Why Relationships Build Value

Posted by on Mar 30, 2014 in Consulting | 0 comments

True story.

A professional contact of mine wanted to educate his staff on beef primals – where the cuts come off the animal. He went to his purchasing department to get the cuts of beef he needed to do a class, and they told him, “you can’t get that.” Still, he urged them to try; they did and the big purveyors said, “There’s no SKU for that.”

Case closed, right? Not so fast.

Determined to make this happe3-28Food For Thought Meat 101 Training, the Chef called me to ask if I knew anyone who could help. I immediately thought of John (Cecala). My contact was ecstatic and ultimately decided to have Buedel Fine Meats do the training for his staff.

Read the full story on the Buedel Meat Up blog.


5 Things Considered on a Plate

Posted by on Apr 25, 2013 in Catering, Consulting, Food, Menu Development | 0 comments

If I was asked the question what are the most important things you need to consider when coming up with a new dish or a plate presentation? I would have to say it is, in reality, fun. What I mean by fun,is that  you need to know why you are making this plate of food in the first place and are you going to get excited about creating it. Is there an inspiration, a request from a client or just for the “hell of it” because you feel like eating something good. In my business I get a lot of requests for “one-off” menus for a single particular event or celebration.  The challenge here is that most of these requests are uniquely focused on a theme or particular combination of cuisines. This past week I had to shift back and forth from a family wedding of 350 people who needed a purely authentic Vegetarian Indian menu as part of a western style ceremony and the next day I was writing a menu for a cocktail reception inspired by Shakespeare’s literary works.  In both cases, I used the same process. I go through the following steps to ensure that my final dish has some conceptual back up and is grounded in some elements of proper cooking or cuisine. Some of this is logical, some is totally”out there” but it is the ultimately the thought process of the chef. So here are things that need to go into/on to a plate:

1) A knowledge of the Theme or Inspiration:

The present project I am working on is for a Wedding Reception where the couple would like to incorporate some Vietnamese dishes into their menu. Unless you are an expert or have a first hand knowledge of the foods of Vietnam either by birth, lineage or time abroad, it is a unique cuisine. I start by doing basic research by looking at the traditional dishes that most people may be aware off such as  the noodle dish Pho or a Bahn Mi Sandwich. I then look at the core ingredients associated with the cuisine from spices,  condiments, components of the dishes.  There are a lot of items such as chili paste cilantro, fish sauce and cinnamon sticks that start to stick out in my mind. I write these down on a pad of paper and start seeing patterns as well as service styles. I ask my self how can I incorporate a bowl of Pho into a wedding?

2) How is this dish intended to be served?

In this case, the bride wants to have little dishes or a buffet station that is part of the overall wedding meal. I also have to consider who will be eating this dish. I don’t think that the grandparents want to be walking around slurping noodles or the bridesmaids trying to navigate a bowl of broth while wearing a long dress and heels. So is Pho a choice? I think so if designed correctly. I want to give the guest the experience of the foods of Vietnam in the flavors of the dish. If you  have ever been to a Vietnamese noodle shop, there are some components of the food that stand out. For me its, the intensity of the broth from the meats, charred onions, cinnamon sticks and fish sauce. It’s the plate of fresh bean sprouts, cilantro, fresh chilis that is served on the side. It’s the condiments on the table, from Nuoc Cham, chili paste and fermented fish sauce that give me the direction to create a dish that’s full of complexity. There are flavors here that are useful even if they don’t show up as a traditional dish.

3) What are the boundaries of cooking?

