Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sell, Menu, Sell!

Let's face it. We restaurateurs are in business to sell food and our primary sales tool is our menu. All of us have had experiences with really great dishes that did not sell. In fact, Food Arts has a regular column called "Hits and Flops" in which chefs and pastry chefs discuss dishes that are wild successes and really great dishes that just wouldn't move.

I buy items in very small quantities and I change my menu daily, replacing the items that sell out with new ones, so I rarely have situations where dishes just don't move.

But I encountered just such a situation this week. A customer requested that we put a chicken dish on the menu for his group of 22 people. We rarely ever have chicken on the menu for the simple reason that it's what most people eat at home, and they are not coming to One Block West to eat what they eat at home. Or at least that's my rationalization for not putting an ingredient that I find extremely boring on the menu.

But, when I do put chicken on the menu (folks, I will not verb a noun and say "when I menu chicken"), say a roasted poussin or a tagine of chicken with olives and preserved lemons, it flies off the menu. A lot of customers perceive chicken as a safe option when faced with a menu that includes bison, wild boar, ostrich, squab, and sashimi. And I think that's what my customer was looking for: something safe for his guests.

Knowing that, I recreated a dish that I had in a private home in Burgundy: a freshly killed chicken stewed in white Burgundy with fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden behind the house, finished with some heavy cream. The grandmother that prepared this dish was justifiably proud of it. It was pure, simple, fresh, and clearly of the moment.

I gussied the dish up a bit for restaurant service. I braised bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs* in Chardonnay with leeks and a bouquet garni, then skinned and defatted the chicken when done. From the stock, I made a thyme-infused cream sauce. I poached tournéed baby carrots and haricots verts separately and roasted cipollini onions. At service, I reheated the chicken in the cream sauce and added the perfectly cooked vegetables at the last second to warm through. All the components were carefully plated in a large bowl, napped with the sauce, and garnished with fresh thyme. In short, it was a gorgeous, elegant, and tasty dish.

*Yes, I said thighs, which have all the flavor in the chicken. Don't get me started on boneless, skinless chicken breasts—the Wonder® Bread of the chicken world. That's a topic for a rant and this post is not a rant.

In honor of the grandmother whose name I have forgotten, I named the dish quite simply enough Poulet Grandmère and it appeared on the menu thus:

Poulet Grandmère
Chicken Stewed in White Wine; Served with Baby Vegetables in an Herb Cream Sauce

The result: we sold none of the 20 portions I prepared. Of the 50-plus entrées ordered that night, zero were chicken. As I mentioned above, we never strike out with chicken. After dinner service, I went back to my desk to ponder this.

I came to two conclusions. First, people were likely put off by the French name of the dish. I'm guessing that they wouldn't venture to pronounce* it or they read only the bold type and didn't understand that poulet is chicken. Second, if they read the description, they may have been put off by "stewed," thinking it too homey a dish for fine dining.

*How do you learn to pronounce things if you don't try? When faced with a menu item I cannot pronounce (Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, etc.), I ask my server. Then one of two things happens. The server says, "I don't have a clue!" and we all have a great laugh. Or, the server and I go back and forth until I get the pronunciation down. Either way, the pronunciation does not stop me from ordering.

Sitting at my desk, I made two changes to the menu for the next night, thus:

Chicken with Baby Vegetables
Chicken Slow-Cooked in White Wine; Served with Baby Vegetables in an Herb Cream Sauce

And the result? Fourteen portions sold. And you thought that all we chefs have to do is worry about cooking!

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