Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Our First Menu

Take a ton of money, ask someone to give you two quick kicks to nuts, grab the money and throw it out the window. Take two aspirin, apply ice and repeat in the morning. This is the best analogy I can come up with to describe my experience creating the first menu from our newly crowned chef.

Running a small BYOB restaurant can present many challenges, one of the biggest being food cost. Not that designing the menu isn’t difficult for a restaurant serving alcohol, but for a BYOB, not having those extra points from alcohol profits means labor cost and food costs have to be dead-on at all times. This is a simple concept to grasp now -- eight years later -- however, back then, building a house with some nails, a hammer and some two-by-fours would have been an easier concept to understand. So once again, with my lack of knowledge, big ego and immense stupidity, I sat down with my new chef to create a menu.

Let me preface this with a clear understanding of what style menu we were already serving. Oh wait, it wasn’t a style, it was a cop out: American continental, aka the ubiquitous term used by every chef/restaurant owner who really hasn’t honed in on a concept or style of cooking. It includes wonderful sliced prime rib (king and queen cut, of course) or a chicken roulade with spinach and goat cheese, maybe something Italian, like a pescatore or scaloppini of some sort. We would round out this “beautiful” presentation with a superfluous garnish, such as an inedible orchid and a beautiful carrot and parsley confetti strewn all over the rim of the plate (They aren’t teaching this style of presentation at cooking schools anymore...right?). The menu was huge, but easy. Everything was served with mashed potatoes and a mixed veggie, and a special sauce that started with a roux or Minor’s chicken base. It was old, it was stuffy and it was all I knew. This was what a good restaurant meal was to me.

Before all you chefs from the ‘80s who are now teaching at cooking schools get your thongs in a bunch and fire nasty comments at me, let’s get a few things clear. I know this style of cooking had its place once, and that it even made a little comeback as comfort food. I am also aware that celebrity chefs like Jose Garces have opened restaurants using the term American Continental. But, I can assure you, they all have morphed into more modern concepts with an emphasis on home-style cooking that not only has foundation, but also their creative twists.

Back to my meeting with the chef. He brought me a menu with about six appetizers, two salads and maybe eight entrees. I looked at it and said to myself, I have no idea what any of this shit is. Where is the fowl section? (I actually spelled it “foul” on my first menus) The meat section? Where are all the choices? What the hell is a hanger steak and why isn’t there a filet mignon (served six different ways?) I know this guy was from the city and he did a more French menu but to me, this was just unacceptable. I needed more choices, more variety more…..American Continental! The stinger was when he told me that I shouldn’t be showcasing a dessert tray to tables. He said that this was a fine dining establishment with white tablecloths…not a diner. He said we needed to make a dessert menu. So I ordered some menu sleeves and printed DESERT MENUS (Yes, I spelled dessert with one “S” on my early menus too – which was pretty embarrassing when a customer asked if it meant that all the desserts were dry).

After a few go-rounds, we agree on a menu that was about 25 percent smaller than what I wanted but was about 50 percent bigger than the chef wanted. Now, it was time to unveil the menu and learn some very, very valuable lessons about food costs, labor costs, cross utilization and sheriff sales! I would say “good luck to me,” but looking back there isn’t a triple seven anywhere that would have helped me from going through the hell I was about to go through.

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