Creativity or familiarity — which one tastes better?

Some guests want what they’re used to, even if the chef likes the new version better. Sometimes we have to devise a solution; sometimes we must give in.

by Lawrence McFadden, CMC®

I recently read a magazine article hyping the trend of cooking with ash, in which vegetables are scorched into a black powder and used for a dusting of proteins. I wondered if the article was just an attention-grabbing strategy of the publisher to shock its readers. I admit it worked on me.

The article took notice of the “stacked” food generation and the architectural permit that should be required to achieve these culinary feats. As the old saying goes, “You eat with your eyes,” right? A clearly frustrated Chef Marco Pierre White was quoted in the article saying, “I always sit down to eat my food with the goal that it will look as nice on the last bite as the first.” So, does food taste better when using creative ingredients and progressive presentation trends or when historically identifiable? And how is one to juggle deliberate creativity and culinary classics when aiming to satisfy both younger and older members and guests at our clubs?

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When I took on the GM role at the largest private club in Cleveland, I noticed one of the biggest criticisms from diners was concerning the daily soup creations — specifically the temperature of said soup. The oh-so-simple soup is rather complex when it comes to heat perception. In taking a cue from my days of working in Asia, we soon implemented beautiful lidded bowls that could be lifted tableside, exposing a waft of steam. Complaints soon softened.

All great clubs have their historically identifiable classics. Ours is the Maurice Salad, which consists of everything but the kitchen sink — mixed greens, turkey, ham, cheese, olives, egg, relish and more, all chopped or pulverized and covered in a thick Louis dressing. This classic salad dominated menu sales for decades and members fought passionately to keep it on the menu when we brought in our new Certified Master Chef. Like all great artists, Chef quipped, “I can make it better.” My own mentor’s internal voice rang, “Not you, not now.” We compromised by keeping it on the menu next to Chef’s own unique salads. Sales of the Maurice have since dwindled, most likely due to both Chef’s inspired alternatives and the health consciousness of today’s members.

Solving the classics are just one piece of the club puzzle; bar business and the all-important bar snack is another. Our team researched and purchased beautiful silver tiered stands with ceramic dishes designed for the middle of the table, which we filled with hand-cut potato chips, marinated olives and warm toasted nuts – the perfect flavor combination of salt, vinegar and spice to accompany any beverage. Implementation immediately brought requests for the old-habit snacks, once again calling for the historical over the experimental. Today, you’ll find Cheetos nestled next to Meyer lemon-scented olives and warm Moroccan almonds.

Octopus recently found its way onto our menus. Magazines write about it, celebrity chefs brag of its quality, and yes, members eat it when traveling abroad. In our chef’s hands it’s magic, but did not get the attention it deserves at the bar. As General Manager you must be a businessperson first and a foodie second, and you must remove stalled items from the menu. Bar food is about speed, handling, and simplicity, as the drinks are the key driver of satisfaction.

So how can a creative chef exercise his talents within the confines of the conservative palate of an older club? Our chef now sits with the executive team, creating a culinary storyboard around innovative yet comforting offerings. The plan includes our weekly chef’s table, guest chef promotions, catered business, club promotions as well as outlet menus that balance the needs of both members and staff, before strategically communicating changes. We now uniquely place education and innovation alongside comfort for the best of both worlds.

A culture of culinary creativity is allowed when trust and education are present. This reminds me of a great saying, “I mean you no harm; I seek your greatest good.” This approach gets us through those times when we assume we have reached creative brilliance when what we really have is a poorly planned bomb.

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