I have to be realistic sometimes and ask the question, do I have the equipment or the staff who can properly execute a dish as it was intended.  If you travel, you also have to eat. For some, eating what the locals eat is an important part of the experience. A very simple dish of noodles and broth at 6 stool counter on the outskirts of the famous Tokyo Fish Market will never taste the same as when I make it at Japanese Udon home. There are many contributing factors such as repetition, ingredients, subtle finishing techniques and ultimately the atmosphere which affect that memory. I had that experience and because of that I working diligently to try to get as close  to recreating those flavors and aromas in my noodle dishes. For our example, I have never been to Vietnam and don’t have a mental or sensual memory of an authentic meal. So all I can do is educate my self and count on my ability to visualize what a dish would taste like in my mind and on my palate.  The cooking techniques applied and used around the globe are all based on heat transfer whether conduction or convection and the use of both dry and wet mediums. So there is some knowledge to be had on understanding the fundamental cooking methods of the cuisine. For most kitchens and culinary teams these unique techniques from other parts of the world are unfamiliar processes and not a regular part of daily operations. Breaking down a recipe into familiar processes such as marination, par-cooking,  slow cooking and a la minute methods can help drive the creative process and provide a common reference point for the culinary team. In our case of Pho, the are many of these techniques involved but the one which has some potential is the pouring of the broth over a bowl of noodles. Can this action be employed to create a “feeling” or an experiential part of the dish? I can start to formulate a plan.

At this point of the development process I am still writing rough notes and expanding my concepts in my mind. I know I want to put a twist on bowl of noodles. The question is still, can my culinary team put together a dish that will in some way take the guests of this particular event to a noodle stand that they remember from a trip or  family’s memories of the kitchen table?

4) What ingredients do I have to work with?

In today’s food media and marketing efforts, there is a continual push to stress, sustainable, local, seasonal, artisan in our food vocabulary. Then there is the need to make the public aware of gluten-free, vegan, trans-fat free ingredients produced on machinery that may contain peanuts or tree nuts.  This can just be the starting point of a menu writing challenge, as with our case. We have the family favorites, personal dislikes and personal expectations of the person/person’s writing the check to pay for this bowl of noodles that I have yet determined. So how do you navigate this? You need to ask good questions, process the information and make a good guess on what what’s left and what will taste good together on a plate. In our case maybe a bowl. This is also a personal choice on the person writing the menu. In my case, I look at traditional flavor profiles and then put a little twist on it but making sure I hit all of the basic flavor profiles. Making sure that the sweet, salt, sour, bitter and especially the Umani profiles are working together. The seasonal influence is highly important not so much for the ingredients but also for the style of the food. You try to look to have fresh, raw, lightly cooked items in Spring and heavy slow cooked components in the Winter. In the fall, for our wedding, I want to see tomatoes, grilled meats, vibrant herbs, may be some smoked items. Colors should be vibrant. Acidic tones of pickled vegetables need to be fruit juices not from a deep long salting processes.  Can I incorporate a local influence such as local tomato grower, an all natural soy sauce or hand pulled noodles? Now that I have a better list of ingredients. I start a new sheet of paper and write out some more details in my descriptions. It is kind of like my own secret language or code. It may  not make sense to someone other than me. So I am going to work with a light rice noodle with a marinated grilled chicken thigh which has lemon grass, ginger, fish sauce and some dried shrimp paste in it. I will probably choose  a fresh shiitake mushroom instead of dried for some Umami and then work in some smoked/charred tomato into the soup base. Then it stops. I put the notes away, turn of the screen on my computer and go grab a cold adult beverage. Why because it is amazing what a clear head will come up with. Space is the key when writing menus. You need to walk away from the pen sometimes.

5) It’s all in the words.

This is where it comes down to a good sense of balance. Dishes in print on menus that are going to be presented to a guest can  be written with a raw “Bauhaus” sense of minimalism to a grandeur “Baroque” tone. I like neither. Noodles, Chicken and Tomato don’t give me a very clear picture of what I am eating. However, Hand Pulled Organic Rice Noodles embellished with Farmer Stew’s Free Range Amish Chicken and Heirloom Sunburst Tomato Broth is over the top. Neither give me a sense that this is a Vietnamese dish. Where is the balance or excitement? It comes from knowing the right sequence in listing ingredients, adding clues about their preparation  and creating an anticipation that the person reading this description is sold at first read. There should be no questions about what you are going to get served. If there is, then you are loosing opportunities to serve your guests a great plate of food.

