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How to make a high-class restaurant menu

Nov 17, 2015

Lobster risotto is plated for the tasting at Element 47.
Credit Patrick Fort / Aspen Public Radio

  Lots of work goes into putting together a high-quality restaurant menu. What sort of ingredients should` be included? Are there any new trends to follow? Right now, chefs at Element 47 in the Little Nell in Aspen are trying to figure that out.

The menu includes things like sturgeon, potato mélange and molé tofu.

It sounds intimidating, but it’s no more complex than watching a few videos on YouTube or watching the Food Network for a few hours.  In a side room in The Little Nell’s Element 47, kitchen staff and the restaurant powers that be are tasting the items. A few plates are brought in at a time for everyone to sample and analyze.

Every detail in the building of a menu is scrutinized. The size of the individual ingredients. Minute flavor details. This process happens every season, until each and every plate is perfect.

Some changes that need to be made? The oysters in the fried oyster appetizer need to be bigger, and be plated better. The lobster risotto - complete with lobster mushrooms - needs to be portioned out differently. If it were served with a whole lobster tail, the price would be sky high. But of course, putting a market price item on the menu creates the sense of luxury.

Even the right plate is up for discussion.

An oyster dish on display for people to taste.
Credit Patrick Fort / Aspen Public Radio

Matthew Padilla, chef de cuisine of Element 47, says the menu that the staff will be serving up is something that comes together very organically.  

“A lot of these ideas come from us messaging each other, or us talking during service about what product we’re thinking about getting in,” says Padilla. “Ideas spawn from that. It’s kind of a discussion, and bouncing things off of each other.”

Ideas come from trips that the chefs go on. They travel and see a technique that they haven’t used before. Sometimes the crew will cook something during a slow shift just to see what happens. It takes a few months to come up with something that they are happy with.

The crew tries aging meats in fat, or filling pasta with roasted beets.

The staff has to ask some questions about each dish, and the broader span of the menu. Does it appeal to everyone? Does it favor one flavor too much? Does it hit all of the right price points? You have to have a safe dish too, something that someone who is a little less adventurous will find appetizing, usually chicken.

Padilla says a good menu goes beyond what types of food are on it. It is about appealing to the type of people coming to the restaurant.

“I think that a good menu is something that reflects the locality of the restaurant, use of technique and it’s gotta be balanced and approachable - especially for Aspen,” says Padilla. “People come here, and yes it’s a glamorous ski town, but it’s also where people want to go and relax. They don’t necessarily want to eat and go in here in a suit.”

As more of the prospective dishes are tasted, notes and recommendations are being taken. Some dishes like one with salmon are being seriously discussed. Did it taste good? Yes. Everyone all liked it, but there is a bigger conversation that will be had about the dish. Is salmon the right fish? Is it something that will have broad appeal?

Chef de Cuisine Matthew Padilla is in charge of organizing Element 47's fall menu.
Credit Patrick Fort / Aspen Public Radio

A similar conversation was being had about a dish that had sturgeon in it. Will diners be comfortable eating a rare fish in the mountains? What about something more common like halibut or turbo?

“A couple of dishes we have tweaks or we have to question whether we are gonna keep all of them,” says Padilla. “We also have to make sure that is balanced too. We don’t want too many meat dishes, we also don’t want too many fish dishes. It’s this constant balancing act. We could have an amazing dish that doesn’t make it to the menu because it doesn’t fit at that time.”

Sometimes the recipes are perfect like this mushroom bisque. It has foie gras, chestnuts. Black truffle. It arrives in a deep bowl. It’s a deep, earthy brown color with mushrooms and dried fruit and nuts. That creation will stay exactly the same.