Making a meal of it
Top chefs explain how to create menus that bring in the diners and the dollars.
The head chefs working in the region’s luxury hotels have a tough dual role — to create an exciting menu offer in their outlets, and to generate significant revenue for their hotel. With close to a quarter of a hotel’s gross operating profit generated by F&B outlets (according to the Hotelier Middle East GM Survey 2009), chefs are responsible for a huge amount of money.
Therefore, menus have to be engineered carefully, taking into account food costs, profit spinners and guest appeal. This is a complicated process, with market demographics, ingredient availability, target audience and creativity all playing vital roles.
Hotelier Middle East selected six of the region’s top chefs and brought them together at Dubai’s best restaurant (as voted by Time Out), Rhodes Mezzanine at Grosvenor House, to discuss these issues and drill down into what lies behind a money-making menu.
Joining chef Paul Lupton from the host restaurant was Scott Price of Verre at Hilton Dubai Creek, together representing the high-end celebrity chef outlets, Southern Sun’s Geoff Haviland to give the executive chef opinion, Sam Alex from Six Senses Zighy Bay in Oman to educate on the concept of zero carbon and raw cuisine menus, and Spice Emporium at The Westin’s Khampun Plangthaisong and Asado at The Palace’s Norberto Palacios, both experts in offering authentic cuisine.
From establishing best sellers and chef’s tables through to offering fixed price dinners and allowing off-menu ordering, the highlights of the debate are revealed here.
When developing your menu, how do you find the happy medium between using you creative passions and complying with budgetary constraints?
Geoff Haviland: When you’re writing a menu, there’s a couple of key ingredients. There’s the creativity as one aspect, but the menu writing must be commensurate with the demographic of the customer base, because a restaurant is aimed at certain members of the public. So, therefore, you have to take into account factors such as ‘what is their budget, what price range are they talking about?’ It won’t dictate but it will certainly influence which ingredients you purchase. You have to look at your guest expectations.
For example, I changed the menu in Nezesaussi, which is an Australian/South African/Kiwi pub grill. They wanted it to be upgraded but it’s such a stalwart on the bar scene. We actually took away the bar and changed it to Nezesaussi Grill, increased the number of steaks on the menu, and got a specific supplier in, but there is only so much you can tweak it because you start getting a backlash from your regular guests. You have to balance it — you don’t want to get too creative to the detriment of your key customer base.
That’s where menu engineering comes into it, you look at the amount of profit you make on your bestsellers and what you dictate is a best seller — this is where you make a key profit margin — but then again you have another item on your menu where you say ‘I don’t want to look at food costs because food costs don’t pay the bills’. So if you’ve got a lobster dish or a foie gras dish where you make AED 150 (US $41)profit on that dish but you’re running a 50% food cost, it’s still AED 150 in your pocket you didn’t have the night before.
When you’re justifying your menu to a director of finance / cost controller / the boss, you actually have to do a sales pitch. This is one of the challenges that most chefs will face — we would all love to have top ingredients, that’s what we do, that’s how we got into this industry, but the reality of life is there’s different strata.
Norberto Palacios: Sometimes limits will bring out your best. You have a small percentage to play with and you say ‘I want to use this’ and you must be the support to the cost controller because you love it, so you compromise — have it for three months and then change.
Where else can you find opportunities to be creative?
Paul Lupton: The concept of Rhodes Mezzanine is Gary Rhodes cuisine — Gary is famous for his new British classics. We don’t like to pigeon hole ourselves too much because a lot of people come to this restaurant for real English cuisine, but it’s actually Gary Rhodes cuisine.
My creativity comes in with the canapés or the petit fours; the actual menu has been specifically worked on with Gary, but if I have an idea I’ll speak to him about it. He’s very hands on. We try to change the menu four times a year.
Scott Price: I work for Gordon Ramsay and Gordon has got his style, so we try to adhere to that as much as possible at Verre.
With the à la carte menu, we try to keep it to what people expect when they come for a Gordon Ramsay menu, and we do speak to the people back in London to make sure the menus, while they are not linear, are not straying too far from what we should be doing. In a different way, we are in a different country with different cultures and the same thing doesn’t always work, so if you have to adapt to the environment then I think there’s nothing wrong with that.
I have freedom with things like the chef’s table. I can play around a lot with that, try different things and get people more involved with dining — it’s going to be a new concept. It’s bespoke for guests, we have about six people and we go out and do a bit of cooking with them at the table.
There’s a lot more theatre but it’s a private room in the restaurant and we go and explain all the dishes to them and get really involved. We are trying to give it a bit more of an up close experience, you’ve got a view of the kitchen, you’re more or less inside the kitchen. It’s really good for us to get to interact with the guests a bit more and it’s going to get launched next month hopefully.
How does the availability of ingredients influence your ability to be creative with your menus, especially in the authentic Thai and Argentinian restaurants represented here?
Khampun Plangthaisong: In Dubai we have a supplier from Thailand, mostly we order from The Greenhouse. I order fresh herbs and all the sauces are homemade. I can get all of the raw ingredients I need.
Norberto Palacios: Of course it is difficult but we can get the ingredients, for example, for us, steaks have to come from Argentina, there is no option. I would say 90% of the products I need I can get, I can get American products.
Sam Alex: At Six Senses we have our own garden; it is 1500m² and we are extending to 3000m². In 2008, it contributed 15% [of produce], in 2009 25%, and we are expecting by the end 2010 maybe 40%. Our principal is ‘slow life’, so in our F&B side we focus on local and organic, so nearly 35% on the seafood is from the local suppliers and 25% of meat we are getting from locals. It costs 50% less for us to buy products locally.