Now that I walked away from my noodle dilemma, had a good nights sleep and a the concepts rattled around in my mind, I think I know what we are going to serve:

Vietnamese Inspired Pho Cups with Lemon Grass Grilled Chicken, Thin Rice Noodles,

Poached Egg, Cinnamon Mint and a Charred Tomato Shiitake Broth.

I am going to set this up as an action station where a chef serves these pre-made cups by pouring the hot broth over the noodles and garnishes  with the Mint and then a drizzle of a mixture of Fish Sauce, Chili Paste, Lime Juice and Sesame Oil over the herbs as it served. It will be presented in a handled cup on a saucer with a spoon. I am going to cut the noodle is small pieces so it is easy to eat with a traditional spoon. It can also be sipped if so desired.

This dish has all the flavors of Vietnam but is still approachable by the crowd I expect to serve. Now some chefs may have issues or say this is not authentic but as I stated earlier, my needs were based on an interpretation of the cuisine for a particular event. If I was doing a street food station or concept, totally different story. This is way I think about writing menus. It is not the only way but one way that works for me.


The Tools of Refinement

Posted by on Jan 23, 2013 in Catering, Consulting, Menu Development | 0 comments

The Tools of Refinement

I use this phrase as a staring point. It is a concept I bring to my clients when helping them get to the next step. Thomas Keller in his book The French Laundry discusses things such as a sieve or tamis to refine a sauce or mousse. I see this thought process as essential for preparing food at a high level. However there are tools of refinement that need to happen not just in the kitchen and can’t be bought at the local foodservice equipment supplier.

IMG_0652The most important tool is a really a “second set of eyes”. For most it is the hardest thing to do; take critique from a third party. Having someone tell you your hard work is all for nothing can be exasperating at best. For most professionals deeply invested in their product on a daily basis, it is uneasy and in some cases the fuel on the fire if they have a bit of a temper. The defense starts and the individual hold their breath and when they have a free moment let loose and vent. I know as I did this for years. It wasn’t until I took a deeper look at the process and learned that critique is the most important thing one can have in the kitchen. Without it, that is constructive criticism, a culinary team or chef can’t take their food to a different level. After competing for many years, being an educator, as a judge or even a certification evaluator; I have learned many things and look at food differently.

What do I look at? I look at many things. I start with the menu, How is it written and especially the sequence of the words and the emphasis they play in creating the anticipation of what the guest is going to receive. A menu is the first thing a guest may see. If I see the word “roasted” I have already begun to create an image in my mind. I want to see caramelization of the exterior of what is being roasted. If it a red meat, I want to see the skill of the chef by seeing the color of the meat at the perfect temperature when it is sliced. In taking it to the next level, I want to extrapolate the next steps in the process. What happened to the pan it was roasted in? Did the chef capture the “fond” or caramelized flavor on the bottom of the pan to create a sauce or jus? This process is fundamental to good cooking and creating flavor. If ignored, was there an opportunity lost?

In some cases, there is a inappropriate sequence of words which causes emphasis of a technique or ingredient to be mis interpreted by the person reading the menu. For example “Pan Seared and Marinated Sirloin of Beef” In reading this, I envision the beef being seared and then marinated. If you spend time creating all that flavor through searing and then put the meat in a wet marinade, the flavors developed through the maillard reaction are lost. Affects of acids usually associated with marinade take hold and deaden colors and change flavors. Thus ” Marinated and Pan Seared” would be more appropriate course of action would result in a more refined product.

This is just one example of some one from a different perspective evaluating a recipe, presentation or complete menu. I invite my colleagues to look out side your organization to have some one look at your items and give a review. For a caterer,
who is getting ready for a large high profile event, bring someone outside at the tasting who has experience and a knowledge of food to evaluate what you are serving. It is not the client, bride or event planner. It is someone who is not emotionally tied to it.

