, January 29, 2009

Menu Construction / Communication (I dream of serving hung beef in a bikini, too!)

Today opened with a round of 'In the News', lead off with the dining section of the NY Times. What I brought to the class was from the Times, but not the dining section -- it seemed a restaurant named 'Winter' took a full page color ad out in the front section of the newspaper, opposite the first National page. This is a restaurant that changes both it's decor and menu to reflect the season, and clearly is trying to appeal to business people and the wealthy, not the more food-oriented people who read the dining section. According to Richard, in this economy, spending that kind of money on that kind of ad is clearly a desperation move, especially since it is not a new restaurant.

Speaking of the economy, the NY Post ran an article called 'Unhappy Meal', about how executives downtown are downsizing their lunch budgets by eating fast food instead of something more elegant. A lot of classy news outlets picked up a story about a Latina former Hooters girl who is suing Hawaiian Tropic Zone because she claims they wouldn't hire her because she sounded too 'ghetto'. I quote,
"It was kind of like my dream to work at the [Hawaiian Tropic Zone]," she said. "It's the bikini, I guess."

The restaurant is spread across three floors and 16,000 square feet. It features a two-story waterfall, a setting that "tantalizes the senses" and menu items such as hung barbecue ribs and crispy chicken lollipops.
Denied the dream of serving hung beef and chicken pops in a bikini? Surely, sueing for a million dollars is aiming too low!

Finally, Richard closed with a tidbit from Fox News, in which 7 Japanese diners are sent to the hospital for eating grilled testicles of a fugu, the famous poisonous blow fish. If you're going to put POISONOUS FISH TESTICLES IN YO MOUF, you had it comin'. Uh, no pun intended.

The next part of the class was dedicated to correcting the menu Richard handed out, revising it on all levels, from design and arrangement to the parts of the descriptions and spelling and grammar.

The majority of the class was dedicated to 'communications', more specifically, communicating yourself to others in a direct way. This took the form of public speaking. We were given a couple of minutes to jot notes, a couple of minutes to practice and give feed back to two others, then each one of us got up in front of the class and discussed our favorite foods - what, why and how we make them.

Some of the students, particularly the younger ones, were remarkably poorly spoken, clearly uncomfortable speaking in front of a group, and more to the point, selling themselves -- if we're going to sell a biz, we got to sell ourselves. A few liked foods they never even considered making themselves, like beef jerky or waffles (!) One was vague but passionate about all food Italian, a few named foods that were favorite only when their mother made them.

I was feeling ill (and as it turns out, after class I would call in to work ill and stay at home for 3 days recovering), but I got up there and started with a joke. "As you may of already guessed, my favorite food is also waffles." (Everyone knows I'm pizza-focused, got a good laugh, oh, you just had to be there) I warned them that I'd try to keep this quick, as I could babble all day. I started with, "Pizza is my favorite food for the sole reason that my mother was a horrendous cook." That got a 2nd laugh, no faces were turned away from me. I had them. I spoke of how ordering pizza from the shops of Italian-dominated Staten Island were wonderful reprieves from my mom's puke chicken and leather omelets. How making them evolved over my life from heating up Stouffer's French Bread pizzas to buying pre-made dough. And then I went into a little detail about retarding dough, making raw sauce and floating pools of buffala moz on a limpid red pool. I paused, and fielded more than a handful of enthusiastic questions. It was really cool. I sold it! (My enthusiasms, that is. If I was trying to extract money from their pockets, who knows.) And I'm happy to say that 3 other student in this group of 20 named pizza as their favorite food, though that had nothing to do with me.

The class ended with a photocopy of LI Robert DeNiro's restaurant's menu, a pizzeria restaurant. The exercise is to take this large menu, chop it up and rearrange it so it flows better. To be continued on Wednesday, as there is no class on Monday. Peace out, peeps!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Menu Design (Unappetizing Demons)

The class started with a video, which if I was 25 years younger, would HAVE been heaven. Now, mildly interested but I can do this at home, dude. The program was a 'deconstructed' look at the bones of a restaurant, many angles which we have looked at in the first few weeks of classes. Lots of factoids were thrown at the watcher: people eat out 218 times a year on average, old and secondary cuts of meat are held for customers who order their meat 'well done', in Holland their Department of Health requires the restaurant's report grade posted for all to see, which resulted in less than 50% of their restaurants getting an A to over 75%. (Here in NY, a customer has to request the DOH report to see it.) Over all, it was informative and to the point, considering a lot of the ca-ca out there fronted by twits like Rachael Ray.

