Menu change is never an easy task. Transforming the menu for a flagship restaurant at the CIA was a learning experience I will not soon forget.
In 2009, I was given the opportunity to help turn St. Andrew’s Café into a local, seasonal and sustainable operation. This meant transitioning the restaurant from a global menu with a focus on healthy cooking to a farm-to-table concept.
If you’re thinking of moving your menu in a farm-to-table direction, I’m sure you have many questions, just like I did:
First, what is sustainable food? There is no one definition it turns out. The basic ideas are the same, but the concept is so complex that it evokes countless answers. Asking this question was one of my favorite ways to start a class discussion; it was interesting to hear what culinary students had to say. I still think it’s a great question to ask of your staff, your leadership, your purveyors, and your customers.
I was familiar with the topic, but had never sunk my teeth into it. I started reading everything by Michael Pollan. (A quick tip: try The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Young Readers Edition. It boils the information down to layman’s terms and has great visuals.) I also recommend The End of Food by Paul Roberts, The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell and Corn and Capitalism by Arturo Warman. In addition, the Internet is flooded with information and opinions. When you can’t read any more, try the films King Corn, Fresh and Food, Inc.
The next big question I had was what to do during the winter.
Preservation was a key component to the success of our first winter. It was also a major element of the course. Students learned and practiced various techniques of preservation and, as a result, we had local product all winter.
After tomato season in the Hudson Valley, we developed a smoked tomato jelly that we served with cheddar thyme biscuits at every table. Customers began to ask for it, and we became known for this product. Having the skill and tools to utilize your harvest will help keep your food cost down and enable you to offer a unique product.
Here are some of the keys to making your farm-to-table operation successful:
I realized very quickly that our menu, as well as our students, needed to be flexible. It was very important to be as true to the concept of farm-to-table as possible. We needed to first investigate local farms and build relationships with the farmers. I needed to understand their challenges. For example, it’s not reasonable to ask a farmer who is already short-handed to deliver two cases of broccoli 25 miles away two days a week. When a storm floods out a farm or pests eat all the tomatoes, the menu has to change, and the students have to adapt. And customers have to realize that the dish they enjoyed last week may not be back on the menu for another year!
2. Using whole animals
In order to be true to sustainable cooking, it was important to work with whole animals. Buying an animal in its whole form truly allows the student and the chef to understand the beauty of the product. I began to look at the way I handle protein in a gentler fashion. I took more care when searing and braising. And I transferred this approach to my students in our kitchen classroom.
What are some of the challenges with buying whole animals?
First of all, where do you put all of that meat if you’re buying an entire cow or pig? Although there are many ways to tackle this issue, at St. Andrew’s we chose to use specific cuts for charcuterie and specific cuts for freezing.
We would try to cross-utilize the protein on the day’s or week’s menu. This meant that storage became a challenge.
We needed to dedicate half a walk-in freezer just to protein. So consider your storage space and test recipes for charcuterie before diving into buying whole animals. Another thing to keep in mind when planning to use whole animals is that communication with the farms is key. It’s very important that you time your current inventory to coincide with the next delivery. The farmer needs to have the animal slaughtered, which can be tricky if he needs to make an appointment with a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse. Planning is essential.
3. Cooking knowledge
I spent a lot of time eating at other farm-to-table restaurants. I went to every one in the Hudson Valley. I visited farms and talked to cheesemakers, winemakers and butchers.
Changing a menu is one thing, but changing a menu with students whose cooking knowledge is in the early stages means you have to have a mountain of recipes that can be on hand when a case of parsnips comes walking through the door. “OK, we don’t have carrots today, so we need to change the menu to use parsnips.” Sometimes I would see a look of fear in the students’ faces until I gave them firm direction or a recipe.
4. Menu control
With the uncertainty of produce, the daily protein changes and the variety of cheeses coming in, it was crucial that the front-of-the-house manager and I communicated constantly.
We would need to have our menus printed by 4 p.m. every day and several pairs of eyes were needed to avoid typos and inconsistencies. Because the menu changed daily, we had to print fresh copies just as often, which was a waste of paper. Our solution for that was to cut the previous day’s menus, rather than doilies, as under liners.
Another way we responded to ever-changing product is with daily specials. You want to create a menu with your most stable seasonal items and try to keep that as your core. When new or different product comes into the restaurant, have the servers sell these menu items at the table.
When the servers can tell your customers where their food comes from and that it was picked that morning, it creates more of a feel for the local seasonality.
Collaborating with local farms and showcasing their food is one of the most satisfying ways to cook. It’s a great feeling when you really know where your food comes from. It has become so easy for us as chefs to just call a random company and order food and have it be on our doorstep the next morning. Working with farmers takes effort. Traveling to a farm to pick up produce when you only need a small amount takes effort. Changing the menu daily takes effort.
But it has been my experience that it works. Our customers responded overwhelmingly positively to the changes.