From Food Porn To Food Cost: Balancing Profit with Creativity

One of the most fun parts of working as a chef is the creative puzzle of coming up with off-menu specials that will not only wow diners, but which keep food costs low.

Food cost is something that every chef and line cook is acutely aware of–it is a fact of life in every restaurant, from the busiest upscale dining spot to the roadside diner. One must always strive to give the diner the highest quality food possible: the best flavors, colors and textures on a plate while still managing to keep costs low–optimally, under thirty percent of operations costs.

Keeping food costs low is going to become a greater priority in the coming months and years as fuel costs soar. Oil prices will not only affect gasoline prices and thus transportation costs for our food system, it will also directly affect food production costs. Many fertilizers are petroleum-based, and with more corn going to the production of ethanol, grain prices both for human consumption and animal feed have risen drastically, and will likely continue to do so. (I predicted all of this over a decade ago when I was in culinary school, mind you–I knew that once oil prices rose, the artificially low American food prices would also rise. Unfortunately, I was right. I wish I wasn’t.)

I like the challenge of making up new dishes that utilize items that we already have in our pantry. To me, that is as much fun as having a limitless pantry stuffed with exotic staples. Having limits tends to boost my creativity, instead of dampen it.

Take for example, the appetizer pictured above: Dates a l’Aziz.

This appetizer came to me in a dream as I was waking up one morning, and the more I thought about it, the better it sounded. With the exception of the chevre, it uses exclusively pantry items, from the moist, delicious medjool dates which we normally stuff with pecan halves and offer as a dessert, to the Turkish Kirmizi chili flakes to the pomegranate molasses, down to the sugar and spices with which we sugar the pecans.

It is a simple preparation of chevre flavored with pomegranate molasses and spices which is then stuffed into dates. The exposed cheese is then rolled in a mixture of sugared, spiced pecans and chili flakes. We serve them at room temperature so the flavors are at their height and we price them individually, so diners can order as many or as few of them as they like.

In order to market them, we made up a gorgeous platter of them arranged with mint leaves and parsley sprinkles, which servers brought to each table soon after seating. Letting diners see the appetizers first hand is even better than the most delectable verbal description either in a menu insert or from the server–people eat with their eyes after all. Waving a beautifully presented appetizer under a hungry person’s nose is like having a lingerie-clad nymph flitting in front of a lonely man–salivation, and desire are immediate.

These dates ended up to be a great hit among diners, while not hitting our food cost below the belt.

Which, in my world, is a perfect balance between profit and creativity.

7 Comments

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  1. I made a (less sexy!) version of this for Thanksgiving this year – dates, stuffed with chevre. Mmmmmmmmm…..They were snapped up right away.

    Comment by Diane — March 30, 2008 #

  2. “I like the challenge of making up new dishes that utilize items that we already have in our pantry. To me, that is as much fun as having a limitless pantry stuffed with exotic staples. Having limits tends to boost my creativity, instead of dampen it.”

    This has been my working definition of “being able to cook” ever since I acquired that desire. It’s also the basis of my goal for a retirement job: a cooking column that’s heavy on the reader questions. I’m much better at improv than explaining the four* different standard cake types.

    I can date the source of my desire exactly. I was on a hiking trip and supply had goofed: they gave us a 7 day ration for a 9 day period. There was plenty of food but it was getting hard for us high school & college kids to figure out how to turn the odds and ends into a meal. On the last night our instructor took pity on us. He had us put all the food out, set up camp and the kitchen, and go away. In two hours he had a tasty meal for us. At this remove all I remember was he made a white sauce off the top of his head (ooh!).

    I wanted to be able to do that: to take what was at hand and make a meal from it. Eventually I achieved that goal and have been cooking ever since. It also means I can buy what’s cheap and tasty (usually the same thing, since what’s cheap is what’s plentiful, which is what’s in season, which is what’s tasty) and then figure out what to do with it. It does make it hard to try new recipes because I’m out of the habit of planning meals before I go shopping.

    * Number approximate.

    Comment by Harry — March 31, 2008 #

  3. Don’t you love what comes out of your head when you’re just waking up in the morning? With me, usually it’s a really crazy idea that has some sliver of something useful in it.

    Comment by Christy — March 31, 2008 #

  4. Now I know what I want to make for the next neighborhood get together :)

    Comment by christopher gordon — March 31, 2008 #

  5. YUM!

    Comment by Alexis — March 31, 2008 #

  6. I love the occasions when I end up at a friends house and they need something to eat but for some reason a trip to the store is not possible and they don’t know what to make with what they have on hand. I open the fridge and cupboard doors and scan everything letting my mind go nuts. I love it and they are happy.

    Nothing better than cooking for friends.

    Comment by Jeff — April 1, 2008 #

  7. Nice to know that every food lover feels the money pinch. I’m still amazed at how much more I could buy a few years ago with the same money now.

    Comment by vegoftheweek — April 2, 2008 #

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