On Menu Writing

"Oh! Is That Why The Chef Threw Those Plates At Me?!"

You have seen them everywhere. Every restaurant you've ever been to has one. Some are on paper, some are attractively laminated in plastic. Some are hastily tossed on a dry erase board or one those black background Day-Glo things that seemed to be everywhere twenty years ago. No, I'm not talking about roaches, I'm talking about menus. Imagine if you will, a restaurant without menus. You walk into a cold, dark foyer, a stale whiff of old potatoes wafts through the door. You find yourself intrigued and allow the server to bring you to your table. "Whaddya want tonight?", grumbles the gum popping girl as she wipes down your table with a damp coffee colored towel. Say, doesn't that look like it used to be white? "Could I please see a menu?", you ask pleasantly. A sharp cackle billows forth from your waitress, "Just tell me whatchu want and I'll tell Vito to slap something together for you." Well, if you haven't gotten up and run away at this point, you've proven a hardier soul than I. Rather, let us suppose you walk into a favorite restuarant, one that you took your wife or girlfriend to on your first date. One that is pleasantly clean with subdued lighting and smiling servers that actually hand out menus. A menu not too large or complex but with enough variety to hold your attention. A menu that has enough recognizable favorites to make you feel comfortable and few seemingly exotic entrees or appetizers that make one want to explore new avenues of taste and texture. This menu you have been handed is the result of countless hours of brainstorming, research, and without a doubt, a fair amount of cursing.

What's involved in writing a menu? After all, chefs and cooks write Special Menus every day. Someone may be starting up a new restaurant and need to write a menu that boldly goes where no kitchen has gone before. An older, fading restaurant may find the owner/manager wants to upscale the concept. The price of beef may have gone up and the chef needs to change the Chateau Briand to Tournedos of Beef before his food cost goes through the roof and his next career move is becoming a "Sandwich Artist" at the local Subway. Whatever the reason, menu writing, like noding, is a process.

The First Step: Writing What They Know

"Or Why You Should Tip Your Waiter for his Acting Skills"

Waitron: Yes sir, may I take your order?

Guest: Well, I was looking at the Seared Boned Partridge Thighs with Caciocavallo and Parsley Vinaigrette and...

Waitron: Yes sir! I personally find it to be a rich and satisfying dish.

Guest: Yes, yes indeed...Could I have that with cilantro in the vinaigrette instead of parsley?

Waitron: Well, sir, allow me a moment to speak with the chef. Note the bead of perspiration on his brow.

...after a quick jaunt to the kitchen...

Waitron: Hey chef, I've got a customer who wants to substi...

Chef: No substitutions.

Waitron: But the guest...

Chef: I SAID NO SUBSTITUTIONS!! Do you think I write this menu to wipe my ass with? Do you write the menus now?! (turns to the line cooks) None of you put up server 19 until I say to.

..while the line smirks and snickers, the waitron executes a hasty retreat to the guest's table.

Waitron: Sir, I apologize, but the chef does not recommend this substitution and would also offer regrets that we have no cilantro at this time. May I offer you a cocktail with the House's compliments?

Guest: Well, yes, thank you.

Good cooks are anal. Ten times out of ten they have their whole station fully stocked, complete with clean towels, plenty of chopped parsley, and all the tools they'll need for the shift. It's similar to watching a soldier prepare for battle. You'll see neatly stacked saute pans, clean sharp knives (Don't touch my knives!), and two or three restocks of each item they'll need for the foods and sauces they are responsible for. If the cooks have their mise en place together for a Saturday night, a chef won't find himself in the weeds. The mise is based on the items that are on the menu and these cooks have everything planned down to the last grain of sea salt. The chef uses the menu to order food and bases the amounts of his orders from sales percentages or menu mix. It's more than that though. The menu is written from the things that the chef or owners know, have tasted, and researched. If they have only seen a picture of it in a Foodie magazine and haven't at least tasted it, it won't be on the menu. If you visit a nice, homey, New England style seafood restuarant, you wouldn't expect to see Chinese Firepot on the menu. Although, if chef could work that concept in while still staying true to the foods and methods native to the New England region of the U.S.A. you may find an interesting version of it beneath the menu's glossy pages. Hence, when you go to a restaurant and ask your server if you can have clams in the oyster pie, that person is bravely facing several people armed with sharp knives and smoking hot pans and asking them to change something they may not have prepared for. Here's a tip for you though, almost every chef and cook will make the change for you. Hey it's the service industry. Besides, a good cook is always prepared, no matter the circumstance.

