Write menus for concept clarity
Concepting a restaurant requires clear vision of the desired guest experience. We spend a great deal of effort on flow, seating, artifacting, signage, lighting, logos, service pieces, branded identity, uniforms, product selection, menu development, staffing structure, beverage lists, glassware, flatware, etc, etc. Kitchen designers give us ergonomic and efficient kitchens that integrate beautifully to the modern dining spaces, often more social and communal experiences than the traditional layout of tables and chairs. After all the designers have done their work, it comes down to the basics of running a restaurant.
Menu development takes inspiration and creativity firmly balanced with the stated concept strategy, flavors and techniques blended to drive the experience, and signatures firmly supportive of the restaurant. Much like the foundations of cooking where skill and technique can be translated to any cuisine, a great restaurant is built on hot food hot, cold food cold and intuitive service. The final puzzle piece is often the one most missed – the menu itself.
Menus should be written to integrate the concept into the experience, not educate or be used solely used as testament of a chef?s knowledge of obscure culinary terms. In culinary school, we learn skills that have specific terms, no different from accounting, engineering, or virtually any other profession. But these terms are definitions of technique and not necessarily important to the desired outcome. It?s like buying a watch — no need to tell how it is made, it just needs to tell time and look good to the buyer. What is important is that a menu be written to communicate what the dish is — flavor, important ingredient, style, texture and, most importantly, what the guest should expect to receive.
Too many times I see menus filled with terms only a culinary student would know — ?emulsion,? ?granit?,? ?gastrique,? ?glace de viande,? etc. Once I read the word ?mirepoix? on a menu. Even worse, the laborious descriptions providing details suitable only to the genealogy of the steak or whimsical names meant to delight but end up reading like a children?s book.
The menu is the most important document a guest will read and restaurants would be wise to pay more attention to how the verbiage is crafted. Governing agencies also recognize this and are requesting more and more on postings that have little to do with the concept. Cooking warnings, nutritional information, and beverage statements all can add to an overload of information, if the menu is not written with restraint.
Not every talented culinarian can write a menu. Sure, the food may be perfectly developed, but it does take a certain skill to translate inspired plates to inspired verbiage. We have all been to restaurants where nothing looks good on the menu, and where everything looks so good one does not know what to order. It is the latter scenario we need to strive for. Food described with clarity, flavor combinations that naturally suit each other, succinct cooking styles, and a blend of choices suited to satisfying a typical 4 top or even a group of 20.
If I look for the most successful restaurants, it is always those that best describe their food in ways everyone can understand. Servers play a key role in communicating how a dish is made, and intuitive service requires diligent training of each item, but the menu should answer the most important questions as no one wants to hear 10 minutes of verbal description of every item.
A quick checklist for chefs prone to prose:
1. Is the star item identified clearly?
2. Does it fit the concept? (No soy laced fettuccini alfredo please!)
3. Are there ingredients identified that are not crucial to the dish?
4. Does it sound good?
5. Most important — would you order it?
Answer these questions correctly and most menus would be infinitely more accurate and compelling.