Menu Development

What Would I Serve at Dinner?

Posted by on Jan 30, 2014 in Culinary Techniques, Food, Menu Development | 0 comments

If you read my newsletter the The Rubber Band Door Knob, you know I went through a all juice detox. Three days, all juice to cleanse the body and the mind. I couldn’t put all of my thoughts down in the newsletter but I wanted to share my approach to healthier cooking at home. The concept is to look at the development of a menu where the ingredients are not just randomly selected nor the techniques used a whimsy. The process of electing items takes time and can be hazardous. No you are not going to loose life or limb writing a menu but there are preverbal cliffs and treacherous turns in the words you use. Menu writing is an art. Some do it well and others are a little to heavy with the fluff and descriptions used.

My process is to ensure that what is written is what is served. It also requires the ingredients and combinations of those ingredients are of high quality. So in an attempt to demonstrate the results of my not so scientific research about how to  incorporate the principles of  the juicing detox into a menu this is it.

The menu needs to have a start middle and an end. The flow need to make sense from course to course. Mild to strong to bold and  memorable at the end. There needs to be balance between luxurious and simple  from raw to cooked. I want to ensure that the person eating the dishes know what is each dish from all of the clues that we provide. These clues are:

  • The Written Word- This is the creation of perception of what they are going to eat as well as how a server articulates what’s between the lines from the growers and producers to techniques and culinary inspirations of the culinary team. The menu should not be a shopping list with directions on how to get to the farm.
  • The Visual- When the plate  is put down in front of the guests, can they see a variety of heights, textures, colors and perspectives of the food. Does it look like what was described? How many tomes have heard “this is nothing like what I expected when I ordered it”. Pasta in a bowl should look like every piece is perfectly coated in the sauce, there is a taste of all the ingredients in every bite. A huge meat ball on top of spaghetti looks great but how well does it really eat?
  • The Taste: Remember, I have mentioned this many times there is a huge difference between flavor and taste. Taste is subjective. For example, fresh halibut has a clean slightly sweet taste with a sublime saltiness. That is the flavor of the fish. However if I don’t like halibut that is a taste preference.  Thus a taste preference is a personal opinion. It is the chef’s responsibility to ensure that all of the flavors are balanced to create a taste experience that is enjoyed by that particular guest. Sometimes we cook for us and don’t necessarily please our guests as they may not have the same tastes as us.

All right enough, here’s my menu

First Course

This should be a something that is going to wake up the palate and get the bodies internal system ready to digest the rest of the meal. This course need to have functionality and set a tone for the rest of the meal. I use the principles of cold press juicing here with raw beets, pears, kale, fresh ginger, mint, carrots pulped and squeeze through cheese cloth and chilled. I would shake this over ice and pour into a cordial glass. The salad would be on the side and eaten on the biscotti like bruschetta. All of these raw greens are a great way of awaking the digestive system. Kale and dark leafy greens, the new work horse.


Cold Pressed Beet and Pear Cocktail with a Sweet Pea, Lactino Kale, Blue Cheese Salad and Smoked Bacon Crumble  served with a Fennel Seed and Barley Biscotti


This is the heart of the meal. I chose Halibut as it was what I had. However it is a firm thick fish which is rich and slightly buttery. I wanted to serve it with a minimal amount of carbohydrates and additional fats. I have seen too many cream sauces served with this in the past. Here I want to incorporate freshness and some great textures to balance the flake and suppleness of the cooked fish. 


Zatar Rubbed Grilled Hallibut with Roasted Spaghetti Squashed Tossed in a Parsley and Almond Pesto, Red Quinoa and Chick Pea Salad, Avocado and Yogurt Puree, Shaved Fennel, and Baby ArugulaIMG_1388


This is always a toss-up. There are times when splurging on rich intense items is called for. Usually the trigger is some kind of emotional event. It is to create a memorable end to a event such as to revive the mind after a bad day or to celebrate an event such as birthday. For a family to splurge on big desserts several nights of the week is not good  for the wallet nor the waste line. In this case i wanted something refreshing to close out the meal and something that wouldn’t settle in the stomach. When I was in China last year, Dragon Fruit was served for snacks and to finish a meal. There was some in the market the other day so I picked some up to have my kids experience the flavors and know what it was if they came across it again.


Diced Dragon Fruit with Lime, Chili Powder and Cilantro

The Journey Continues: A path to success.

Posted by on Jul 1, 2013 in ACF, Culinary Techniques, Menu Development | 0 comments

Denver Cold Food Tryouts 057I having travelling down this road for several years now. A few people understand what I am doing but few don’t get it or understand. I cannot fully explain how this journey ultimately affects my career but I know one thing. It is a lot of work. It takes time away from family, friends and unfortunately my garden and gold game. I didn’t have a good one in the first place. However the process of getting to a competition whether it be the culinary Olympics or your first amateur baking contest is the same. Here are some the ways this process has helped with my career and especially my cooking.

