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First, sorry for the late post!
We had an inspirational, informative meeting on August 10 with Kelly Myers, chef de cuisine of Nostrana and co-founder of Market Chefs.
At Nostrana, the menu used to change twice a day, every day. Back when they bought everything everyone would sell them, developing menus was like a culinary Rubik’s cube. But the skills and wisdom Kelly gleaned from an abundance of new ingredients and challenges has not only played a key part in Nostrana’s reputation as a destination restaurant.
Here’s a summary of the key takeaways. You can also download the file of Kelly’s handout, too.
Seasonal Menu Planning
- Quality is the reason to do seasonal menu planning. But it’s also how restaurants can best support the local food economy. We need lots of chefs who can think on their feet and get excited about fresh food that blows their mind when it comes in the door.
- Why do seasonal menu planning besides politically and ecologically? Because it gives you inspiration, vitality, creativity and a sense of focus. It’s not about feeling overwhelmed by abundance. Instead, you get to pick and choose what you work with.
- Even though seasonal menu planning is about thinking on your feet, it’s okay to work from a recipe. While ratios are important, the true way that cooking is like art stems from the fact that we’re all constantly borrowing from each other.
- You must make time for yourself to slowly taste things, preferably with someone next to you to give you feedback. The starting place is going to farmers market.
- If you’re a farmers market regular, try one in an unfamiliar neighborhood to discover new ingredients. Get out of your routine, observe how people shop in ways you don’t normally do yourself. Tap into that excitement. New smaller markets (Montavilla, Oregon City) are starting to feature microgrowers; these markets are nurturing new farmers. Identify growers who have specialties and decide who you want to work with. Form relationships with growers and tap in to greater wisdom.
- Excess of an ingredient (such as wild plums or huckleberries) can lead you to become a gleaner of ideas (huckleberry vinaigrette on beets) and developer of recipes that waiters can market to guests (huckleberry wild plum mostarda).
- When you’re feeling overwhelmed by an ingredient, stay within cuisine and identity of your business. For example, imagine the most Italian thing you can do.
- Follow the wisdom of elders, prevent fusion confusion craziness. There are people who have come before us who know these things.
- Deciding what to zero in on helps you to be profitable.
- Pick and choose; you don’t have to support every small farmer all the time.
- Remember, fresh local ingredients cook fastre due to higher water content.
After her presentation, Kelly broke up the attendees into small groups to develop 3-course menus using fresh ingredients she’d brought with her:
- Parslane (from Gathering Together Farm, does a lot of seed breeding, know what grows here). Lemony.
- Celery – is everywhere but grows locally too. Taste it – realize it’s tasty. The pale inner leaves chopped are quite good in grain salads or part of an herb mixture or egg salad.
- Medicinal mushroom
- Tomatillos, when you’re stumped go to the culture of that produce and learn what to do with it
- Summer chanterelles (much less moisture), flavor and texture more concentrated (dry more flavor)
- Bitter melon (Ayers Creek) – salt them to draw out some of the bitterness
- Jalapenos, Serrano, banana, Anaheim, poblano
- Padrone peppers
- Lamb’s quarters (use it like spinach)
- Cherry tomatoes
- Arabian blue barley
And here’s just a small sampling of the dishes the attendees dreamed up (I wish I’d caught all the ideas in my notes — I didn’t capture one of the most amazing menus, which — not surprisingly — from Amelia Hard’s group).
- Fromento cookie figs stuffed with goat cheese
- Flourless chocolate cake with habanero caramel Chantilly cream
- Sorbet of sweet cucumbers and local gin
- Ginger soup fresh celery with Arabian blue barley like rice porridge
- Roasted banana peppers, tomatillos, and lamb’s quarters
- Bitter melon with ground lamb, roasted figs
- Panang curry with parslane and other vegetables
- Figs in cabernet vinegar with goat cheese or savory goat
- Fromento cereal with maple syrup or maybe cooked figs
This was a creative and inspirational topic on many fronts that ignited not only a passion for seasonal menu planning but also deeper devotion to local farmers.
Adrienne Innskeep, our gracious host, wrapped up the meeting by sharing a quick overview of the online restaurant reservations software she and her husband developed based on their own challenges at Siam Society.
Various people were taking down reservations, and people showing up Saturday nights claiming to have a reservation. Because of the problems, Siam Society stopped taking reservations, which ended up frustrating guests.
They were approached by other online reservation systems, which were prohibitively expensive, required major hardwareinvestments, long contracts, and lots of training.
So instead, Adrienne and her husband developed their own solution — ResosPro, which offers restauranteurs simplicity and value. This homegrown solution has been battle-tested it at Siam Society, including this past Valentine’s Day. It features a built-in statistical algorithm that paces table turn time. That means it learns from past history what the statistical table time is, automatically stops taking reservations when it reaches maximum capacity.
According to Adrienne, it’s not too technical for technophobes, is easy to program, change table layout and hours of operation. It’s also easy for customers – it takes less than 30 seconds to make a reservation instead of getting redirected away from a web site or having to fill out a ton of info. You can learn more about it at http://www.resos.net
Help needed to keep this group going
I’m getting busier with work and not able to organize meetings as frequently (and obviously, I’m slower at posting updates and notes). This grass-roots effort has been going for almost a year now. Please don’t let it live and die by my schedule. If you’re willing to organize (pick a topic, recruit a speaker, set a date and location, post and email invites), I’d love the help. Let me know in the comments if you’re willing.