Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Top 5 Pet Peeves on Restaurant Menus

I love it when I open a restaurant menu and know straight away that the chef is trained, serious about what he or she does, and likely to send some good cooking my way in the near future! Sadly, this is a rare occurrence these days and all too often the polar opposite applies. As I've mentioned previously, dining out is limited for me these days so I tend to just head for places that I know will deliver the goods.

Before I get into what is the closest thing to a rant you're likely to find on this blog, I must preface my list by stressing that these are purely personal peeves so feel free to shoot me down and add your own comments if you wish. So in no particular order, the top five issues which make my heart sink when I open a menu are as follows:

I know it's cheap, but it's also flabby and tasteless. We have cheap local fish in Ireland like mackerel, gurnard & pollock. They are wild, far tastier and you'll be supporting Irish fishermen to boot. If you're serious about your menu, do us a favour and leave the bass in the Med!

I've nothing against beetroot and/or goats cheese but seriously....give them a break for a while! There are thousands of great vegetarian dishes that do not involve the usual suspects. Your veggie option should be attractive enough for meat eaters to want to order it. 

So your opening menu blurb tells me about your dedication to using local produce in season. Then why are you using asparagus in October? All too often Irish restaurants, even some good ones, leave produce on all year round yet still spout about their "seasonal" ethos. 

If it's not breakfast or brunch, these have no place on your menu unless you're a café. I'm completely over the black pudding/scallop combo and also the egg cooked for hours in a water bath. They are cheap, require no preparation, and are the last bastion of the lazy restaurant chef in my opinion. 

Whether it's new Nordic, foraged weeds, or molecular gastronomy, some chefs can't seem to help jumping on the latest band wagon. It NEVER works. You become the culinary equivalent of a karaoke singer! Use the freshest ingredients you can find, cook from the heart, find your own style,  and you won't go too far wrong. 

So that's my tuppenceworth! Let me know if you agree or disagree and if you have any you would like add in. 

Monday, 16 June 2014

Are you allergic to food intolerances?

I have a love/hate relationship with clams. I love them, they hate me violently. I discovered this the hard way years ago after a plate of linguine with clams in Italy. Years later, I had to literally sprint from the table of a Michelin starred restaurant in Barcelona after unknowingly scoffing one. This is an allergy. For whatever reason, my body hits the reject button immediately when one of these creatures reaches my stomach. I've lived without them for years and truth be told, it's no real hardship.

Other people are not so lucky with their food allergies and intolerances. I couldn't imagine for example, not being able to enjoy the simple pleasure of freshly baked bread due to gluten intolerance. I know people who genuinely suffer from coeliac disease and it really is an awful affliction. I've also encountered people who think they suffer from coeliac disease but regularly bend the rules to suit themselves with little or no consequence. These fair weather food fadists devalue the plight of genuine sufferers.

Talk to anyone in the restaurant business and they will tell you about the explosion in food intolerances over the last few years. Every conceivable dietary requirement is being catered for on a daily basis. The majority of restaurants are happy to oblige, especially when given advance notice. It can be a difficult task for a restaurant when it is announced as the order is being taken. Opinions on the issue are many and varied, especially when you speak to chefs about it. Some are just prepared to cook what they have on the menu and view all requests for variations as an inconvenience.

In his excellent book It Must Have Been Something I Ate , Jeffrey Steingarten talks about the rise of food intolerances in the U.S in the late 1990s. He refers to a huge study into the effects of lactose intolerance, the largest of it's kind ever carried out. Of those who were chosen for the experiment, half were given lactose and half a placebo. The results showed that a sizeable portion of those given the placebo reported the same symptoms as those given the lactose. The overall findings were that approximately 2% of the huge sample presenting with lactose intolerance actually were genuine cases.

My advice on the issue to restaurants is always clear cut. Your default position should be "yes we can". The customer should always come first and the objective should be to make sure everyone leaves the restaurant happy.  I used to drill into my staff that "no" should not be in their vocabulary unless every possible effort has been made to satisfy a guest's request. The majority of people will appreciate the effort and leave the restaurant happy and those who don't are usually beyond pleasing anyway. Not everyone in the business I speak to agrees with my position on this. Many feel that dropping everything in the middle of service to meet an unannounced off piste request compromises the service for all of the other guests in the room. I understand this point of view completely and if the service is going to go down to meet the needs of one guest, then of course it can not be done. However, in my experience this is a rare occurrence and should not be used as a convenient excuse.