What should they look at:
Menu Writing
The food matching the description
Presentation and repetitiveness of ingredients and techniques
How well it eats with the proposed plates and flatware
Portion size in relationship to each course
Authenticity to the theme or cuisine being represented

There are many other things to consider. If you need more help, Customized Culinary Solutions is there for you. We specialize in helping clients with their menus and how they are seen by the end user.

Farm to Table Menus

Posted by on Oct 18, 2012 in Consulting, Food, Menu Development, News | 0 comments

Here is a great article form the CIA discussing how to incorporate the Farm to Table movement in your establishments. You can start small and work this into your daily menus. It take time and if you need help look to the resources around you for support.

Chef Nemo Bolin talks seasonal restaurant Cook & Brown Public House

Posted by on Sep 21, 2012 in Catering, Consulting, Food, Menu Development | 0 comments

My favorit kind of story. This is how we should think about menus. This thought process of taking what is infront of us and creating a fabulous meal with soilid techniques and that relies on the natural beauty  of the ingredient is the awesome.

This type of thinking is how need to change our ways in catering. Trusting our culinary team to prepare food on the day of the event is the key. Setting a menu 8 months out and hoping it will be the same is becoming harder for caterers who want to cook from the market.

So take a read and think how you can change your sales perspective and process. Would that be on trend.  No menu tastings just an first date with the culinary team.

Chef Nemo Bolin talks seasonal restaurant Cook & Brown Public House | Nation’s Restaurant News.

Today’s top four food trends

Posted by on Aug 10, 2012 in Catering, Consulting, Food, Menu Development | 0 comments

Today’s top four food trends

Are your menus ready for the fall. Ethinc Flavors, Local Ingredients and value added ingredients need to be brought to the forfront of you fall catering menus. Caterers are always competing against restaurant style menus. Don’t be behind the curve react to trends now instead of after the fact. Consultaning chefs are always there to help companies push the envelope and make your menus pop and give you that competitive edge. Read this post and think about the next steps for your menu programs.


Today’s top four food trends | Nation’s Restaurant News.

“Customization” a Food Trend I Can Live With

Posted by on Feb 8, 2012 in Consulting, Menu Development, News | 0 comments

“Customization” a Food Trend I Can Live With

I tend to agree with a few of these trends. I especially believe in the customization trend. I started my business partly because I was tired of seeing the same items menus across the city. Chicken Ceasar especially. Why? I wanted to help culinary teams fine their “inner groove”.

The top five food trends according to a culinarian |

Every kitchen has a soul. It is a collaboration of many factors and each should have a unique identity. Just because some else has it on the menu does it mean you have to. I have termed this the “vanilla” factor. Kitchens as well as guests want to have their unique twist on a dish and make it there own. By developing a menu writing formula and recipe writing processes based on things a kitchen believes in and does consistently well will allow continual improvement by the kitchen. It will also allow you to easily make special requests or custom orders possible.

A kitchen should focus on producing a core group of recipes very well and then with the right guidance from the kicthen a well trained sales person should be able to easily create unique menus. The sales person can be a waiter, catering sales manager or the receptionist who is the only one office. If they understand the way menus are put together it can work.  CCS is has developed a series of worksheets for custom writing menus  which details cooking methods best suited for a particular protein, provides an internchangable list of seasonal sides, sauces and garnishes which can combined in any manner based on the desires of the person writing the menu item. There is no experimenting on the guests with a on-the-fly menu item because it sounds good.

For more information please contact us


How do people really see your menus?

Posted by on Feb 4, 2012 in Consulting, Menu Development | 1 comment

How do people really see your menus?

