The Cheesecake Factory, with its Small Plates & Snacks menu section, is in the vanguard of the small plates trend. Its more than two dozen items represent an array of global cuisines and eating styles, everything from Vietnamese Tacos to Parmesan Polenta Fries to Mini Corn Dogs.
“With our Small Plates & Snacks we are able to offer variety to our guests who don’t want to be limited to one particular flavor,” says Brent Parrino, sous chef of menu research and development for the Cheesecake Factory. “They can explore widely. That’s the beauty of small plates.”
Parrino and other leading restaurant and non-commercial chefs explored the universe of small plates and the role of almonds in them at the Almond Board of California’s culinary retreat at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley. Here are some of his thoughts on the topic.
When you think of using California almonds in a dish, what comes to mind?
Almonds really find their strength when used as subtle but effective texture enhancements, plus they also provide a little savory hit of flavor. The flavor is complementary and does not take over a dish the way something like blue cheese would.
For example, in our Moroccan Chicken at the Cheesecake Factory, we mix slivered almonds and golden raisins with Israeli couscous. The almonds give a punch of flavor and texture and a different mouthfeel so every bite is not the same. The goal is to make the next bite as craveable and memorable as the bite that came before.
You created a unique small plate at the Almond Board culinary retreat, Sausage-stuffed Squid with Almond, Fresno Chile and Finger Lime Salad. What was the inspiration for that, and what do the almonds bring to it?
The cultural inspiration for this sort of dish comes from Indian, Middle Eastern and Northeast African cuisines. I put toasted almonds on the salad to break up the flavors and textures of the squid and sausage. The goal is to create menu items that never get boring or monotone. We want every bite to be full of flavor and interest.
What opportunities do you see for further exploration of almonds in menu development?
I think almonds definitely could have a larger role in Latin foods, anything from Spanish to Mexican to South American. And the same goes for Asian foods. There is extreme room to use almonds more because of the flavor and textural profiles they bring.