Thursday, 6 September 2012

Le Menu

The Fat Duck Restaurant parting gift:
the menu sealed in a velvet embossed envelope and wax stamped.
Chefs are well known for their flowery speech, not so the translation to page. Institutionalized and tucked away in hot, cramped quarters does little for our social skills save holding our own in a raucous corner of the pub. I have seen chefs more skilled than I balk at the thought of having to put pen to paper to aptly describe their creations. When I first arrived in London, it was with some surprise to be thrust into the office chair once my guvnors learned I could type 45wpm, had a proper education, a penchant for poetry and a fetish for spelling and grammar. I had no idea my schooling would benefit me in a professional restaurant, but...if you’re the only one that can turn your knuckle dragging on and off...? I became an asset beyond the stove for all manner of correspondence and proofreading.

    So...what of these hallowed documents? One thing is for certain, most people barely read them. True and painful fact. People are there to socialize and eat, to soak up ambience and to be satiated. Not, scrutinize the menu. But good chefs don’t write or cook for most people. They cook for themselves first, the discerning customers second and hopefully the rest will fall into line. There are a myriad of tripwires that one needs to be aware of when writing a menu and I speak from no plateau of perfection but a wizened old dog learned from mistakes.

Less is more

The smaller the menu, the more attention to detail, the fresher the ingredients. This is generally a rule of thumb. The trick is to still offer a good selection that will cater to most tastes. If someone doesn’t like being offered a realistic amount of options per course for the size of the restaurant...send ‘em down the Chinese takeway where they can order a number 89. Chef Achatz of Alinea in Chicago foregoes the menu only get it when you’ve finished the meal.

Keeping it fresh

Repetition is anathema to the creative mind. A daily or weekly dated menu is not always proof that the chef is constantly creating something wonderfully new, but it is a good start. Your menu should, of course, truly reflect the changes in local seasons. Bored chefs churning out the same old same old lack passion and care, busy chefs that are challenged by regular menu changes are always on that knife edge of chasing a carrot of perfection.


I have gone from one end of the spectrum and back again on this issue. Personally I believe a good restaurant should have simple descriptions stating little but the primary ingredients. This inspires conversation between waitstaff and punter and gives the menu an elegant, modern feel. But geography and demographics have a play. I’m not in London. Provincial British folk tend not to want diatribe engagement before ordering. I have decided with our new menu to include both worlds. A simple top line heading with a more detailed description beneath. Also, keep the preachy bottom page disclaimers/supplements to a minimum and don’t go overboard on stating what farmer killed which chicken by such and such a hill over that particular dale. Over stating your provenance can clutter the wording. Try dedicating the back page to your producers...they richly deserve their own showcasing space. Every chef of any substance uses local, and increasingly wild produce, it smacks of flatulence to harp on about too much.
Wording to avoid;
‘On a bed of’
‘Scented with’
‘With a hint of’
‘Garnished with’
‘Chef’s special’
The list goes on and on. Tack-o-rama. When I see this tripe it’s the equivalent to seeing a hair salon called ‘Cut n’ Loose’ or the obligatory black board outside a bar stating...’Good Food Served Here’. You can’t teach class, but you sure can sense it’s absence.
It is a struggle. The grail is to create a document of substance if not beauty that does not intimidate. I don’t really believe that can be done on the scale that I would personally enjoy, so compromises must be made to set the average diner in your chosen locale at ease. You have to pay heed to your surround.

The Details

Spelling, grammar, fonts, paper quality...all these things matter. Even those customers that don’t pay much attention will have a subconscious current of...’all is how it should be’. Think of the style of your establishment and follow suit with your menu. A leather and silk ribbon bound tome for a gastro pub would be as out of place as a laminated A3 sheet at The Ritz.


It is a fact that the way something is worded dictates it’s rank among sales. ‘Grey’ mullet doesn’t sell. Silver does. ‘Blackened’ doesn’t set the till in motion, ‘Cajun’ may. Head Cheese makes quease. Brawn is bold and traditional, or even ‘Tete de Fromage’...Brits aren’t multilingual. A whisper of the exotic and foreign can entice, too much will alienate and confuse. Some believe keeping the £ sign away is of psychological benefit, let the numbers suffice. And 9 will do. Not 8.99 or 9.99. Keep things simple and elegant.


The last thing to do when the menu is written is to count up all the meat and fish dishes to ensure a good mix. Do you have varying meats, fish of different species? Have you put tomato on four different dishes? Unacceptable. Have you garnished three different mains with asparagus and it’s January? Off with your head. I was always taught not to repeat ingredients or if you have to, give it a different name. Lemon in two dishes? Call one citrus. My uber alpha carnivore nature struggles the most with the vegetarian options. Personally, I would keep them off the main menu entirely so as not to taint. Scribe a separate veggie offering. This will make the leaf eaters feel special whilst enshrining that which you care about most.


As a head chef, unless you are at the perceived top of your game, chances are you won’t have enough skilled staff to execute exactly what could be the pinnacle of what you yourself could create. Accept this. Your dishes can only be as good as what the weakest member of your team can be trained to replicate on a busy night. The larger the restaurant, the less detailed and fussy the food. There are few things worse than good ideas executed badly due to a lack of time or skill.
The best, busiest, most lauded and often awarded restaurants have the luxury of doing exactly what they want. They build up a following by forging their own niche. People go there for a new experience. If you aren’t in this elite game, a balance must be struck between what the customer wants and what will satisfy your creative drive.
I'm getting up there in this game, been at it a long time. Bit bored frankly. With my new menu I've decided to break a few of my hard set rules, rattle the cage as it with my food. A bit more contrived, more elements, heavy on the clever, light on the rustic. Still stay true to my ethos, but give the diner a bit more of a show. Who knows...I may even enjoy the journey.

New menu tasters...

‘Beefsteak Tomato Tartare’
This is one of the most clever dishes I’ve ever created. By created I mean stolen from someone and made it better. A fresh, colourful and flavourful vegetarian dish that mirrors the most classic of meat dishes. No, that's not a yolk in the centre...

‘Pigeon Fricassee, Cherry & Walnuts’
Pigeon is my favourite of the game birds. Pared with a little sweetness, richness and texture...a winning dish.

'Hock Terrine, Ham Mousse Leek Cannelloni & Smoked Bacon Sausage Olive'
This dish was inspired by the Kandinsky print hanging in my bedroom and out of a strong desire to challenge my own repertoire. An old dog playing new tricks.

An edited version of this article will appear in the October issue of Devon Life Magazine.


  1. Nicely put. I hate "over egged" menus. I discussed the very thing on my blog recently. Must pay your establishment a visit next time I am in the West Country.

    1. Thanking you...your site is interesting.
      Love the 'In fairness, the only people entitled to take food seriously are those that can’t get enough.'