[ in the kitchen ]
When it happens right, this is the recipe: Take a few heavy cocktails, add in a deadline and a hot shower at 1 a.m., and you have the beginnings of a new menu — or at least I do. The real trick is remembering what the hell I was thinking about after I've sobered up the next day.
When I drunkenly convinced the food editor of this rag, whom I ran into at Southwark, to let me write about how chefs make up their menus, he suggested I interview friends about how they wrote theirs. From here I got severely sidetracked. I thought to bring it up with Fork's Terence Feury one night, but then he whipped out a saber to teach me how to chop open a bottle of Champagne. David Katz from Mémé, meanwhile, is typically too busy telling jokes to provide me with insights. Worse yet, put either of them in a room with Zahav's Mike Solomonov and conversation will inevitably deviate into a game of "would you rather." (Example: Would you rather work as sous chef at Serafina for five years for $120,000 a year, or keep your current restaurant but have to lick your staff toilet? I would lick the toilet.) Point is, every chef has his or her own process. Mine took a long time to develop.
When Bistrot La Minette opened three-and-a-half years ago, I essentially lived there, working the line and prepping the hot-side vegetable station. Menu changes would sneak up on me. Weeks melted away, suddenly tomatoes would be out of season, and I would be scrambling to find the time to develop new dishes. While I was working, I couldn’t stop thinking about the day-to-day aspects of a restaurant — declining inventories, cash flow, trash removal. During my few precious (but barely conscious) free hours, my head would be swimming with possibilities. Nowadays my kitchen staff is more than twice as large, leaving menu writing as my top responsibility.
My office computer is like the dirty backseat of a car, but instead of umbrellas, empty Vitamin Waters and children's toys, it's littered with menu files. I spent an afternoon sifting through it all: cocktail parties, vegan tasting menus, buyout menus, regional dinner menus. I have written hundreds of these things, with some of my best ideas coming to me (where else?) in the shower.
It happened most recently this past Saturday after a busy pre-Valentine's service. With hot water pounding on the back of my neck, my mind stuck on an image: a flatfish filet (fluke would be the most durable and local) rolled up in a cone and stuck with a toothpick. Both sides dredged in flour, turning golden in a pan, basted with clarified beurre noisette (brown butter) and shallots. Warm buttered vegetables covering the plate ... ramps, peas, baby beets tossed with chives and lemon zest. There might be some sauce work. Savory tuiles? I have yet to decide, but I now have a note tacked to my office wall for this spring.
At Bistrot La Minette, we strive to be the most authentic French bistro we can be. That is the single biggest influence on the menu, which means my role is less creator than editor — all the dishes already exist. My first handicap is that I'm American. It has taken living in France, marrying a French woman, learning the language and tons of research to get a handle on what a bistro really is. Originally, these were restaurants run by Auvergnates for factory laborers who would get out of work in the early morning hours. They would go to late-night bistros to feast on economical dishes like braised kidneys and to chug cheap wine. In time, the term grew more general to mean a local haunt. Even now there are many types of bistros in France, from luxurious ones run by master chefs to holes in the wall operated by grandmas. My bistro is fancier than the average, but it remains a place where patrons have become my friends.
Those diners I know — and more importantly, the diners I don't — are a huge consideration when writing a menu. We as a city can be scared of "strange" foods. I have had more conversations than I can count involving people squirming at the mention of sweetbreads, tripe, foie gras or even frogs' legs. I'm sure there are folks out there that would devour, say, andouillette — an organ-filled sausage that, when pierced, splits like a tauntaun slashed by a lightsaber — but as awesome as that sounds, many more people would run screaming from the table. The majority of bistros in France have offal as their central concentration, not steak frites, which is more of a dish for brasseries or cafés. (Adding to the confusion, Stephen Starr's Parc, the grandest restaurant of its kind in Philly, calls itself both a bistro and a brasserie on its sign.)
Even with unadventurous eaters out there, Philly's chef-driven BYOBs are a great source for true bistro food. Both Lee Styer at Fond and Pierre Calmels at Bibou offer delicacies to our more ardent food lovers. While La Minette does attract diners seeking true French food, many people are looking for chicken or steak. We always have these meats on the menu — coq au vin, steak au poivre. I also always have a couple fish selections, plus duck and lamb (Cassoulet Toulouse and Gascony-style braised shank are currently on the menu). And then there are vegetarians. Unlike some chefs, I have sympathy for their situation, as my wife is a French vegetarian (perhaps the only one). When writing a menu, I make sure vegetarians can come a few times before repeating what they ordered.
There are also a few dishes that never come off. Even with all the plain-Jane eaters out there, my highest-selling appetizer is Burgundy snails cooked in garlic-herb butter. My best-selling entrée is rabbit braised in Dijon mustard and white wine. These have been tweaked over the years, but there is one dish that has remained unchanged since we opened, and that is my wife's gratin de pate — aka mac 'n' cheese.
When my deadline approaches, I get in early, spread out at the bar and start with the current menu, crossing out dishes, making notes anywhere there is space. I assemble all the scraps scribbled with shower ideas, manipulating them into a lineup that provides variety. Then I create a master list of changes, noting when they will occur. I meet with my sous chefs to hear their concerns. They are not gentle, and we often have debates about how to best tackle the logistics. The restaurant only has so many ovens, pots and burners. We make absolutely everything in-house and run out of space very quickly.
My written menu descriptions start in French — short, grammatically correct and pretty and poetic whenever possible. (I often send my mother-in-law the names on Facebook for approval.) I try to keep the English parts economical, while still listing techniques and ingredients. In the mid-'80s, menu descriptions were enormous paragraphs; by the late '90s, they had become so minimalist you barely knew what you ordered before it was in front of you. I want my descriptions to be informative without being boisterous.
My sous chefs and I then decide on a mode of attack. We start by offering a dish as a special if it is unproven. Then the changes fall in over two to three weeks. I always change the menu on a Friday, because my entire kitchen staff works on weekends so it is easiest to get everyone on the same page.
Eventually, I get restless and want to cook new things. Dishes will start to make me angry if I see them too often. This summer, we are getting rid of our entire menu and converting to a Provencal bistro from late June through September. We will say goodbye to many of the standards, but they won't be gone for good — you'll simply need to ask your waiter for mustard-braised rabbit or my wife's mac 'n' cheese, no password necessary.
Peter Woolsey is chef and owner of Bistrot La Minette at 623 S. Sixth St.