What’s So Special About Dinner Specials?

One of the best parts of working as a chef is coming up with dinner specials.

It can also be one of the worst parts of being a chef.

On the one hand, it is a creative process, and that is always a good thing. Chefs like to flex their culinary imaginations, they like to do new things, and off-menu specials are a chance to shine creatively. These specials can be spontaneous or planned, but in either case, they let cooks and chefs stretch their wings and soar a bit, especially when much of restaurant work is repetitive, exacting, and face it–not thrilling. (No, really, cutting a case of onions at a time is not thrilling, fun, or glamorous. Or, wiping down walls at the end of the shift. Nope, not thrilling.)

That is the good part.

The bad part is that it is hard for a chef (especially one who is new on the job, like I am) to predict exactly what diners will want on any given night. If you add into that equation bad winter weather and unpredictable business because of fluctuating town population (meaning, Ohio University is on Christmas break and much of Athens’ population has left town for the holiday) you come up with a situation that can be frustrating.

However, instead of being frustrated, a good chef will turn it all around and see it as a challenge that can not only be surmounted, but can work to her advantage by providing a crass course in “Diner Psychology 101.”

I am still learning how to predict what Salaam’s guests will like and what they will not like. It is an inexact science–predicting people’s tastes–but I intend to at least learn how to tune my instincts into the wavelength upon which the diners of Athens reside.

For example–the dish pictured above–Greek Shrimp and Feta Casserole–sounded moderately interesting to me, but not overly exciting. I read a description of it in a book, and chose to do it because I thought that I could do it in individual casserole dishes, and I could make it pretty, while keeping the food cost low, because we pretty much had everything we needed on hand. (A good chef is always aware of food cost. Always.)

But what is weird, is I never thought it would be that tasty. I mean, I didn’t think it would taste bad–not at all, but it wasn’t something that I thought would be very flavorful. The original recipe, in fact, was kind of bland sounding, so admittedly, I jazzed it up some, and added some fresh herbs and flavorings that the description and recipe I read didn’t have. But still–it went together so simply, I figured it might not be that great.

I was wrong.

Several guests, after eating the dish, told me that it was one of the best things they had eaten recently. One woman enthused about how infused it was with flavor, and how it all went together beautifully.

I made a mental note of this, and when I got home, I opened up my laptop, and in my notebook where I keep records on the specials I run, I made note of the enthusiasm with which the shrimp were met.

Now, I know to run that recipe–or a similar one–again. (I say recipe as if I wrote one, or followed one. This is not true–I read a description of the dish online, and said, “Huh. I can do that,” and then off the top of my head, made it. But that is okay–I remember how it went and can recreate it at will. That is the delight of simple recipes–they can all live in one’s head for years without having to be codified.)

And then, there is the case of the Persian Pomegranate Soup.

Hilarie and Mark, the owners of Salaam, wanted me to run the soup as a special as soon as they read my post on it. I finally got around to it this weekend–I made it yesterday, only to find that it was ordered by only two people–one of whom, admittedly loved it–she went out of her way to tell me so. She particularly praised the tenderness of the meatballs–they are tender, of course, because they are simmered gently in the soup broth without being browned in a pan first.

But, for some reason–whether it was the description I gave of it to our servers, or whether to many guests’ ears, the words “pomegranate” and “soup” do not belong in the same sentence together–I will never know–the special did not sell.

That can be a problem, of course, because if you make food that no one wants and you end up throwing it out–it raises your food cost.

Raising the food cost is A Very Bad Thing. (That last sentence, written in capital letters, in bold typeface, in neon glowing letters, underlined, in 30 point type, is emblazoned in my memory from culinary school and my experience in every professional kitchen. I now have it in my nature to never, under any circumstances waste food, even if it is at home for fear of RAISING THE FOOD COST! So, I am a little paranoid about that issue.)

No chef worth her salt will throw out perfectly good food just because some folks think they don’t like it. It is much better, and it keeps the dreaded food cost beastie under control, to change it into something else–this is called repurposing.

So, rather than come up with an entirely new special for tonight, or running a completely failed special from the night before, I took the soup and changed it into something else.

First, I strained the meatballs, rice and split peas out of the broth, and saved the meatballs, discarding the other solids. I added tomatoes, sauteed onions and garlic and chicken broth to the soup, and brought it to a simmer. I then formed and the rest of the raw meatball mix I had on hand so that I could add meatballs to the soup this afternoon–the meatballs are quite tender, and I was worried if I put too many in the soup at once, I would end up breaking them up as I ladled them up to serve them. I figured I could always make more fresh. These new meatballs were then joined by the old meatballs in the soup broth, so that the old ones could heat up. Once they were at temperature, I put them in a holding pan to keep them warm, and went to work on the broth.

