Nancy Dorman-Hickson 2015-09-01 02:50:11
Tasting menus allow chefs to guide guests on a culinary adventure. Tasting menus are the piece de resistance in a chef’s repertoire, marrying flavor, texture and presentation through multiple courses. “The idea of a tasting menu is to take people on a culinary journey that is orchestrated by the chef and the sommeliers, pairing food and wine perfectly so that it’s easy for the consumer,” explains Craig Strong, executive chef of Studio at Montage Laguna Beach. “The food and wine build upon each other in intensity, building to a crescendo to dessert.” Tasting menus are increasingly popular all over the country. Strong attributes the trend to the informal culinary education available to the general public with channels such as Food Network and through social media. “The general consumer is more aware of great food,” Strong says of recent years. “There’s just a lot more focus on the art of food.” Along for the Ride Though some may be hesitant to relinquish control of their meals, there are many reasons to sit back and simply enjoy the experience. “If you’ve already had a week full of decision-making, we’re going to help ease that,” Strong assures. Many diners appreciate having the stress of choosing dishes lifted from their shoulders; they receive unique bites, course after course, without even touching a traditional menu. Guests can relax and enjoy the food presented to them. For those who love to sample many dishes with unique ingredients, more courses mean more variety. Another influence of the culinary arts in the media, educated consumers are more open to trying new things, the chef adds. A typical restaurant choice of steak, potato and vegetables is like “playing one note in music for an hour,” he says. “With a tasting menu, you get that same amount of food spread out over six, seven or eight different presentations. It’s a well-balanced way of eating. And you get more excitement with more presentations.” Guests can also enjoy food that’s unavailable through ordinary channels. “You’re trying dishes that you’ve never had before,” Strong explains. “The taste and texture is something you cannot get at a supermarket. The fish that I have is from the best purveyors. The vegetables and fruits that I have are super ripe, sometimes picked and delivered on the same day, and the skill of my chefs in the kitchen is fantastic.” Frank Brunacci, vice president of sales for The Truffle & Wine Co., knows the ins and outs of tasting menus. As a Michelin-starred chef, he’s led acclaimed kitchens and has plans to open a tasting menu-only restaurant in Chicago in 2016. He says that tasting menus can include an educational element, inviting diners to be a part of the process while teaching about foods and their sources. “The story with something they’ve never tried before perhaps comes with a description of the farm that we’re using,” says Brunacci. “We’re having respect for the ingredients.” Culinary Storytelling This reverent approach to ingredients is an important one when crafting an exceptional tasting menu; chefs consider everything from the balance of flavors to the order of the courses. “You don’t want to lose [diners] on the first course,” Brunacci says. If a chef sends out a dish that overwhelms the other plates early on, the following courses might be seen as a letdown. A typical presentation may follow a common template: a cold course, hot appetizer, fish course, meat course, cheese course and dessert. Freddy Vargas, executive chef of Scarpetta Los Angeles at Montage Beverly Hills, explains, “Courses become a bit more complex as the meal goes on. Each one brings you on a journey of what the season is and what the chef had in mind during that time of year.” The same element of seasonality influences Strong’s dishes at Studio. “The scents of the season change and inspire me,” he says, describing the culinary developments from summer to fall. “When you’ve eaten your share of perfectly ripe peaches and apricots, you can smell the coolness in the air and you start thinking about pears and apples. I always think of mushrooms and the season changing into chestnuts.” These sensory encounters guide his decision-making. Once the initial foods are decided, they must be balanced with complementary flavors and textures. “You need something sweet and something acidic and, if something is rich, you need a little bit of bitterness,” Brunacci explains. “If [an ingredient] is subtle, then you need something a little more robust, like a crunch.” Table Settings Typically, tasting menus closely link the chef and the guests—which makes a table that is physically close to (or sometimes inside) the kitchen the perfect setting. Chef’s tables are often spaces set aside from the other diners that provide an exclusive and intimate view of the kitchen’s inner workings—prime real estate to observe the magic that goes on behind the scenes. The Chef’s Table at Studio is adjacent to the kitchen. “[It] has a special menu and front-row seats to the show,” Strong says. “Even the plates are chosen just for that room.” The menu consists of six to eight courses and includes such fare as “Kobe beef, imported from Japan of A5 quality—the best there is in the world—and Périgord truffles served in a handmade, double-pane glass bowl,” Strong describes. “We have a cheese course, aged in a strip of spruce from the Vermont forest around the creamery.” Although the international delicacies of Strong’s chosen menu are a must-try, sitting at Studio’s Chef’s Table always affords customization for individual tastes and diets. Some diners opt for complete surprise: “People will say, ‘I want to put myself in the hands of a chef,’ ” Strong explains. He spends time chatting with the trusting diners about preferences, then creates a menu spontaneously. “It’s a surprise; you don’t actually know what you’re going to get. That’s for people who are very adventuresome. They say, ‘I trust you, chef. Go for it.’ ” At Scarpetta, Vargas also treats guests to singular meals at the Chef’s Table and Chef’s Counter, depending on the size of their party. Both provide an up-close view of chefs at work and offer customizable menus. Like at Studio’s Chef’s Table, Scarpetta’s Chef’s Table and Chef’s Counter offer opportunities to dine by the kitchen so guests can see how everything is prepared. Guests typically request seats at either option at least a week in advance. “The manager will call the guests about any dietary restrictions,” Vargas explains. “That gives me an opportunity to cater to their wishes.” In addition to being tailor-made for diners, tasting menus allow the strengths of hosting restaurants and chefs to shine. “The chef has a creative outlet to really express his style of cooking,” Vargas adds. Every tasting menu promises more than a meal; it assures an experience. “It’s a challenge to take three hours or so out of somebody’s life, and to have them be intrigued from the first course to the last, and to make sure that everything is flowing at the right pace, and that you’re hitting the right notes when you need to,” Brunacci says. If done right, “a tasting menu will create a culinary memory for our guests that lasts a lifetime.” PERFECT PAIRINGS When creating a tasting menu, the wine is crucial in the decision-making, says Craig Strong, executive chef of Studio at Montage Laguna Beach. “We’ll have a team of sommeliers who will taste the dish against the wine, then think about the nuances of the wine and what they’re sensing in the dish.” Much like the order of the courses on a tasting menu, wines have a natural sequence in which they should be served. “Generally speaking, you’re going to start with lighter ones and move into heavier ones,” explains Troy Smith, Montage Laguna Beach’s beverage manager. “The first thing that we look at is the protein. You don’t normally start with a big, heavy rib-eye then follow with a Dover sole because the intensity of the steak would be much bigger than sole. “It’s a similar process with the wines,” he continues. “Because the progression of the foods gets more intense and richer as you go forward, so do the wines.” He adds that sommeliers frequently match the texture of the wine and the food as well. “For example, a rich, oily fish calls for a fuller-style wine to match texture.” Sauce accompaniment also factors into the synergy. Sommeliers also consider regional pairings. “If the chef is doing something that’s evocative of a particular location, we look to wines from that same region first because that’s a natural pairing,” Smith explains. “It offers the sommelier an opportunity to tell the story.” “Our sommeliers are fantastic at what they do,” Strong says. “We have 2,500 wines on our list. The beauty of the tasting menu is that they’ve thought about these 2,500 wines and which one would be absolutely perfect for each course.”
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