Every chef wants their guests to LOVE their menu. There are few nicer feelings than knowing that customers can hardly make up their minds when deciding what to order; everything just sounds so great! The opposite situation, where nothing on the menu really does it for them, is as devastating (in terms of ego and finances) as the first is excellent.
In composing a menu that will be attractive to your guests, you are putting together a group of choices that you hope your customers will really want to eat. Whenever you’re trying to get someone to want something you’ve got, it’s always good to try to be objective. Put yourself in their shoes and see the situation from their perspective. One of the first things you’ll notice is that it’s a lot easier to sell someone something if they already want it. Different people in your dining room will certainly want different experiences from the meal you provide them. An incredibly fresh piece of perfectly grilled wild salmon, a hauntingly complex osso buco or an expertly finished vinaigrette will always, thankfully, have their admirers. Great ingredients, perfectly prepared and seasoned are popular for a reason.
But besides the obvious merits of the food itself, one of the main things your guests want, and consequently, one of the easiest things for you to sell them, is fond recollections. Since many of a person’s happiest memories are related to food, and you’re in the business of providing food, why not make the most of the association? Fond memories are, by definition, specific to a time and place. This is where regional food as comfort food comes in. If a plate of crispy fried chicken, green beans with ham hocks, biscuits and mashed potatoes with cream gravy will cause a guest in your dining room to recall his summer of love in ’72 in Savannah, Georgia, that’s good for everybody. It will even be more special if your restaurant is in Fort Lee, New Jersey. At the other extreme of “things your guests already want”, is a taste of the slightly exotic. Here, regional cuisine also fits the bill. Even though the country is shrinking and, for instance, it’s a lot easier to get Texas Barbeque outside of Texas than it used to be, it still will be a change from the norm in, let’s say, Vermont.
With all of this in mind, let’s look at the cuisines from three disparate regions of the United States: The Southwest, The Southeast and New England, and see how they can help make your menus more appealing, wherever your restaurant happens to be.
The Southwest covers a lot of territory in many ways, including styles of food. A few of the cuisine’s major influences are pre-Hispanic Mexico (chilies, beans and corn), German settlers (wiener schnitzel certainly influenced the beloved chicken-fried steak), current regional Mexican cuisine, ranch and cowboy cooking (steaks and barbeque, among other things) and “Tex-Mex” (to cooking what “Spanglish” is to language: twice the vocabulary, half the grammar.)
One common theme of this cuisine is the idea of using a tortilla, corn or flour, to wrap something up in. “Enchilada” implies a corn tortilla (yellow, white, blue or red) heated until pliable over a direct flame or in hot oil, rolled around various fillings (beef, chicken, cheese, rice, beans, chilies…) and served on a plate, usually with a sauce. The sauce can either be red, made with dried chilies, tomato, garlic, herbs and spices, or green, made with fresh chilies, garlic, herbs and spices. In New Mexico, the typical enchilada is made with blue corn and the sauce is green, made with local Hatch Chilies, and contains incredibly tender pork. A “taco” is a corn tortilla, folded into a “U-shape” and deep-fried until crisp. It’s filled with meat, lettuce, tomatoes, salsa and cheese and usually eaten out of hand. A “flauta” is a deep-fried enchilada. Sour cream and chopped cilantro are common garnishes. Any of these items can be served as an appetizer, entrée or side dish.
Typical of the flavor profile of this food are cooked onions, garlic, chilies, cumin, coriander seeds, lime and fresh cilantro. The amount of heat will have to be determined by your market, but always remember that the goal with this food is a complex, well balanced, satisfying warmth, not something that feels like Vise-grips on your tongue. Experiment with different types of chilies, like poblanos, serranos, jalapeños and chipotles. Just as with different wine varietals, you’ll note many different flavors, aromas and, unlike with grapes, amounts of heat. Salsas and relishes are a very versatile staple of this cuisine; pico de gallo is a classic (chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and cilantro dressed with fresh lime juice.) Another popular garnish is guacamole (mashed avocado with lime.) Classic side dishes are rice and slow-cooked pinto beans. If you think an all out Southwestern dish might not work at you restaurant, consider using a small rice enchilada as a side dish, serving a Southwest-inspired roasted poblano-garlic sauce on a grilled rib eye or using a tomato-jicama salsa on seared snapper.
In Texas, despite the overall popularity of beer, and a nascent but promising wine industry, the state drink is the Margarita. A genuine, Texas Margarita is not the sugary confection popular elsewhere. To experience the real thing try this formula: three parts high quality white tequila, two parts Cointreau and one part fresh-squeezed lime juice. You can either shake it and have it straight up, or pour it over ice. Either way, the rim can be salted or not, depending on your blood pressure. It can be made in batches for your “Night in Texas” special.
The Southeast has some of the most distinctive and appealing cuisine anywhere on the planet. The English were the first European settlers there, and their early cuisine was influenced by the Native Americans as well as the amazing variety of seafood, game and vegetation they also found on arrival. The Dutch, German, French and African people who followed all added their influences. Agriculture thrived, as did an avid interest in that unique entity, Southern Hospitality.
