Expanding Restaurant Menu Ideas with Latin American Inspired Dishes
When seeking ways to add interest to their menus, it makes sense for pizzeria and casual dining operators to look south of the border for ideas. However incorporating exotic-sounding ingredients and unfamiliar recipes can be intimidating. At the recent Culinary Institute of America’s 2009 Latin Flavor conference, chefs provided practical strategies for expanding the culinary horizons of the consumer with Latin American inspired dishes.
The following excerpts from Restaurant Menu Trends: Authenticity vs. Accessibility in Latin American Dishes, by Christine LaFave Grace, was published in Restaurants and Institutions, October 28, 2009.
“Thanks in part to shifting demographics (people of Hispanic origin now represent 15% of the U.S. population) and the influence of popular cooking shows that spotlight Latin cuisines (Rick Bayless’‘Mexico – One Plate at a Time,’ for example), Americans are increasingly familiar with and accepting of a variety of Latin American staple ingredients and dishes, from chiles, black beans and coconut milk to tortas, tamales and ceviches. This means that operators, and not just those specializing in Latin cuisine, can find success in menuing more-traditional south-of-the-border-fare.
“More globally conscious though they’ve become, most American diners aren’t likely to latch on to, say, a Caribbean curried goat stew anytime soon. At The Culinary Institute of America’s 2009 Latin Flavors, American Kitchens conference in San Antonio in mid-October, Wilo Benet [restaurant owner and master chef] and more than a half-dozen other chef panelists offered their perspectives on authenticity and accessibility on menus.
‘‘Flavor to me still is the reigning parameter,’ said Benet, noting that flavor profiles more so than ingredients or preparations determine whether a menu item will find favor with guests (and generate word-of-mouth buzz). And today more than ever before, ‘You have to make sure that intensity of flavor is there,” he said. “Intensity seems to be what people are yearning for across the board.’
“Of course, creating intensity doesn’t mean adding chiles, spices such as cumin or herbs such as epazote with wild abandon. Chefs, in their enthusiasm for favorite (or new-to-them) ingredients, can easily go overboard. ‘It’s like how you should never know that cloves are in a dish,’ said Robert Del Grande, chef-owner of Cafe Annie in Houston and another panelist. ‘If you taste [a dish] and it screams cloves, it’s probably too much.’
“Del Grande’s advice: ‘Find the familiar ground first [with ingredients].’ Tacos and sandwiches are familiar presentations; diners may be more likely to try out-of-the-ordinary proteins or produce when the ingredients are stuffed into an always-approachable tortilla or crusty roll.
“How, then, to persuade diners to make the jump out of their culinary comfort zones? Don’t overexplain what you’re serving, Del Grande said. ‘You get them to try something new by making less of a big deal about it,’ he said. A dish’s description on the menu needn’t recreate the recipe–operators don’t need to call out every ingredient and preparation method employed (no matter how true to tradition each is). A brief summary of primary components will suffice for most diners. Those who know what’s ‘authentic’ and what’s not for a particular dish and are interested in learning more likely won’t hesitate to ask their server.
“In the end, Benet said, it’s easier for operators to encourage diners to explore new flavors when chefs allow for a little creative interpretation of traditional recipes. ‘Too authentic is not always the answer,’ he said. ‘A little tweaking to present [a dish] to a public that has certain likings is far better.’”
Liz Hertz is the Marketing Director of Burke Corporation.