This is Get Your MISE Together, our weekly culinary advice column where writer Soleil Ho answers your questions about cooking, eating, techniques, food culture, and feminism in food culture. This week, Soleil addresses a Chef's questions about their #chefproblems.
How can my lunch and dinner specials be of a superb quality, quickly prepared, and cost effective? How can I introduce more exotic cuisine to a market used to a typical bar food? How can I change the culinary culture of an established area and not lose the customer base? #chefproblems — D.A.S.
The way we use “special” in the industry is really interesting, isn’t it? A “special” menu item can run the gamut from fish that’s almost on the wrong side of fresh to something truly different that you’ve had to go out of your way to make happen. It’s hard, too, when you think about customers — how do you get the grilled cheese stalwart to take a leap and trust you to bring her something new?
In a sense, the demented way in which “secret ingredients” are introduced on cooking competition shows like Chopped or Iron Chef mirrors the process of coming up with a special. I show up to work, get a list of ingredients that the chef wants to see on the day’s special salad, then I get an hour or so to figure out what that’s going to look like. It requires a bit more than just knowing how to arrange things in a pleasing way — “Make it nice!” as the chefs at Eleven Madison Park like to say. You have to think about the ingredients, place their particular scents and tastes against the greater matrix of the world’s flavors, and think about the many forms each piece of the puzzle can take.
When you see that you have lots of leftover beets, where do you go from there? If you roast them, how will they be presented? Sliced? Cubed? Grated? Wedged? You could puree them with yogurt and preserved lemon, or fry them up like chips and sprinkle them with dill salt. The latter would go great with beer, I bet.
All that is my way of saying that even a beet can be Protean in the right hands. It’s easy to make the unfamiliar close to familiar, too, if you think like this. What do you think the great chefs of the world have been doing this whole time? Taking the comfortable — things from home, perhaps, or from other memories — and making them uncanny, making them into a spectacle that’s worth the price of going out. When dealing with customers who might take time to warm to more out-of-the-Sysco-box bar food, this technique will save you.
In addition to thinking about your ingredients, interrogate where you are and who you’re feeding. Don’t try to change the culinary culture of a place before you know those two things. You’re a chef — you’re not some missionary placed in Coventry, NY to spread the good word of masala chaat. The good people of small town America will smell the desperation off your menu and get intimidated, then defensive.
Start small. Start with a sauce, a seasoning, a vegetable. Let your specials tell them that you care about where they are, about their kids’ soccer games, about the people they’re texting while nursing drinks. After all, that’s why you’re excited to share it all with them, right?