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Finding new menu items

Question:

When asked to come up with some new menu items, I started searching through cookbooks for ideas. It feels like cheating to use one of the recipes I find. What do you think?

– Michelle DeLorenzo, Pastry Cook, New York, NY

Answer:

Chefs draw inspiration from a variety of sources:

  • Trade magazines and websites like Restaurant Business and MonkeyDish.com
  • Eating at other restaurants
  • Menus of competitors and other restaurants
  • Trade shows
  • Grocery stores and other retailers
  • Food TV
  • Food tours of cities or culinary regions
  • Coworkers and former employers
  • Family recipes and cultural traditions
  • Related areas such as fine arts

And, of course, cookbooks.

There is nothing wrong with getting ideas from cookbooks but consider the type of book before adopting a menu item directly from a recipe. There are many cookbooks written for the industry that explicitly encourage restaurants to use their recipes as is or with slight variations. Examples are culinary textbooks, cookbooks by manufacturers or food producers encouraging the use of their products, and trade magazines. No one would fault you for using Sarah Labensky’s classic sacher torte recipe from her textbook, On Baking, for example.

Other cookbooks, such as those by celebrity chefs or books showcasing a specific food or region are more problematic. Taking a celebrity chef’s signature dish and replicating it as is on your menu is definitely not advisable. You will be branded a copycat or poser. However, being inspired by a recipe and putting your own twist on it is not only acceptable, it is a norm in our industry. That’s the difference between having David Chang’s signature compost cookie on your menu (not recommended, though it’s wonderful), and coming up with an item of your own inspired by his cookie.

If you are still unsure, go with your gut. If you can proudly explain to a guest what inspired the menu item and can give credit for the inspiration, you are on the right track. If you feel like an imposter, you probably are.

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