People rarely think about the time and attention a chef puts into planning a restaurant’s menu. After all, how hard can it be to create a list of the items being served? In reality, the days of a legal-sized sheet of paper with a listing of dishes are gone. Today’s chefs see their menu as an extension of their culinary vision: something that reflects their restaurant, skill and creativity—not just a list of dishes!
Although it sounds simple and rather mundane, the planning of a new menu can take months of work and preparation to do it right. I caught up with Chef Derek Barnes, owner of Derek’s Culinary Casual, to understand his thinking on menu planning and the process he deploys when planning to make any menu change.
Derek’s Culinary Training and Background
After graduating with honors from the School of Culinary Arts in Denver, Derek went to New Orleans to work with Emeril Lagasse in his Emeril’s restaurant. Starting there as garde manger, within a year and a half Derek had earned a sous chef position.
After four years with Emeril’s, Derek took a position as Chef de Cuisine at the Beach Bistro and then opened Culinary Casual in January 2006. Derek has earned accolades and awards such as Semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard Best Chef South award, Florida Trend’s Golden Spoon award, “Most Innovative Chef” in the Best of SRQ Magazine 2009 and a three-time listing in the exclusive Zagat America’s Top Restaurants list.
JLQ: Before we get started talking about menus, can you tell me a little bit about what it was like to work with Emeril?
Derek Barnes: Working with Emeril was an incredible learning experience. His persona in the kitchen is a lot different than what you see on TV. He is intense, demanding and expects the very best from you all the time. My time there was incredibly educational and rewarding, one of my best culinary experiences.
JLQ: It seems to me changing a menu at a well-established restaurant like yours is no simple matter. Can you tell us how the process works at Derek’s?
DB: Yes. The process is quite involved and requires careful planning and logistics. When we consider changing a menu we are trying to accomplish a few things. First and foremost, we want to keep our existing customers’ tastes and preferences front and center. Secondly, we want the new menu to be reflective of current dining trends and styles, such as small plates.
JLQ: Recently you changed your menu and added quite a few new dishes while maintaining many of the “old favorites.” What was the thinking behind this change?
DB: With our sixth year of operation approaching, we thought the time was right to introduce some new items. This menu change offered us the opportunity to take the standard legal-sized menu sheet and transform it into a booklet, offering more choices and options to our customers. In essence, we were able to expand in a very cost-effective and affordable way.
JLQ: So once you decide to make some menu changes or updates, can you step through your internal process?
DB: When we make any menu change we look at it very carefully. We know our customers’ tastes very well and try to plan new items accordingly. Generally, we offer daily special items in addition to our regular menu. Depending upon acceptance and feedback, many of these specials will become candidates for the new menu. Once we select a dish for possible inclusion, we source and price the ingredients, develop, refine and rework the recipe as necessary and then orient and train the kitchen staff. In essence we are providing quality control for the recipe, the ingredients, the preparation, the presentation and the pricing before the dish makes it to the printed menu.
JLQ: So once the main menu is finalized, what happens to the dessert and wine menus?
DB: Planning the dessert and wine menu is a much easier process. Since the wine and dessert menus play supporting roles to the main menu, we design both in a complementary fashion after the main menu is established.
JLQ: Any last thoughts about menu planning at Derek’s?
DB: The menu planning process is ongoing here at the restaurant. We want to make sure the meals we serve are creative and responding to our customers’ expectations and tastes. I can see us changing the menu probably twice each year, which means it is ever-evolving.