A Fine Balance

They say it takes a community to raise a child. Building a menu at the Star is like that. While one person is in charge of writing it, it takes the whole team to nurture and perfect it.

We change the menu about three times a year. While we are always on the lookout for new menu items, about six weeks before we plan to introduce it, the menu mutterings start. Chef Joel says something like, “That sounds like a good item for the new menu.” I say, “I want a new menu before May long weekend.” Our food rep says, “We have some great new items coming in for summer.”

Then, on a cold and rainy day I sit down with some of my seasonal cookbooks and a few old favourites, and start marking recipes I find interesting. Joel does the same thing at his house. We watch the trade magazines, the blogs, the food lifestyle shows for what is trending, and think about what we might like to include and how we can make it our own.

These things take time. Ideas have to percolate. We have the talk about tweaking the concept, about how we can please our local customers and our customers from away, who often have different expectations. We talk about sourcing specialty ingredients, and how many special-order ingredients we want to have to stock on a regular basis. I start to have my interior pricing debates, especially at 3 am when my brain won’t shut down.

About a month before I want to see the new menu, I start to put the pressure on. “I need the menu by next week,” I say firmly. “You’ll have it Monday,” is the inevitable answer. Wild and wonderful things appear on the kitchen counter for staff to taste.

And that’s where the team comes in. Each of us has a good palate, but we each excel in one type of flavour profile. Sonia and Joel are good with spice, where my tolerance for heat is not very high. I therefore balance their extreme ability to handle five-alarm fires with my timidity in that area. I can often pick out a missing element like acid, or how far to push the seasoning on a dish without going too far. Bryton and Hannah represent young people’s likes and dislikes, while front-of-house staff advocate for traditional flavours.

Today, I tasted our house-made jerk sauce for the first time, not without trepidation given the heat level of other jerk sauces I have tried. Wow! I can identify many of the elements that went into it, but the sum of its ingredients is fantastic. “Don’t worry,” Joel says. “We toned down the heat for our customers.” I bless him silently.

Usually about 10 days before implementation, Chef Joel presents me with the menu. By this time he has consulted with the whole team, and has had many conversations with Sonia. He and Sonia know what the order list will look like, and I know what special ingredients I will have to source. All that is left is to type it, load it into the computer, and offer every new dish to the team to taste so they can speak with authority about the menu.

After the menu is pretty well set, I fret about pricing. We have not had many increases in pricing over the last three years but food and other cost steadily rise. We staff at bare minimum levels and continue to offer great service. Equipment breaks down, bills and wages need paying, money changes hands. I don’t want to sacrifice quality, but I want our food to be affordable.

 A fine balance indeed.