Lessons from the Kitchen: Planning a Tasting Dinner
I have been asked time and time again to share some of the ideas and concepts that we are working on for the new restaurant. Until now, I have always declined to comment. I recently decided, however, that it would bring a unique element to things if I chose to speak through the food. I invited a very select group to come for a tasting dinner---with the only dialogue being where the inspiration for each dish came from. I wanted to make it clear I was not out to impress anyone, simply to let the food speak for itself. Here's a play-by-play guide to planning your own tasting dinner.
Get Fresh, Keep it Seasonal
When planning the menu, it is key to select the most seasonal items available! I head out to several farmers markets (Coppell, Dallas, Lancaster) and network directly with the farmers. Farmers and chefs share the same passion for freshness and the "right of the vine" philosophies!
Planning Your Big Meal
Once I have selected the key ingredients, I begin to work on the menu with the core team. We write everything down on a dry erase board and start exploring different approaches with each item. We also invite our service piece designer to these creative meetings. He helps take our ideas and meld custom service pieces around them to create a functional, unique approach to a dish. As an example, I am going to focus on the watermelon dish we did for the most recent tasting dinner.
Once we have a general direction for each dish, the menu needs to be balanced according to flavor profiles and weight. I feel each course should build on the next. Personally, I like to go light (citrus, melon, light floral) then slowly get into the more robust or bold flavors (wild mushroom, truffle, earthy), which allows the diner to explore so many more flavors without masking their palate.
Striving for Perfection
Creating new dishes has its challenges--time, energy, 100% focus, and a clear head. People expect you to present something that is not only 100% perfect, but also has a "wow" factor. I cannot stress enough how important it has been for me personally to block out everything around me when I plan a tasting dinner. I clear everything from my mind and schedule because I know that I have to focus all my energy on the food. As people, we often make mistakes when we commit ourselves to too many projects at once. Consequently we fall short of the 100% perfection that we expect of ourselves as chefs!
Once the dishes are developed and ready to be put together, we face many long hours of preparation. We usually start 36 hours out to ensure ultimate freshness and quality plus we need to allow for the execution and operational end. We focus on how many people it will take to plate up the multi-course dinner (10 savory, plus 2 desserts) plus the amount of cook time, detail, and complexity of each dish, as well as the available space. For the last dinner we had there were 4 savory chefs and 1 pastry chef.
Never Settle for Second Rate Work
As you can see there is much more to what we do when planning a special tasting dinner, or any menu for that matter. We pride ourselves on being unique and different, and as I said earlier, it's about pushing yourself, leading, focusing, and executing correctly. If you miss any of those steps, the food will suffer as well as your integrity as a chef.
I have never been willing to settle for 2nd best, or what the guy across the street is doing, or what has someone else done. That is not who I am. In order to achieve this daily, I must continue to focus on my cuisine 100%. If you want to be the best, you have to put in the effort to be the best! You can never compare yourself to others. Industry leaders create, not follow. Be who you are!