Writing the menu is one of the most important jobs to be undertaken by a chef or restaurateur, whether it be for a restaurant, school, hospital or other institution.
Not only is the menu the prime method of communicating to customers what it is you have to sell, but it is also the key document for directing and controlling the business. The menu establishes what ingredients need to be purchased, the maximum cost of those ingredients, and the staff and equipment required to produce the dishes.
Developing a menu policy
It is important to be aware of the local competition and what they are serving in terms of price, quality and style. This may help you decide to offer something different while, at the same time, be competitive on price and quality.
Consider the area in which the business is situated and the type of customers you are going to attract. What do they want to eat, what service do they expect and what are they prepared to pay? A restaurant offering molecular gastronomy is unlikely to work in a down-at-heel suburban location, but a family-friendly, neighbourhood-style eaterie may work very well. If you are in an area that grows or produces speciality foods – such as the award winning Tunworth cheese in Hampshire or asparagus in the Vale of Evesham – include the ingredients for extra menu appeal.
While traditional dishes are always popular, regular diners may want to be inspired by something new. Are your customers likely to want to try cutting edge food? University towns are often open to new influences, while areas with a large elderly population – such as seaside towns – may prefer food that is more familiar and comforting.
Space and equipment in the kitchen
There is no point putting dishes on the menu that the kitchen won’t be able to cope with, because there is a shortage of steamers, salamanders or some other vital piece of equipment. Only include items that the kitchen can comfortably produce.
Only include dishes on the menu whose ingredients you know will be readily available in the necessary quantities. This will ensure you avoid disappointing your customers.
If a restaurant is to be profitable, the cost of operating the menu is a crucial consideration. Be aware of your food costs at all times and keep within budget. Make use of the many computer programmes available that will analyse menu costs swiftly and regularly (simply google ‘analyse menu costs’ and choose the site most suitable for your business).
The most common food allergies are to milk, eggs, fish, shellfish and nuts, so these items should always be identified on the menu. Waiting staff should be aware of the ingredients present in every dish, so that they can answer any questions put by customers.
Number and capabilities of staff
Chefs and front of house staff must be capable, respectively, of cooking and serving the dishes listed on the menu. Elaborate dishes and gueridon service at the table will require extra waiting staff.
Food labelling (amendment) regulations 1999
The regulations state that restaurants, pubs, and other food service outlets must clearly label any menu items containing genetically modified soya or maize, including all derivatives such as cakes, biscuits, meat substitutes, bread, peanut butter and chocolate.
Details of dishes
Once a restaurant has established exactly what its menu policy is going to be, the chef – in conjunction with the restaurant owner – can work on the finer details of specific dishes. Now the major considerations are:
A menu should have integrity, so stick to what you know – whether it be French, Spanish or Greek – and produce it to the best of your ability. Don’t adopt a style, without fully researching and understanding it, just because it’s fashionable – someone will always catch you out.
Think about lighter dishes such as chilled soups and salads in summer and hearty game dishes and casserole in winter. Buying seasonal produce will help to keep the menu costs down.
Good nutritional balance
The Food Standards Agency’s Eat Well campaign is a good guideline to think about when ensuring a nutritionally well-balanced menu. This suggests that, for healthy living, our diets should consist of 1/3 fruit and vegetables, 1/3 carbohydrates such as pasta, rice or potatoes, 1/6 dairy products and 1/6 proteins and fats (unsaturated where possible). While a chef will not want to be tied down to these figures for every dish, the advice is worth considering in the overall balance of a menu.
Consider appropriate dishes for Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day and other special dates during the year.
Special dietary requirements
Don’t forget to include options for vegetarians and be prepared for special requests, for instance, for dairy-free or wheat-free dishes.
Variety of ingredients
Use a good mix of ingredients, including cheaper items such as potatoes alongside luxury ones such as foie gras and truffles, as well as a range of seasonings, textures and colours throughout the menu.
Variety of cooking techniques
Offer dishes cooked in different styles, whether they be roasted, grilled or steamed.
Less is more
You are likely to win more customers by offering a concise menu of well-executed, simple dishes, rather than providing a menu with an extensive list of complicated items that you are not able to cook consistently well on a regular basis.