MAKING THE UNUSUAL USUAL
"Is the chef becoming more conservative for fear of turning diners away?"
Extract from Chef! Issue 30
One would assume that with all the foodie programmes on TV, and the continuous flow of training and education on the topic, people's palates would become more adventurous, creative and daring. This, however, isn't the case and we as chefs should be encouraging guests and our kitchen team to push boundaries and try the unusual, the unfamiliar and the uncommon.
There isn't a greater compliment than a guest saying that they had never tried such a dish before. Something as simple as the humble cauliflower comes to mind - it goes down well with a nicely-seasoned cheese sauce, yet so few orders come through for cauliflower combinations. It baffles my chef brain that people consider duck an unusual dish and it's intriguing how many comments I've heard about guests' bad experiences with it in the past. I make all my duck dishes a little more savoury than sweet and it is fascinating to hear the positive responses.
I remember Topsi Venter on the weekend of the launch of her recipe book 'Fooding about with Topsi'at Hartford House and Lynton Hall. She gave me the challenge to work on a Brussel Sprout dish. That was many years ago but I still feel inspired by the uniqueness of this underrated vegetable. In my opinion it's a chef's responsibility to make an ingredient shine. Preparing five courses every evening at Hartford House allows me to put rare items on the menu in small quantities, thereby gradually opening guests' palates to unexpected combinations.
A flavour close to my childhood memories is a 'susu' (cho-cho or chayote) also called a pear squash or vegetable pear. We had them growing profusely in our herb and vegetable garden at home. My mother would serve them steamed with an English-mustard béchamel. They can also be curried, stuffed or served raw in a salad. I have already planned to have this unusual, almostforgotten vegetable on my menus soon. It's so uncommon that even Google battled to find it!
Is a dish considered unusual because little is known about it, or because the name causes confusion? Take the Jerusalem artichoke; so many people don't know it only shares a name with the globe artichoke and isn't related in any way at all. It is a tuber and looks very similar to a knotted, knobbly ginger bulb. It is also known as sun choke. Many guests are enchanted with its unusual, delicate flavour, probably because they are comparing it with the herb-and-garlic marinated globe-artichoke hearts which they buy from their local grocer.
In my experience offal and veal are dishes guests are reluctant to try. Oh, for the innocence and naïve confidence I had eight years ago: after meeting Valerie, my French veal supplier, I did a head-to-hoof menu using her milk-fed calves. It was important that I visited the farm to see the process and I ended up participating. I deboned the entire animal and then, with a cleaver, I cracked open the skull, saw the brain, and was shown how to remove it. Plop! And it was in my hand. This was not something for the fainthearted. For lunch we prepared seared brains served traditionally with red wine vinegar and capers. The creaminess, the texture and the richness were irresistible. It's a case of opening one's mind to such flavour sensations.
I've since lost the courage to place brains, tongue, sweetbreads, livers, kidneys and tripe onto one menu and serve them as a tasting. All those years back it didn't enter my mind that guests might turn their noses up - and I had a full dining room. The question then is... is the chef becoming more conservative for fear of turning diners away or the diner really unwilling to try unusual dishes?
It is imperative that we as chefs take our guests on a culinary journey, bearing in mind that there will be some that are more creative and adventurous than others. To do this we too have to become more creative and adventurous, courageous and confident. Forever-changing, creative palates make this an exciting industry and I cannot overemphasise the need for training - not only for staff but also for guests.