The next part of the class was a review of a chapter in our text, "Management By Menu", which provided illustrations to Richard's review of rudimentary principles of graphic design and typography. As a person in charge, even if you're not an expert, you need to share a vocabulary with your 'consultant', which is restaurantese for freelancer.

Richard presented each table with a handful of menus and we critiqued their design and layout. We lucked out and got a WTF kind of menu from a place called Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, and if you think their name is a mouthful, you should see the menu. It looks elegant, but the natural colored paper is a poor contrast to the black ink. There is a large box about their food philosophy, that just rambles and sounds like a cranky old man trying to be funny. The descriptions go on at length, making dumb jokes, and the sections have cutesy headers like "Things You May Want to Eat Before You Eat Something Else" (that's appetizers, to us unwacky folk) And most inexplicable of all, there were random sketches of demonic characters all over the menu, which wasn't explained and didn't seem to have anything to do with the theme of the place. After, we find out it's a California joint -- ah, that explains it!

To close out the class, Richard handed out a graphic design disaster. Tomorrow, the last day of menus.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Menu Design (You Don' Mess With the Sushi Chef)

Monday morning started with odds and ends, students recounting their culinary experience from the weekend. Russian Pam Anderson went to a neighborhood joint near her home in the East Village, and found it both filthy and delicious. Slovack Ricky Martin seemed hung over as he recounted a business meeting at Daniel recently -- as good as the hype. English Rose gave us the heads up that Martha Stewart would be visiting four restaurants on 10th street this week on her show, and passed around an article from the Daily News about a sushi chef on his way to work when he got cut off by some yob. They pulled over, and sushi chef went all sushi on his ass with his 12" sushi knife. What that had to do with English Rose's weekend is beyond me.

Northfork Gal went to Tabla in the last week, and had a good experience with their Restaurant Week specials. I recalled a story for the class about how I used to go there relatively often for period when I was, errr, wooing various women n' stuff. After getting married, I was there with a friend out of town and a guy in a suit comes up to the table and asks for me by name. I nervously acknowlege that it's me, and he thanks me, as a rep of the restaurant, for being a loyal customer -- it was my 10th visit -- and the chef had a special course for me. Richard thought it could of been done in a quieter and less intrusive way, by just sending out the course and acknowleging the reason on the bill. Oh well.

The majority of the class was dedicated to menu design. First was a discussion of the general types of menus. All menus fall into one of the following categories, but they are not mutually exclusive either -- some combine them, some have different menus for different times of day, week or occasion.
  • A La Carte: Literally 'from the cart', customers order individual items with individual prices at well.
  • Prix Fixe: Set number of courses at a set price. Choices within course.
  • Menu Fixe: Set number of courses at a set price, with set dishes. Usually at a catered affair.
  • Degustation: A tasting menu of many fixed small plates, usually representing the thoughts of the chef.
  • Table d'Hote: "Table of the Host", whatever comes out of the kitchen is what you eat.
  • Cycle Menu: Menu cycles through a rotation over a period of days, weeks or months. Typical of institution with a captive population, like schools, prisons and corporate cafeterias.
  • Du Jour Menu: Changes every day, without repeat
  • Limited Menu: Few items. Used to be just fast food, but more upscale restaurants have focused on smaller menus. NYC French restaurants used to have 30+ entrees, now a days limit to less than half of that. Red-sauce lower-end Italian joints will still have something like veal or chicken 10 different ways each, on a large menu.
  • Meal Period Menu: Multiple menus per day.
  • California Menu: All meals at all times, like some diners.
  • Party Menu: For specific events, like the super bowl.
  • Buffet Menu: Less formal. The diner chooses food quantity and plate presentation.
Next we had an exercise with a menu from a restaurant called Le Cherche-Midi, where Richard served as maitre-d years ago, and has since closed. It was a hand-written thing that had an unusual French menu - rustic regional food of the provencal region. There was an a la carte menu and a fix prixe menu whose content was almost identical, except for the structure. Why? In the summer when things were slow, if someone wanted to come in just for a drink and an appetizer, no problem, things are slow. In the winter where there usually was a line to get in, some shmoe sipping a drink for an hour would cost the restaurant, so the menu guaranteed these people would not come in.

The rest of the day, I kind of tuned out -- it was a very basic primer in graphic design, about the importance of font, lay out, highlighting, serif vs. san-serif fonts, stuff that really takes a few months of hands on work to really appreciate, here summed up in under an hour. Sorry, readers, I was too tired to pay attention!