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Rethinking Culinary Creation

The trials and tribulations of designing a dish that works

As a chef, your success is defined by what you plate. That's why it's so important that each and every dish you include on your menu is up to snuff. It isn't as easy as you might think.

I am working on a new restaurant concept, which means I have menu creation on my mind. I really focus in on each dish: the preparation, the components and where it is going to be served. It is easy to put together a few main ingredients and make it a menu item, but a really great menu requires-and deserves-much more than that.

Considerations When Designing a Dish

I have always been one to really consider my food. There are a few questions I ask myself before I decide whether an idea is up to snuff. Some of the questions I often ask myself are:

  1. Who are my guests? What are they familiar with? (Geographic location plays a very large role here.)
  2. How can I present something differently, i.e. what unexpected twist can I surprise the customer with?
  3. Is the dish approachable? Is it something that is easy to eat?
  4. How will it travel from the kitchen to the dining room? I must consider:
    • Temperature
    • Architecture- leaning/falling components
    • Service friendliness
    • Any pieces that functionally go along with the dish
  5. Does the dish bring any surprise or emotion to the diner?
  6. How much labor is required to produce the dish?
  7. What is the item's selling price vs. perceived value? Does it meet expectations

Putting Culinary Theory into Action

Knowing what questions to pose is a great start, but it's only one part of the equation. Being able to answer them truthfully is quite another. Consider this new dish that will be on one of my menus:

Sautéed Lake Superior White Fish with Butternut Squash-Challah Bread Pudding and Anise Emulsion.

We felt it necessary to have a light, flakey fish on the menu to complement other offerings. That is a relatively blank canvas to work from, which is the foundation for culinary creativity. Here's how I went about creating the dish:

Finding the Familiar: I first went to the fish purveyor in Chicago and Boston and found out what was the freshest fish available for the next three months. After doing a little geographic research, I found that Lake Superior Whitefish was a very familiar item in the Chicago market.

Creating the Unexpected: Now that I had the core of my dish, began to consider ways to enhance it without overshadowing it. I always try to take a seasonal approach. I also prefer to find new ways to reinvent classics. I als had to design a dish that could hold up to 350 covers (people) per night, so it could not be anything too labor intensive during service. Lastly, I had to find an innovative way to combine the starch and vegetable.

After mulling it over until 3 in the morning, I decided to sleep on it. It was the best thing that could have happened! When I woke up, I had this craving for some challah bread and butter. As I was cutting the bread to toast it I realized I'd stumbled upon the answer to my menu dilemma: a savory bread pudding.

Still, what about the vegetable? What could I incorporate into the bread pudding to tie everything together? What could stand up to the baking time without turning to soft or losing its color? After many experiments I came up with the seasonal ingredient of butternut squash; it was all around durable, added another subtle flavor to the fish, and also added a unique depth in texture to the bread pudding.

Rethinking Approachability: Once I decided to serve a savory bread pudding, my next dilemma was figure out how to present it. I really wanted to plate it in a unique shape or presentation. It had to complement, not overpower the fish. It also had to be baked in such a way that the texture was appealing-not too thick or thin. It was time to play!

Food that Travels: We discovered that the bread pudding's shape had to be a minimum of 1 � inches thick in order for it to have the texture I wanted, so we had to bake them in ring molds. I wanted to keep the presentation of the bread pudding smaller than the fish, but it had to have enough substance to combine both the "vegetable and starch" components. I found the perfect ring to use: 1 � inches by 4 inches (diameter). We achieved a design element that was comparable in ounces as using a traditional soufflé mold. This allowed me to make it much more service friendly as well as functional-it has become the anchor for the fish on the plate.

Emotional Elements: I knew this was a straight forward dish, but we had to add some type of interesting garnish to enhance texture, but also reinforce the uniqueness of adding the butternut squash to the bread pudding. I wanted the guest to consider and relate to the dish. I considered a puree, roasted pieces, and several others. In the end, simplicity reigned-I used a Japanese mandolin to make a long spiral from the top half of the squash, then blanched and fried it. This created a bright orange garnish that added just the textural element I was looking for. This was something that nobody would expect.

Pondering Cost: We were right in line with our target pricing using the Lake Superior White Fish, and the remaining components were not labor intensive, so the concept worked.

Perceived Value: Finally, it was time to consider whether the customer would value the final dish. This is where great ideas receive accolades or thrashings by others. Food reviewers, friends, family, and, most of all, the customers would each evaluate your hard work. But how do you evaluate your dish truthfully, without launching a new menu (and risking poor reviews)?

I recommend pulling together a test panel of people from all different demographics, incomes, and tastes. Choose those who will offer honest opinions of what they feel the dish's perceived value and selling price should be. This is where the chef becomes a student again. You will likely be surprised with what you will hear; take everyone's opinion do not discard any comments.

Defining Success One Dish at a Time

It's amazing that after so much time and energy we were able to create just one piece for our new menu. In the end we were able to create a new, innovative dish that appealed to our customer base-something that afforded positive responses and surprise. Our White Fish and Savory Bread Pudding was feasible for the line to prepare, servers to serve, and customer to purchase with satisfaction, but it was time to begin the whole process again with our next big idea.

Applying this process in your own kitchen will help you design dishes that you can be proud of. It takes time, but its well worth it. Always remember that your success as a chef depends on your own creativity coupled with customer satisfaction. True culinary talent is achieved one dish at a time. Now get to it!

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