The guests themselves have a role to play in making sure that they have the best possible experience when they visit a restaurant. If you have specific dietary requirements, you should give the restaurant as much notice as possible in advance of your reservation. This is not only basic good manners but will also be to the mutual benefit of all concerned. I vividly recall a lady one Saturday evening who announced when her order was being taken that she was vegan but also severely intolerant to gluten. It was 8.30pm and the restaurant was full to capacity with plenty of people still to arrive later. Needless to say the first response from the kitchen was unrepeatable but after a few minutes negotiation I went back to the table with the following three dishes for her:
  • Gluten free crostini with broad beans, mint and extra virgin olive oil
  • Griddled spiced aubergines with smoked potato & chick pea salad and salsa verde ( no anchovies)
  • Roasted pineapple with  fresh coconut purée
Hardly life changing dishes but delicious and a decent effort under the circumstances, I thought. She seemed happy enough and ate everything but two days later I received a stinker of a letter from her saying how she was disgusted that no choice was offered to her and only ate what she was given because she didn't want to make a fuss in front of her guests. I replied that I was sorry she felt that way but we had done our best under the circumstances and with prior notice in the future could offer her a choice of dishes. She replied that she would never be back so it wasn't an issue. I chalked it down to experience but it cemented for me that the guest in these situations could help themselves considerably by letting the restaurant know in advance.

My feeling is that food intolerances, both genuine and otherwise, are here to stay. Restaurants can help themselves by having good quality vegetarian and gluten free options on their menus as standard ( a break from beetroot and goats cheese would be good too!). In addition, put some thought and imagination into a few vegan and dairy free dishes that you can call on at short notice. You will never please everyone but being somewhat prepared in advance will take the sting out of creating ad hoc dishes without prior notice and will give your guests a more enjoyable dining experience. Surely that can only be a good thing.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Don't be a hidden gem

I get a lot of feedback from restaurateurs about the challenges they face on a day to day basis trying to compete and grow in the current economic environment. Many have a difficulty squaring the media reports of economic recovery with the real situation they encounter on the ground. I will be doing a post about the top 5 challenges and how best to over come them in the next few weeks but this post highlights one recurring issue which seems to affect many.

All over Ireland there are honest, hard working restaurant owners busting a gut every day for modest returns. In a lot of cases, not enough people know they exist and even a 10% increase in footfall could have a significant impact on their business. Many of these gems will remain hidden until one day they have to close. This may seem a simplistic analogy but illustrates a very real dilemma. So how should they go about getting their message out there and why don't they just do it?

The reality is that many restaurants are operated by people with one specific skill set i.e chefs, business people, front of house etc. In some cases there are couples who may both contribute a different range of skills. In rare cases there are teams of operators who cover all bases.  Regardless of the ownership structure, a proper marketing plan is essential to get your message out to the people you need to reach. Lack of time, expertise and budget prevent many from achieving this.

Large restaurants tend to use PR agencies and implement targeted marketing plans. Often with mixed results in my experience. This is outside the budget of most small independent operators who usually adopt an ad hoc approach to advertising & promotion. Random adverts in newspapers and magazines and a stab at social media seems to sum up the approach of a lot of small operators. This is unfortunate as there are huge opportunities available to make your voice heard and get your message across with little or no expenditure.

I've long since been converted to the powers of social media and as I do more in depth courses I can really see that it is now forming the basis of the marketing strategies of all sorts of global organisations. In relation to the restaurant business, this graphic underlines just how important Twitter is for restaurants in the UK.

In addition to Twitter, both Facebook and Instagram are very powerful tools for getting your message across. I always add a note of caution to clients beginning to use social media because when used incorrectly they will at best have a neutral impact and at worst will negatively affect your business.

There is an etiquette which should be followed and there are certainly some good practices that should be adhered to. Anyone on Twitter who has been on the receiving end of 20 tweets in a row saying "I just posted a picture on Facebook" will have an idea what I mean. When it comes to food shots, I can not emphasis strongly enough the importance of good quality images. A bad photo of your food is worse than no photo of your food. I regularly see chefs I follow post pictures that do not do justice to their food. I've made decisions not to visit restaurants based on the images of their food. It may taste a lot better than it looks, but lots of people will never bother finding out.

The explosion in Smartphone and tablet ownership in Ireland has seen a shift away from desktop and laptop web browsing and a meteoric rise in the use of apps as the first port of call for information. The game has changed completely as far as digital media for business is concerned. It is no longer acceptable to have a poor website or indeed one which is not mobile friendly. For restaurants, it's time to accept that your customers are accessing their information in completely new ways and in order to compete, you simply can not be on the outside looking in. The only investment required is time and energy so it seems foolish not to embrace it and ensure that your gem does not remain hidden.