Writing a menu
A study in Balance
Writing a menu is a daunting task. There are chefs that are so creative and talented they write a menu without regard to practicality, profitability, or ease of execution. They find a way to execute their ideas no matter how difficult or obtuse and are very successful because of it. I am not like that at all. I try hard to create dishes that not only taste good, look good but also make sense financially. In other words, yes I like to use nice ingredients, but up to a point. I also like to make dishes that the cooks can execute without too much hassle. If it’s too difficult to execute on a Saturday night with a board full of tickets I won’t have it on the menu. Some chefs could care less, but I don’t like to make things too hard on the cooks, they already have a lot to deal with, I’d rather have them worry about cooking one or two things correctly than freaking out about how many garnishes they have to add to a plate. Again, this isn’t a knock on anyone else, just my preferences. For instance, I would in a perfect world find a beautiful piece of fish, pan-sear it, or grill it over charcoal, and finish it with exceptional olive oil and a bit of lemon and that’s it. But I will add a vegetable garnish of some kind that works so that people feel they are getting more of a meal. But I find that I have such a fondness for ingredients that I feel compelled to focus on them to the exclusion of other things.
I’m also a big fan of classic combinations, like olive oil, garlic, and lemon. I tend to stick to things that are familiar to me, which can at times also cause me to become dismissive of my own efforts because they don’t seem very forward-thinking. I made a joke once that when I look at other chefs’ cookbooks I am quite often jealous of their creative ideas and feel like a lot of their cookbooks should all be titled “Shit Mark would never think of.” I buy and check out a lot of cookbooks and usually get at least one idea from each one, and find a way to translate it to my own cooking. As I grow older though I feel less inclined to experiment and find myself feeling much more comfortable in my own skin and thus stick to what I do well. Not that I don’t play with ingredients or techniques, I do, but it’s more about finding more efficient ways to do things than just experimenting for its own sake.
Lately, I have been playing a lot with sous vide cooking, something I haven’t done a lot of in my career. For certain things, it can be very useful, like cooking vegetables, but overall I find I can achieve the same results without it. I am still playing around with it though and maybe just don’t know enough about the process yet. I have tried cooking fish this way and the results were outstanding, but I wasn’t sure how to get the timing right as far as service is concerned, something I will spend some time figuring out.
The way I approach writing a menu is this, I write down a list of all the ingredients I want to work with, then a list of what’s currently in season, or will be, and then a list of proteins I think should be found on the menu. Then I just start coming up with dishes, just writing down ideas, that’s it, not thinking too much about whether they are right for the restaurant yet, just ideas. Then I might go through a few cookbooks and write down some more ideas, or maybe a technique I think is cool, or something, again still just ideas at this point. Then I will come up with a few dishes, maybe things I’ve done before, or just things I think will taste good, and I will write these down in a bit more detail. I will do this until I have about 10 dishes or so. Then I will go through all my purveyor’s catalogs and vendor lists to see what they have and what they are able to get. I might have a great idea but if one of the ingredients is a pain to get on a regular basis I won’t put it on the menu.
Last week I asked the seafood purveyor for a list of what he had and what he is able to get on a daily basis. Looking over the list a couple of things popped out at me right away. He had a great selection of wild fish, so immediately I thought of ceviche (It’s also a Latin American restaurant). However, I don’t like to put a ceviche on the menu and have to run the same thing all the time, I like to buy whatever is freshest at the time and be inspired by that versus executing the same thing day in and day out. I ordered some Jumbo Black Bass just to play with and I also saw that they had U6 shrimp (six per pound) and bought some. The idea of these huge shrimp on a plate appealed to me. The first idea that came to me was some kind of garlicky shrimp thing, but the more I thought about it the more I felt it should be spicy as well. I had just seen a picture somewhere of some grilled Yucatan-style shrimp and thought that would be a good idea. I like the idea of charred, earthy red shrimp on a plate. I Googled Yucatan-style shrimp to see what other people had used in the marinade. Then I did an image search and looked at the various ways the recipes were executed. A lot of the images had these very bright red shrimp in a bright red sauce and I thought this look would be visually attractive. Then I looked at the recipes. The funny thing to me is that a lot of them contained Sambal, which is an Indonesian chile paste. I assume they used it because it works really well and cuts down on the list of ingredients, something that might be important for the home cook. But I didn’t want to use Sambal in a Mexican-inspired dish, I wanted to use ingredients that made more sense for the region. So this is what I came up with:
Guajillo chiles ( for color )
Chipotle chiles ( for color and heat)
Chile de arbol ( for heat)
Annatto seed ( flavor and color and common to Yucatan cooking)
Dried Oregano ( Mexican oregano)
Shallots ( I bought a bunch by mistake and just figured I’d use them here otherwise a red onion)
Apple cider vinegar ( just a bit for acid)
When I got to work I assembled all the ingredients and made an initial version. As far as quantities I sort of I used more guajillo chiles than the other mostly because I wanted the shrimp to be reddish if possible. I also used quite a bit of chipotle because I wanted them to be spicy. The rest I used in more or less equal proportions. The spices I left whole added them to the saute pan with the garlic and shallots. I tasted the marinade and it seemed spicy to me. I marinated the huge head-on shrimp and let them sit for an hour.