I reduced it by one third, and added some sugar to balance the very tart pomegranate flavor. I added more tomatoes, and reseasoned it considerably. Then, I thickened it, and added a bit of butter and half-and-half to mellow it out, and finally threw in a blast of chile heat to further balance the sour notes of the original broth. (Building or, as in this case, rebuilding, a sauce is a balancing act. It is a teeter-totter of the senses, and in the case of this soup, the flavor profile was way overbalanced towards sour. Sugar is an obvious remedy–if you say to someone what is the opposite of sour, most folks will say sweet. Chile, however, while it isn’t exactly a taste so much as a sensation, also helps balance strong tastes like sour by giving the tongue something else to experience.)

Over the meatballs the silky-smooth sauce went, and the dish was now something different–Persian Sweet and Sour Meatballs. Served over rice, and garnished with a generous handful of pomegranate seeds and fresh herbs, it was excellent. The entire staff tried it and declared it better than the traditional soup, and lo and behold, the public agreed–and ordered it gladly.

So, while the pomegranate soup may never appear on our tables again, the similar,yet different, meatballs probably will. (Though I will go about making it next time without going the long way around by making soup first and then making a pot of tender meatballs with kickass sauce. I’ll just make it straight up, with no forays into soupdom.)

It is a balancing act–pleasing the palates of people you have not met yet.

I guess it might help if I were psychic.

Maybe I should read Tarot cards before coming up with my dinner specials. It might help.

(Now that I think on it, card or palm reading would fit in with all the bellydance, Silk Road ambiance and exoticism that Salaam has to offer. Maybe I should mention it to Hilarie. Or not. Nope. Not. Definately not. A card reader would take a valuable table, and we’d have to feed him or her, which would raise the food cost….but it is still a kind of funny thought. But then, I am easily amused.)

The special this week I was most worried about turned out to be quite popular indeed.

I made a very modified version of my Chicken Vindaloo with Mango that included coconut milk–a somewhat traditional variation on my usual way of making it, and I was worried it would be too spicy with chile or mustard heat for our guests. Now, granted, I cut back on the chilies from my usual amount, but I didn’t skimp on the mustard seeds, ginger, garlic, cumin, tamarind or anything else. There was plenty of all the good stuff in there–and the result, even with the creamy coconut milk chilling it all out, was still spicy enough to make a carnival in the mouth.

So, I was a bit apprehensive about it.

I shouldn’t have been. The staff loved it, and apparently this love carried over in the servers’ descriptions of the dish, because it went quite fast both last night and tonight, and not one person complained of the spice level.

It just goes to show that you cannot predict how diners will react to any given flavor combination, dish, ingredient or description of same.

You just have to keep at it: consistently put out great food, build up a trust between the kitchen and the diners, and if a dish fails–analyze it, then repurpose it into something which has more likelihood of success.

Lest the dreaded dragon of high food cost be awakened to rampage through the pantry, kitchen and dining room.

And in the midst of all that–remember to keep it fun and love what you are doing.

Because that good attitude, generosity and sense of fun come across in your food, and can make all the difference in the world.

12 Comments

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  1. It’s so obvious how much you are LOVING making these specials, even with the challenge of mind-reading.

    I am LOVING hearing about it all!

    Comment by Deborah — December 1, 2007 #

  2. re: box o’ onions .. remember grasshopper … “wipe on, wipe off” .. its all part of a whole. If they were making you assemble motherboards or call bad creditors yeah, thats not part of the love… cutting onions .. thats love which makes the food so much better.

    Glad to hear that your forays into special making is being received so well!

    Comment by nika — December 2, 2007 #

  3. I’ve never worked professionally, except a brief stint, but I am fascinated by this whole subject. The clever use of ingredients on hand. The creativity in pairing. And most especially the naming. I suspect, as you do, that people were gun-shy about “pomegranate” and “soup” being used together, but that if you had called it “Persian sweet & sour meatball soup” it would have had a bunch of orders. It seems to me the best names are those that have a) a familiar ingredient with b) a new twist added. Just enough of the new to get people to go “aha” but not so much of it they balk. But who knows…this is not my world.

    I admit that I am the contrarian who tends to order the wierdest thing on the menu. My assumption being that I can make a nice rocket salad with shaved parm at home, but when I eat out I want something I cannot do, or don’t have the ingredients to do.

    Rambling on to another topic: I have a “pulled off a blog” recipe for shrimp and feta that I have had a year now and been a bit unexcited about trying, but maybe I’ll give it a go based on this story!