1) Planning: You need to be extremely organized and thorough in your preparations, shopping, packing and in the kitchen. I use multiple pack lists to make sure I have everything I need. My process begins with the schedule. I mark my calendar well in advance and set practice dates, shopping days and prep days prior to practice or competition. Running my own business, I am the company. I don’t have the luxury of a purchasing department.  I have to shop both retail and from wholesalers. It requires a planned route with the right coolers to hold the items and shopping list to make the process smooth. Shopping for everything yourself helps in other ways which I will explain later. Once you get everything purchased and ready, you  need to have a place for it and the right tool or container to process it further.Denver Cold Food Tryouts 008

2) Frugality: If you pay any attention to the industry news and the prices of items at your local grocery store, you realize that food is not cheap anymore. This preparation of food for sometimes non-consumption is expense. I try not to be wasteful. You need to purchase just what you need. When buying asparagus, by one really good bunch not two. Try and figure out how to get the greatest yield out of an item.  In the case of asparagus,  the money is the tips nut what can you do with the stalks, and peels? It takes thought and discipline not to throw it in the can. With the focus on “whole hog” butchery, this same principle can be applied to anything.

3) Educated: This study of every aspect of an ingredient forces to you to continually look at others. Research and development are a huge part of the this process. Looking at menus, reading texts, listening, web-browsing and of course tasting is vital to the success of a finished dish. I spend a vast amount of time visualizing flavors, colors, shapes, textures and compatibility of foods in my head. In the morning having a coffee, during my runs and even at the oddest times. Things pop into your head. I get an idea then I research the concept  and see if I can find some reference to an already know dish in a book or restaurant. You look at anything that is going to give you an advantage. “Does it make sense” are words that continually filter through this learning process. You can’t just sometimes do something for the sake of  just doing it. It can work but for a competitor at the highest level, it is all about perfection.

4) Detailed: It comes down to details. In the  world of culinary competition, it is the detail and preciseness of a cold food platter that is the difference between a certificate and a medal. It is the perfection and minute details that make the difference in that exclusive gold medal. Items which are presented cold can be weighed, measured and dissected to ensure that those details are consistent in every item presented.  Having spent hours coating items in gel where you are concerned about the affect of air movement and ripples you might get the picture. It can drive you crazy sometimes. It is all about the pursuit of perfectionDenver Cold Food Tryouts 015

5) Driven: You have to be motivated to do the work. When preparing and training, there is always something to do. Cold food takes time. Being on your feet for 24 to 36 hours is not uncommon for culinary competitors. In the hot kitchen, there is no time to spare and you can’t believe how time flies and how little time you have in reality. Three and half hours can feel like 30 minutes. You need to be mentally as well as physically fit.

If you look at each of the traits that I briefly describe, you will see the characteristics of some of the best chefs I know. That is why I do it. I want to be around them and challenge myself against the best. If you want to know more read this article at the link below.

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.

Chefs, consumers embrace seafood charcuterie

Posted by on Sep 13, 2012 in Culinary Techniques, Food, Menu Development, News | 0 comments

Just another way American Chef’s are pushing themselves to master traditional techniques with American ingredients and creative spirit. It is these kinds of trends that get me excited about the possibilties of modern cuisine. It is about great ingredients and applying the right technique to make a great dish. Molecular manipulation is dead in most circles. A great pate and real bread what can go wrong with that.  What do you think?

Chefs, consumers embrace seafood charcuterie | Nation’s Restaurant News.

What Does An Action Station Really Mean?

Posted by on Sep 6, 2012 in Catering, Menu Development | 0 comments

I have been asked many times to write menus where a client wants an action station. My question is always, what kind of action are you looking for? I get answers from “I want excitement”, “It would be fun to have a chef making something to order” and “I want something different”. Is there anything really different in any of these answers. These are basically calling signs for bringing a interactive experience of guests to the service staff and culinary team. In other words more of a dining expereince found in a restaurant verses a scripted planned meal which is typical of a traditional catered meal.

Caterers have had to compete with restaurants on many things but the hardest is the fact that it is very rare that a caterer can make food “to order” as in a restaurant. We have had experiments such as “restaurant” style service where guests get to choose their entree at the table but even in that case it’s really already been planned and mise en placed “finished” to a high level. The action station is one way to give a sense of that made to order experience either with a carving station or the made to order pasta station. I think both of these should be left at the buffet restaurant at the closest casino. They are tired and not the best way to show off a caterers potential. As an industry we have made great strides in trying to bridge the gap between restaurants and caterers. The skill sets required for the execution of a large plated event verses regular service in brick and motar restaurant are quite different. An off premise cateter must pick up their restaurant everyday pack it in a truck and set-it up some place else. So with that I believe there are several ways to take the skills and processs of the restaurant, such as plating, finishing techniques, use of unique serving pieces to create a restaurant experience for your next dinner party of 250.

Action statons have to be treated as an complete interactive function. The guests must feel that they are part of the process either through making a decision from a visual presntation of pre-plated items or a selection of decorative bowls filled with self-serve small tapas to a interactive station where they actual cook theirown dish. Choosing something requires action, its not just chef in a white coat making an omlete. By properly arranging a display of food with a variety options such as a choice of items, that are properly labled and presented with the correct serving peice is the foundation of an action station. The action was getting the guest excited about the variety and thinking. Carving a peice of tenderloin is not very interactive. The chef is basically a human serving peice.

Here is how I suggest you define your action stations. Don’t think of the food first think of the experience that you are trying to achieve how it will be recieved by the guest. Every type of guest experience has its time and place and the person planning this must conadiser this. I wouldn’t advise serving a top your own ice cream sundae bar at $500 a head gala.

Action stations should be now classified as such:



Visual Stimulation



We need to approach the station from the point of the guest experience we strive to create. The food and the action are just the tool to reach the end result.

Have fun with this but don ‘t over think it.

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