Focus. Well written menus are focused. They stay true to the atmosphere that the restaurant is trying to portray. It is perfectly acceptable to to use foods or methods that are non-traditional to a concept so long as they work in some aspect of the restuarant's theme. A chef or perhaps an F&B Director may go on a road trip to Chinatown in Boston and had the most wonderful Chinese Firepot while they were there. They may come back with their imagination fired up and the old creative juices flowing. The chef will make many attempts at reworking the dish to suit his menu. Suppose chef works in the New England Seafood place and wants to make this work. They may change the simmering broth in the Firepot to Lobster Consomme. Perhaps change the traditional slim cut chinese veggies for tourne root vegetables. He's on a roll now, substituting 16/20 peeled and deveined shrimp for the thin slices of seasoned beef and using bias cut par grilled lobster tails for garnish. It's a safe bet that quite a bit of research went into this process as well. Chef may have spoken to the chef of the restaurant he first tasted the dish at. He might have looked for different recipes on the internet. It's almost guaranteed that he leafed through his weathered, dog eared copy of Professional Chef before attempting to put together his new menu item. Keep in mind that they have to go through this process for each item, so they have to stay focused there's that word again on the idea of what they are looking for and try a wide variety of things before the chef can commit anything to paper. Take it from me, he'll want to be prepared to explain why he wouldn't recommend adding Fugu Kara-age (Deep-Fried Blowfish) to the Director of Restaurants or even his Executive Chef.

Step Two: Recipes

KISS, no not that kind...read on...

At last the chef (or the owner/manager) has decided on what they want for the menu, it's up to the chef to write the recipes that will become the bible for how to prepare these menu items. This can be one of the most challenging parts of the entire process. The idea here is to write a recipe that allows others produce what chef has in mind. The recipe needs to be easy to follow using exact measurements with standards that the kitchen staff can consistently apply. It's called KISS or Keep it Stupid Simple!. This is absolutely essential. It's not unheard of for a kitchen to employ any number of cooks from across the globe. The common language in a kitchen is often a pidgin of English, Spanish, and whatever other native languages your employees call their own. In one of the kitchens where I work, we speak a mess of French, English, Spanish, and Mandarin. So, specifying a handful of mozzarella cheese or throwing in julienne vegetables can cause a lot of problems. A good recipe informs the staff to use eight ounces of mozzarella and four ounces of jardiniere mirepoix for example. Once the recipes have been drafted, a more collected version of the menu is written up. No no, some people just start with the menu, it doesn't necessarily get written right at this point..

Remember KISS? The recipes that get written are the basis for the inventory of the restuarant. These two things are closely intertwined. One cannot be considered without the other and chefs who like the simple, uncomplicated things in life write recipes and menus with inventory management in mind. Go look at a McDonald's menu sometime (I do not endorse McDonalds, Slow food is king) and see how it is all interconnected. The same chicken patty is used in two or three sandwiches and one of their salads. The same four ounce hamburger patty is used in a variety of combinations on any number of sandwiches. You get my point, while there is a variety of choices and presentations available to you the guest, the actual inventory is small and simple. It has been my experience that kitchens and their storage areas tend to be rather small and chef/managers will be called upon to find creative storage solutions along the length and breadth of their food service career. A kitchen inventory will encompass a number of items ranging from meats to produce to dairy and all with different shelf lives. Maintaining and forecasting adeqaute pars can be challenging in and of itself. It is advantageous for these people to consider this aspect of their menu now rather than later. The last thing a chef wants is to run out of food during a push. Remember, cooks have knives and know how to use them

Step Three: Vendors, Wholesalers, and other Willy Loman Wannabees

phone rings, rings, rings...

Vendor: Hello, this is John, may I help you?

Chef: Hi John, this is Chef Mike, how are you?

Vendor: Chef Mike!! Great to hear from you! Is everything all right, did you get your order on time this week?

Chef: Yeah, yeah, listen I've got a question, I'm working on a new menu and was hoping you could give me some prices on TCK Lobster Meat and Beluga Caviar.

Vendor: Well chef, I can get you a fair price on the TCK but have you considered getting broken lobster meat or maybe just CK lobster meat? The price may be more to your liking. I can run some samples out to you today. The Beluga caviar will be no problem.

Chef: I definitely want to see the different grades of lobster. You can get Beluga? I was under the impression that authentic Russian Beluga Caviar was illegal for sale in the US? Something about Sturgeon being endangered?

Vendor: Well chef, there is a farm in Scotland that farms the sturgeon exclusively for us and no one else. We can get you that Beluga for about US$55.00 per ounce.

Chef switches over to line 2 on the phone where another vendor is on hold...

Chef: Listen, you know that caviar farm in Scotland, I've got Joe on the other line and he's saying he can get me Beluga for 55 bucks an ounce. You told me 60 bucks. What's up? Are you screwing around with me?

Vendor 2: Chef, did I say 60 dollars? You know what, you are such a good customer, I can bring this in to you for 54 bucks. But that' the best I can do, I swear, any less and I'll be out of a job.

