Although the tasting-menu trend may have peaked, this multi-dish approach to serving is still the calling card of many an upscale restaurant. And, while tasting menus sound great on paper – which hungry customer wouldn’t want to dispense with the painstaking task of choosing one dish out of so many when he or she can try almost all of them – they are not for everyone. Many patrons find that tasting menus simply too much food, and don’t want to finish a meal too full to move. Nonetheless, as a restaurant owner, introducing a tasting menu has advantages that should make it at least a worthwhile consideration.
What is a Tasting Menu?
A tasting menu is a meal composed of multiple small servings that highlight a chef’s culinary skills. Tasting menus can vary according to the availability of seasonal ingredients, and often include high-end foods, such as truffles or caviar. For one price – often a high one – customers are able to sample at least five, and as many as 20 dishes, in small portions, which would be prohibitively expensive (and way too hard on one’s stomach) if ordered as full-size servings off the menu.
For chefs and restaurant owners, offering a tasting menu gives kitchen staff license to be creative, and, because the portions are small, also allows the use of costly and unusual ingredients. For the guest, tasting menus offer a unique and memorable experience; if one is willing to splurge (as tasting menus tend to be pricey), and if one doesn’t mind yielding control to the chef in terms of food choices (non-adventurous diners should think twice), a tasting menu can offer a night to remember that is completely unlike a regular meal in a restaurant.
Creativity at the Fore
A tasting menu is a great chance for your team to display their culinary expertise, as well as the creativity that sets your restaurant apart from your competition. Careful and attractive plating and precise timing are also factors in serving a tasting menu; as a result, a tasting menu is a chance to shine and show off. Because your chef will be focusing on smaller portions, he or she can have latitude regarding ingredients and complexity, which may not be possible in full-size dishes. Showcasing your kitchen’s skills this way, is the ultimate form of advertising. While customers may not give your tasting menu a second go-round (given the time and money involved), they will surely return for a regular a la carte dish, after such an impressive meal.
Tasting Menu Pitfalls
With a 10- or 12-course menu, there is a risk that your guests could leave your restaurant feeling bloated rather than pleasantly satisfied. Even a four-course tasting menu could be too filling if the portions are too large, or every dish is too rich. Tasting menu courses are traditionally petite, but certain heavier and heartier items can fill guests up more quickly, and this should be avoided. If your guests are too full halfway through the tasting menu, you could end up with wasted ingredients and dissatisfied customers who felt like they didn’t get their money’s worth because they couldn’t finish every course.
To avoid this pitfall of the tasting menu, you should balance the menu, making sure to intersperse the heavier dishes with some lighter courses to cleanse your guests’ palates and prevent over-indulgence. Another possibility is to offer two types of formats; for instance, you can have both a 10-course and a 5-course tasting menu, so those with limited time or limited appetites can still enjoy the tasting experience.
Knowledgeable Staff is Key to Successful Tasting Menus
Offering a tasting menu requires that you train your staff in this particular way of serving. Many guests will be celebrating a special occasion, so extra care needs to be taken by your wait staff to ensure a fabulous night out.
Due to the nature of tasting menus, before a new course is served, the previous course needs to be completely cleared and fresh table settings should be placed. Wait staff needs to know what each course is – ingredients, cooking method, etc. – so that each course can be presented with a full and accurate description. In a way, your waiters are your guests’ guides for the evening, escorting your customers through an unusual and new culinary landscape. They should be knowledgeable, pleasant, and patient.
Pacing is one of the key elements in a successful tasting-menu experience; there must be a balance between enough time to savor and enjoy each course, versus the whole thing dragging on endlessly. For the restaurant owner, an overly lengthy tasting experience ties up tables, which, in turn, lowers profit margins. For the customer, it can be just plain boring. Every restaurant needs to synchronize front- and back-of-the-house activities; however, even more than for a regular meal, tasting menus require complete coordination between the kitchen and the wait staff to get the timing just right and create the perfect experience.
Tasting Menus: Not for Everyone
Tasting menus are not everyone’s cup of tea. The New York Times, in an article entitled, “Nibbled to Death,” claimed that tasting menus can often be too much of a good thing. Despite the chance to sample so many delicious and special dishes that may otherwise never be tasted, many people don’t have the patience, time or appetite for a four-hour eating marathon. Tasting menus take time and they invariably lead to customers leaving overly sated. At some point there will come the moment – usually right before the dessert course – that customers look as if they can’t take one more bite, or spend one more minute at the table, yet they still feel the need to “get their money’s worth.”
The price tag is also a hindrance; because of the time and skill investment on the part of the kitchen staff – as well as the sheer variety of dishes on offer – tasting menus are inevitably expensive, sometimes outrageously so. They are usually financially advantageous for the restaurant, but a heavy burden for the customers.
Therefore, you should think long and hard before making the move to a tasting menu. Perhaps survey your customers to find out what their thoughts are: if the price barrier is too high, if the time investment is too hefty, or if the idea of restricted choice is off-putting. If most of your regular customers seem less than thrilled with the prospect of a tasting menu, reconsider before jumping into the deep culinary end.
Tasting Menus: a Popular Choice
Although a tasting menu can be a complicated undertaking, with planning and creativity, it is a chance to give your guests an evening they won’t soon forget. Tasting menus are a chance for your customers to partake of a variety of outstanding and special foods, which they otherwise may not have a chance to do. When it comes to tasting menus, less is more: smaller, specialized portions are central to the concept. Tasting menus give chefs a chance to branch out, experiment, and utilize their creative license in the kitchen. It’s also a way for you to make money, while offering your customers a once-in-a lifetime experience. Overall, tasting menus are a win-win option for all.