Menu writing is very important in todays market place. Have you every really thought about how they see the words on the menu. Words are a power medium. The wrong words used out of context can be devistating and bad for business. Everyone sees and interprets the words in a book diferently. Some guests who are detailed orientated my see a spelling mistake and become annoyed, they don’t see the great combination of flavors on the menu. They start looking for more mistakes. Are they focused on choosing dinner or commenting on your bad english. Sequencing of words is also overlooked sometimes. For example have you ever wondered about the Marinated Grilled Steak at the local bistro. Was the steak grilled first and then marinated. Well that is how it reads. Shouldn’t it really be Grilled Marinated Steak. It is the  logical method of preparation.

So it is interesting to see how someone like Phil Vettel looks at a menu in the following article. Jam: Deconstructing the menu by Phil Vettel. How do your guests critic your menu. It would be an enlightening experience for a third party to review your menu and see how they interpret it. Good questions to think about.

Don’t be afraid to talk to a non-biased person to help you move forward and write great selling menus


A Catering Christmas Story

Posted by on Jan 6, 2012 in Consulting, Food | 0 comments

As a culinary consultant I spend many days a week in a variety of kitchens discussing ways to improve kitchen operations. Impromtu demos, menu and recipe design and coaching are always are always happening. Stepping in and out of kitchens you don’t always see immediate impact or maybe I just witness a quick fix. As we are in the height of the holiday season I visted several kitchens these past few days and was given a great gift without even unwrapping something.  It was calmness, professionalism and focus. Owners, operation managers and chef’s always know this time of year is coming. They can react in several ways, lets buy everything so we don’t get overwhelmed, hire extra staff who might not be properly trained to prepare what is sold or even stop taking events as they have oversold their true capabilities.

My present was none of this. I have worked over the last year with kitchens to focus on the process of effieciencies, standardizing menus, defining roles for cooks etc and the work paid off. It is exciting to walk into a kitchen and see things being made from scratch. Trays of hand formed hors d’oeuvres not boxes being opened, The care of preparing things like this are important not only to the confidence and pride of the kitchen but the guest who can actually taste an original hand made morsel. I have nothing wrong with the companies who help the catering companies and food service operations by mass producing frozen items for the convienence. However the variety becomes limited and one is exposed to the fact that all of the companies using them start tasting the same. Where is the competitve advantage in that?

Walking in and seeing trays of hand decorated cookies made me feel warm inside and feel excited of seeing the cooks who made them smile with pride. The days that followed her where no dought going to be long, her feet will be sore from standing all day but there is honesty and truth in the 100’s of dessert trays and countless gift bags she was going to make.

This is a bust time for many catering compaines but they are doing great.  Why? Because they saw the need to start looking at their opeations earlier in the year and look at the needs of the future. They needed support and guidence not someone to do the work. They wanted to take ownership of their buisness and work with a coach and mentor. I loved going into these kitchens and spedning time with all of the cooks teaching them new things. They may have looked disinterested at times as they went through a demo, cooler conversation or a random sanitation inspection of their work station. However it”s paying off now even if they don’t relize it at the start of a midnight shift

Thankyou all for making my holdiays special.

Planning a New Year’s Eve Menu

Posted by on Jan 1, 2012 in Consulting, Food, Menu Development | 0 comments

I write and develop a lot of menus over the course of a year. From small little snacks to elaborate menus for a fundraising gala based on a specific theme.  After all these years some of the questions I ask  myself when thinking about what to serve are instinctive and come very natural to me. I want to stop for a minute and take some time to write down the process I go through when putting together a menu. In this case it was putting together a menu for new year’s eve for my family and best friends. 

I break down the menu writing process into several steps:

  • Inspiration or Directive
  • Research and Experience
  • Selection of Ingredients
  • Adaptation and Natural Flow
  • Execution

The process started with a vision of a 10-year-old girl who would be there for the evening. She said “can we make home-made pizza?” Great, that starts the process. A direction, a request or need.  Immediately I start thinking about homemade dough. Next I consider the fact that there will be a diverse group of ages at the party and it’s also New Year’s Eve. (more…)