Chef: Ok, Ok, hey i've got another call, hold on a sec..

...switches lines...

Chef: Joe, you still there?

Vendor 1: Yep.

Chef: Listen, you know Bob from Fish R Us? He's beating your price on caviar. How badly do you want the business, can you compete or not?

A chef will call as many vendors as they can find and go through the kinds of hoops you see above with each one. Chef absolutely must make sure that they can get the amount of food that they need from day to day. The more vendors that chef can get these new (or any for that matter) items from the better off he'll be. In fact, I've heard of chefs threatening a few vendors that they will take their business elsewhere unless they add to their stocks or come down on a price. Not that I have ever done such a thing. Once chef has gottten a line on all these items he's ready to cost out the menu.

Menu Costing is a necessary evil when writing a menu. Food Cost goes directly to the bottom line. Chef has to be sure that his menu costs out to meet the food cost that is budgeted for the operation. While any given item may turn out to be above or below that budgeted number, the total cost of all the items in the menu must tally up to the budgeted line that is set. Then they fiddle with the menu pricing to fine tune the cost. If some of the items are seriously out of whack then this is where chef considers subbing or reworking a recipe to bring things into line. If the costs are still too high he may consider throwing the recipe out entirely and possibly working something new in. So moving right along, the chef will likely decide that getting TCK lobster meat for the Firepot is too damn expensive, heck even the CK lobster meat isn't getting it done. But if he adds a Lazyman's Lobster option to the Steamed Twin Lobsters Entree, then he would probably have plenty of shell to make consomme with and he'll likely have to prep a few extra lobster each night anyway so he will have the extra meat already. So there you have it, applying a little problem solving now may have just saved him hundreds upon hundreds of food cost dollars over the year. Can you say, bonus pay? Although his vendors may be less than pleased with his cost efficient attitude.

Step Four: The Tasting.

You may want to send the children out of the room now...

It's time for the moment of truth, the tasting. The chef will invite the waitstaff and the bussers, hope he remembers to schedule his best line cooks. He'll bring a camera. Any camera will do, but a digital one would be the best. He's going to take pictures of the finished plates before the attendees start digging in.

The idea behind the tasting is to prepare the new menu items so that everyone gets to see, smell, and taste the new food. This is also where everyone will very quickly find out what works and what doesn't and he may have to make some quick decisions as he moves along to avoid any perception of conflict as his line is putting out the plates. He'll prepare enough food to make five or six of each plate. This isn't a dry run, everyone there is to taste the food not eat a four course meal. If something doesn't look quite right on the plate, he'll have enough product to prepare another plate to a presentation that suits his sensibilities. If something doesn't taste right, he has enough to slightly change the recipe. For this to go successfully chef absolutely must check, doublecheck, and triplecheck that eveything needed to do the tasting is set and ready to go, the night before the tasting.

Everything has gone well. His recipes have yielded mostly the plates he imagined with a few small changes but nothing to write home about. The line cooks and front of the house staff are pretty upbeat about most of the items, and the management team appears to feel that they can market this new menu to bring in new revenue and they seem to find the food cost to at least be agreeable. He'll have taken copious notes and many pictures of the finished plates. They will need the pictures so that future cooks and servers will know what the plates are supposed to look like. A guest to at a restuarant expects consistency. The New England Boiled Firepot they had 6 months ago will need to look, smell, and taste exactly the same now as then. This is great, after some further discussion, suggestions, and fending off changes suggested by FOH supervisors, chef is ready to go back and rewrite the recipes and finish off a final draft of the menu.

Yes, this is why the chef always drinks.

Step Five: Off to the Printers!

There are any number of ways to do this. The menu draft gets sent out to an office services firm, they will send a catalog and you can choose paper stocks, fonts, layered patterns and the like to your heart's content. A local Copy Services Center offers the same service but one on one. You could set up in-house printing which allows chef to be proactive with menu pricing, allowing the restaurant to adjust to market changes without the noticeable quarterly increases common at so many other restaurants. All that's needed is a good publishing program with moderate graphic capability and a reasonable supply of menu stock and laminate sheets.

One mispelled word or a typo on a particular price repeated a hundredfold can ruin your whole day. Therefore the restaurant will arrange to have final say on all drafts before ordering a full print series on any menu.

That's it, pay no attention to the chef in the corner frothing at the mouth.

Writing a menu is equal parts creativity and sweat equity. When done well, it can be a guide to the Chef's expectations for the staff and a doorway to his imagination for the guests. No chef or manager follows exactly this same process but this covers all the necessary facets involved.

As a chef myself at one of the larger resort casinos in the USA, I have written my fair share of menus and I can assure you that regardless of the amount of alcohol imbibed this is how we do it, here anyway.