When they were ready I placed two on the grill and invited a couple of the cooks to try them with me. I finished them with a little bit of butter, lime juice, and chopped cilantro. I didn’t have a garnish in my head yet, I pictured a salad of some kind but wasn’t sure yet. At this point, I just wanted to get the shrimp recipe done. When we tried the shrimp they weren’t spicy at all although they did taste good, just not the way I wanted. I wasn’t sure if they needed more time in the marinade or I had to turn up the spiciness of the marinade. I added more chipotle to the marinade and cooked some more shrimp. When I plated the shrimp I added some of the marinade to the plate as a sauce because the marinade itself tasted very spicy to me so I added it to the plate to help with the spice level. This time they tasted a bit more spicy but not spicy enough, and the Mexican cooks thought it was far too tame. I wasn’t super excited about the color either. I did however like the char marks from the grill and I did think the shrimp themselves were delicious, just not spicy enough yet. This is a tough one because I wanted them to be spicy, but not so spicy that people would cough or start sweating immediately after eating them. It’s really hard to find that kind of balance sometimes. There are people who will order something that says spicy on the menu and tell me it is bland and there will be people that will freak out and tell me the same dish is way too spicy. Trying to find this magical nuance of spice can be frustrating.
That night I ran the shrimp as a special, just to get some feedback and see what people had to say. I made one for the servers and listened to their feedback as well. Almost everyone liked the dish but felt it wasn’t all that spicy. At this point, I was getting frustrated and felt maybe I should just move on. The shrimp were very expensive and maybe having them on the menu just wasn’t practical. I had decided on a simple marinated cabbage salad as a garnish, just dressed with lime juice, garlic oil, and salt. I also added an avocado mayo in the thought that if the shrimp were spicy the mayo would help cool off your mouth. But the shrimp weren’t very spicy and I was getting annoyed. When you ate the shrimp you tasted the spices, the earthiness of the annatto seed and cumin, but not really the heat. However, we sold out of them (I didn’t prep very many) and the feedback from the customers was really positive. Because of that, I figured I would just sleep on it.
The next day I had an idea. I made a dry rub sort of spice mixture, with all the same ingredients but added Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton). I rubbed this all over the shrimp and let them sit. I grilled some off a while later and before I put them on the grill tossed them in garlic oil. This time when the cooks and I tasted it everyone smiled at each other. The spice level was much higher but still not crazy, and you could taste smoke from the paprika and the grill. I was so happy it worked, although the dish is still not finished. But this type of dish is an example of how I approach food. I try to focus in on one key ingredient and try not to put too many things on the plate. When I worked at Spiaggia years ago the chef told me something I took to heart. He told me after coming up with a dish I really liked, take one thing away from it and see if you still like it. In fact remove as much as possible. Only putting two or three things on a plate took more courage he felt because if one of them wasn’t right it would be glaringly obvious. We did a dish at Spiaggia with blanched asparagus, fontina cheese fondue, and white truffles. There were only three things on that plate but when you tasted it, it was magic. If the asparagus weren’t blanched correctly or seasoned, or the cheese fondue wasn’t the right consistency, it wouldn’t be remotely as tasty. The dish might not be Instagram worthy but it tasted delicious. I always try to put flavor first and foremost but nowadays presentation is very important so I do try hard to make the food visually appealing. Below is a picture of the current dish as it goes on the menu today, but I’m sure over the next few weeks I will play with it and tweak it until I’m happy. ( Which rarely happens, I’m very critical of myself). Next week we will talk about ceviche, one of my favorite things in the world.