The appetizer, or the first course of the meal, is the specialty of garde manger and pantry chefs. An appetizer is the perfect way to whet the diner's appetite and to give a preview of what to expect from the rest of the meal. In the restaurant world, appetizers are not only put on a menu for the pleasure of the guest, but it in fact, serve several functions from the kitchen's perspective as well.
Appetizers are the part of the menu that allows the chef to show the most creativity and experimentation. Because there are often a greater number of appetizers than entrees on a menu, the chef has room to be playful with ingredients and flavors and can often cross culinary and cultural borders to create new dishes. Entree menus tend to be limited to the standards--meat, fish, poultry--and can allow for one or two more unusual additions, but mostly need to provide something that appeals to everyone because just about everyone who comes into a restaurant orders an entree.
It is not necessarily the case, however, that each customer orders an appetizer and if even they do there is usually a green salad or simple soup tucked in among even the most creative of appetizers that appeals to just about anyone. The trend of featuring small plates or tapas on the menu seems to be continually growing. Many diners are applying this concept to regular restaurant menus by ordering multiple appetizers in place of the standard appetizer-entree combination. Ordering in this way allows the diner to sample more dishes for roughly the same price and presents an array of diverse ingredients and flavors, which makes what many consider to be a more interesting overall dining experience.
Because appetizer portions are smaller than entrees, chefs are able to use more intense flavors and interesting combinations. They can also use expensive ingredients, like foie gras and caviar, because they are using less of them. One of the biggest issues that affect a restaurant's profitability is its food cost. Food that is wasted has already been paid for and instead of making back the money spent on that food plus a profit, the restaurant that wastes food simply loses money. Often entire sides of meat and whole birds are purchased because it is less costly to buy animal products this way, and break them down into different cuts and portions, than it is to purchase each cut individually.
Sides of meat and whole birds do include parts that are not necessarily desirable if put on a menu as they are, such as meat and fat scraps and chicken innards. When combined with other ingredients, however, these less than desirable parts can be transformed into something magical. Delicious terrines and rillettes are made from beef and pork scraps and chicken liver pate and duck leg confit are made from less commonly used parts of poultry. A few simple techniques can transform parts that are often regarded as unusable into something not only delicious for the customer, but also profitable for the restaurant. These items, and many more like them, have their roots in the garde manger of long ago when food was scarce and people learned to use every part of an animal so that they wouldn't starve. In the restaurants of today that same concept of usage correlates to profit.
About the Author
After receiving degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the Culinary Institute of America, Andrea Rappaport moved into a full-time career in the restaurant business. For over 12 years, she worked in various culinary jobs, including as a cook for Wolfgang Puck at Spago, and ultimately as the executive chef and partner of the highly revered San Francisco restaurant Zinzino. For the past seven years, Andrea has worked as the private chef for one family in the San Francisco area, and continues to expand her culinary portfolio by catering, teaching, and consulting.