One of the most iconic Southern dishes is country ham, a salted, smoked and dry aged ham. The Smithfield Ham is Virginia’s answer to the Parma ham, although in Parma, they’re not smoked. While Smithfield hams, which have their own appellation, are considered by many to be the ultimate in country hams, there are certainly others to choose from. In fact, some of the others may not be aged as long, resulting in a milder product, which might be preferable depending on your customers. Baked country ham with redeye gravy is as Southern as it gets, especially if you accompany it with a variety of vegetables, which play a big part in this cuisine. Some of the classics are pickled beets, black-eyed peas, glazed carrots, corn on the cob, green beans with ham hocks, braised okra and tomatoes, fried okra, fried sliced green tomatoes, mashed potatoes with cream gravy, succotash (corn and lima beans), sweet potatoes, candied yams, greens (turnip, collard or mustard) and Hopping John (peas, rice and ham hocks). And those are just some of the classics. Rice is also a very popular side dish, often served with brown gravy.
Fresh biscuits and cornbread are another staple. To cause any real Southerner to actually reminisce, you’ll have to bake them in batches, throughout the night. It will be worth it. These items are very inexpensive, easy to make with just a little bit of practice, and real crowd pleasers. Great recipes are easy to come by, and there are a number of good mixes available. Make the cornbread in pre-heated cast iron utensils to get a distinctive, crunchy golden brown exterior. Garnish the cornbread batter with whole kernels of corn for something extra-special. Another classic Southern quick-bread are hush puppies: deep-fried football-shaped cornbread dough, usually served with fish. Fried catfish is the perfect choice. While we’re talking about cornmeal, let’s not forget about grits. Cornmeal mush, Southern polenta, whatever you call it, it’s not just for breakfast anymore. Shrimp and grits is a great dish to serve as an appetizer or entrée.
Desserts are a very important part of the Southern repertoire. Pies couldn’t be more popular. Peach, pecan and key lime pies are obvious choices, but there are others just as representative. Chess pie (a very sweet, slightly lemony custard), coconut pie, blackbottom pie (chocolate custard with a thin coating of tempered chocolate “painted” on the bottom crust), sweet potato pie, lemon meringue pie, butterscotch pie, peanut butter pie, and strawberry pie are all familiar choices in this part of the country. Benne wafers (thin rounds of sesame seed brittle) are very popular and make a great garnish on many desserts, or as a little give-away on the table with coffee. Rice pudding, banana pudding and bread pudding (with a nice, warm Bourbon sauce) would all feel at home on a Southern-themed dessert menu, as would fruit cobblers served with ice cream.
While sweetened iced tea and Coke may be the quintessential Southern drinks, having your waiters present mint juleps as an integral part of a particularly Southern dish on your menu will help get your check average up. They really are a great cocktail, and not just on Derby Day.
If two of the most important parts of any region’s cuisine are the indigenous ingredients and a long enough history to make the most of them, then it’s no wonder that New England has some of the most varied and delicious food in the country. It has shellfish that’s second to none, a great variety of river fish, meat, poultry, dairy, grain, and top-notch produce, including delicacies like wild mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns. The Pilgrims landed there in 1620, adapted to many of the culinary ways of the Indians and, among a lot of other things, created the Thanksgiving Day feast. Later came the Shakers, Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans, and Portuguese, all of whom influenced the cuisine of the region.
Shellfish is probably the first thing that comes to mind when someone thinks of New England cuisine. The clambake, where lobsters, crabs, clams, corn, potatoes and other various seafood and vegetables are cooked in a pit dug on the beach, is classic New England, and not really practical for most (any?) restaurants. However, a reasonable facsimile can be produced. Think of it as sort of a steamed seafood platter, and a great summer menu item. New England clam chowder is just as tasty as it is obvious. The authentic article will consist of fresh clams, salt pork, onions, potatoes, milk or cream and butter. It works as a great one-pot, stew-like entrée, as well as a first course soup.
Cod is sort of the State Fish of Massachusetts. Baby cod is called “scrod” and is often covered with breadcrumbs and butter and broiled. If scrod or cod isn’t available, haddock or pollack will work as substitutes. Serve with boiled potatoes and a seasonal vegetable. Salt cod cakes, made with dry salt cod, potatoes, eggs and a little cream make a nice first course, fried golden brown and traditionally served with bacon. This dish definitely shows some influence from the Italian’s baccalà.
If cod is the most representative fish of the region, then the cranberry holds that post for fruit. It produces most of the word’s supply, and has for years. Besides in cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, try them in muffins, tarts, trifles and savory sauces on game. Maple syrup is another of the region’s well-known products. Maple ice cream, maple crème brulée or maple-glazed pheasant are a few ideas for this useful and distinctive ingredient.
There are a lot of things that you can do to make your menu more appealing to your guests. Taking various cues from the different culinary regions of our country will accomplish at least a couple of them in one stroke.