Benefiting from chefs’ tasting menus

Are chefs’ tasting menus merely a snapshot of the day’s fare? Hardly! Tasting menus are designed to demonstrate the superlative qualities of the chef’s creativity and culinary acumen. In order words, they are meant to show off the best of the best.

Every tasting menu that I have had the pleasure of eating my way through has formed not only a lasting impression but also elicited recommendations to others in person and on social media. Hence, while they are a daunting task to set up, the payoff extends far beyond what your bean counters can count as they can have a halo effect for the rest of the menu and the property as a whole.

Most recently, as a guest of Montage Deer Valley in Utah, I had the opportunity to experience a tasting menu at the hotel’s signature restaurant, Apex. I caught several of the dishes on my mobile phone, but the images definitely do not do the plates justice insofar as their lofty visual panache. Chef Brydon Robinson was in total command of the experience with server par excellence, J.P. Leduc, acting as master of ceremonies as each dish was presented and the beverage manager, Dave Wallace, pouring appropriate accompaniments as each turn.

I intentionally identified each of the individuals involved because a properly served tasting menu assumes many elements of a symphony rather than acting as just a meal. Some restaurants will have the chef’s tasting menu detailed in writing, while others will leave it up to the culinary team to decide what is best for the circumstances, such as product availability and new inspirations.

In both situations, though, synchronization between the kitchen and the table requires meticulous attention. With multiple courses (typical tasting menus start at four), diners are chomping at the bit for the opening amuse bouche but then tend to slow down by the third round. Adjustments must thus be made as dishes may be forthcoming ahead of guests’ ability to consume the previous allotment. Great wait staff understand and provide this operatic level of two-way communication.

So, should you include a chef’s tasting menu? And if so, how do you manage this? While each outlet will undoubtedly have its own approach, here are some considerations:

  1. The decision to institute a chef’s tasting menu necessitates a discussion, both from within the outlet as well as incorporating feedback from senior F&B and general management.
  2. Do not launch a tasting menu without a plan. Like any significant change to operations, planning is as important as execution.
  3. Don’t expect the tasting menu to be overly profitable. Your food costs will be slightly higher than the average dish and your labor costs will be exponentially higher. The rule of thumb here is that the price for the customer should be slightly more than the sum of an appetizer, main and dessert (excluding alcoholic complements).
  4. Unveil your chef’s tasting menu on one day only rather than throughout the week and insist that everyone at the table participate lest you make it impossible to coordinate an efficient serving tempo.
  5. Test your way to find the right approach regarding the number of courses and the overall approach. I have experienced tasting menus that offer options for mains such as fish or meat, while others have both included in smaller portions.
  6. Consider a wine pairing addition only if you have sufficient volume to take advantage of the bottles consumed. Typical pours on a multi-course tasting will be in the 3-ounce range, although this is definitely flexible.
  7. Remember your servers and sommeliers. They need to be fully versed in your approach and be a part of any program you undertake from the outset in order for the end result to have a lasting impact with patrons.

This may seem like a lot of work, and there’s no question that it is far more challenging than any other incremental addition of your restaurant’s culinary offerings. Tasting menus are on the rise, though, so you would be wise to consider them as a way to keep pace with the competition and garner more interest in your signature fine dining outlet.

A sampling of tasting menu plates
A sampling of tasting menu plates