    Comment by Diane — December 2, 2007 #

  4. Barbara, I have to admit, the idea of Persian Pomegranate Soup (containing lamb meatballs) sounds very strange to me while Sweet and Sour Persian Meatballs sounds intriguing. Maybe it’s all in the name? Maybe if the soup had been named Sweet and Sour Persian Meatball Soup it would have had more takers!

    Val

    Comment by valereee — December 2, 2007 #

  5. As someone who has been known to read tarot cards a time or two, I can say that they tend not to give precise guidance (particularly in terms of creating dishes). You’re much better off listening to the testimony of your colleagues and diners. :)

    And thanks for your restaurant posts! I’ll never cook in a restaurant (and don’t aim to) but your posts give a great window into the profession for those of us who have the luxury of ordering the food, not making it for paying customers. Thank you so much.

    Comment by Winslow — December 2, 2007 #

  6. One problem I’ve noticed when we serve “soup” in the restaurant is that while soups get ordered at lunch, people don’t seem to think of a soup as a meal at dinnertime. If something could be reasonably described as a “stew”, however, people will order it at dinner. Just a little rule of thumb that has become apparent during the past year :-) Also, I just wanted to mention how lucky your employers are to have someone as aware as you are of the need to control food costs (while keeping food quality high, of course!) Brava!

    Comment by Hilarie — December 2, 2007 #

  7. Your Greek Shrimp and Feta Casserole reminds me of a dish I ordered at a Portuguese restaurant in Boston… shrimp, tomatoes, and cheese sounded like a weird combo, which I was a bit apprehensive about, but it ended up tasting amazing! It was simple, but the ingredients combined perfectly. I’ll have to learn to recreate it, as there aren’t a lot of Portuguese restaurants where I live now in Vermont – I’m glad to hear it was an easy recipe to make!

    Comment by Rae — December 2, 2007 #

  8. As someone writing about how much exists in America, I loved hearing about your repurposing. Turning pomegranate soup into Persian sweet and sour meatballs didn’t sound easy, though. Do culinary schools teach chefs how to actually repurpose food or do they just stres the idea of keeping costs down? If they don’t, is it just learned through trial and error?

    Comment by Jonathan Bloom — December 3, 2007 #

  9. The name and description play such a big role in it all…I love the way you repurposed the soup.
    I do remember the ‘keeping food costs down’ bit from my long ago (and much simpler) restaurant days!

    Comment by Katie — December 4, 2007 #

  10. I am loving hearing about the mental processes of cooking in a restaurant. Your mention of food cost in this article made me wonder — how do you handle serving size? I presume that this is related to both food cost and diner preferences, just like what to make. How do you serve enough that people are satisfied, but not so much that they don’t eat it all and some is wasted? Usually when I go to sit-down restaurants I end up with too much food, which would seem to be a no-no…

    Comment by Alexis — December 5, 2007 #

  11. Well, first of all, about the Tarot card reference….

    I have read Tarot for years, and used to do it for a living. Ok, I didn’t charge enough to make a living, but I used to read them for the public, and that means that I have read them A LOT. And boy, let me tell you, part of my joke in mentioning them was how absolutely useless they would be in coming up with dinner specials that folks would like.

    A crystal ball would probably be more help.

    Well not really, but you get the idea.

    Food cost and portion control go hand in hand, Alexis. There are formulae used to cost out a single serving of any given menu item–in fact, I was taught that the most profit-minded restaurateurs used these formulae, but me–well–I don’t think I have the discipline to sit and figure all of that out. Unless I had to, which means, if Hilarie really wanted me to, I could drag out my book, look up the formula, look at the wholesale cost sheet and go to town. I might go barking mad, mind you, but I could do it.

    Portion sizes in most American restaurants are fairly heinous, Alexis–and that is sad. The fact is, that the prices charged for those dishes are fair–wholesale food is quite cheap, you know, so the food cost stays low while portions look gargantuan.

    One of the ways we deal with portion control in restaurants is through the use of measured scoops, ladles, and plates that look like they hold more than they do.

    I am pleased to say that while the portions at Salaam are generous–they are not overly huge. They are all reasonable, and that makes me happy. If there is one thing I cannot stand is an overwhelming pile of food like you get a places like the Cheesecake Factory.

    I have to agree with everyone about the name issue for the soup. I shouldn’t have gone with a direct translation from the Farsi. I should have named it something like Sweet and Sour Persian Meatball Soup.

    But, then if I had done that, I would never have had a chance to repurpose the dish into something else–which was really kind of fun.

    Comment by Barbara — December 6, 2007 #

  12. Thanks for your response. I’m happy to hear that you all keep the size in mind. Not that I mind going home with an ‘extra’ serving, but sometimes there is not enough left for that and too much to eat!

    Comment by Alexis — December 10, 2007 #

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