How do you control your food costs?
GH: I think in restaurants where you have an à al carte concept it’s much easier to control your food cost because you have a set menu. When you bring a buffet into the equation and you have all day dining — static buffets work great when you’re busy, but when the numbers go down you have to fill this big space and you haven’t got enough covers, which is what were seeing on the market now.
If you look you’ll see they start to chip away at the quality a little bit or they look for cheaper options. When your room occupancies are down it directly affects your revenues and what happens is that’s pushing your food costs up overall.
Just two weeks ago, we introduced [at Al Manzil] a concept that I want to work with at all our new properties — the all day dining changes its personality at night.
At one of the projects we’re doing in Abu Dhabi, the all day dining is all interactive, but at night we can screen some areas off. One aspect of the all day dining is this big charcoal grill, but at night it screens off and becomes a steakhouse, and then you’ve got the big display fridges and take all the mise en place out and put the steaks in it and it’s all hanging. You change the whole feel of the restaurant this way; we will change the name of it as well.
Most people will go out at night so but we can’t just shut down the buffet and have it empty because it doesn’t make any sense, so you have to think ‘how do I put the minimum product out there and still make it quite exciting?’
At Al Manzil, at what was previously a static buffet we introduced a live burger bar, so you’ve got all these garnishes and seven different burgers so guests can come up and create their own things. This is all incorporated into the à la carte menu, plus we have a live salad station, you design your own salad. These are not new concepts but better than actually having a static buffet — because these actually do cost a lot of money and this will actually push up the food costs overall.
What is your approach to offering fixed-price menus?
SP: In London, it’s standard that anywhere you go for dinner it’s kind of a set price menu, I find it quite strange here that everything is à la carte wherever you go. It’s good because if you have a dish that costs more you can just put the price up. But [fixed-price] makes it easier for anyone who comes in for dinner because its just one price. So now I do seven starters, seven main courses, seven desserts, and it’s AED 395 (US $107) and they get a choice. I have a supplement on roast foie gras — AED30 ($8) covers it, that’s it, its not like I’m putting AED100 ($27) on it to make more money.
About three or four weeks ago I changed it and I think it’s made a marked difference; we picked up a lot of business, we’re getting busier rather than quieter over summer. I think it’s just easier when you go out for dinner when you see one price. The bill isn’t a surprise.
As a chef, it gives you an average spend. We’ve dropped the average price of the menu, but I think if you go in and realise the food is not as expensive as you thought it was, sometimes you spend a bit more on alcohol. I’d rather have a busy restaurant and make a little bit of money than have 10 covers and make a lot of money.
NP: I found here it is very difficult to sell a set menu when compared to Europe. Over there, you will do whatever the chef is telling you, that will be fine. But here no. People want to try whatever they want. So normally I use a set menu just to communicate a special night for example. Last month, we had the independence day of Argentina so we created a set menu of traditional dishes — one starter, main and desert, priced at AED 295 ($80) – and it was really good because a lot of Argentineans came. Out of 120 people, 90 opted for the set menu so it was very good. I’m pretty sure if I used the same concept on a regular evening then it would not work.
PL: With the à la carte menu we charge individually for the dishes. We’ve tried to do it so that there’s a range of prices on there, so you can spend as much or as little as you want to a certain extent. Even our tasting menu, we don’t do a set tasting or degustation menu, we have a choice of small tasting dishes, so the guest chooses their own menu — that seems to be very popular since the start when we opened. We do four/five course menus on a lot of tables and it works very well.
SA: We have six set menus, two starlight menus, a zero carbon menu, meat-free menus and raw cuisine menus. With the zero carbon menu we don’t get anything from outside, so what we grow in the garden we use. Every Tuesday we do a meat-free menu across the whole resort. People can mix and match across the six set menus. In every menu we have seven courses; average cheque at Sense on the Edge comes to OR70 ($182).
KP: My set menu is AED 220 ($60) for two courses; it’s quite popular.
How important is menu labelling?
PL: We don’t include nutritional values — you don’t come here to lose weight for sure. But maybe with fast food, it’s good to know what you’re eating.
Some guests do ask for as little fat as possible and you try to make your menu fit. We label alcohol, pork, dairy, wheat.
SA: We always mention the calories on our raw cuisine menus at Sense on the Edge. It is zero fat.
GH: There seems to be a bit of a trend now with some hotels around the world introducing a colour to represent different calorific contents. So if something is reasonably low fat they are giving it zones, you don’t need to read through this endless list of calories and what the ingredients are. If you want to eat something reasonably healthy, go to the green section of the menu. I know in Australia it’s quite popular and it seems to be catching on.
How do you react when a guest wants to order off menu?
SP: It depends how off menu. There is flexibility, you can’t just tell them no.
KP: Some of my European guests know their Thai food very well, if they say the name of a dish I try to cook it for them from the ingredients I have.
PL: It is easier when a guest makes a request in advance. When a guest turns up to the table and says I can’t eat this or this, then their experience is not what it could be.
GH: Especially in Dubai, guests are very demanding, so you have quite a bit of flexibility built into your menu. There’s also guest loyalty. There’s so much competition in Dubai so if you have somebody that is going to come back again based on that one experience [you need to try to meet their requests].
NP: Also if you have a guest the first time with a request, and you go and see him and do want he wants, for sure the second and the third time he will say ‘it’s up to you’.
SP: We’ve got vegetarian menus, but if someone says they are vegan then you just work around it
PL: Yes we’ve got some vegetarian menus, gluten-free is a regular, we have gluten-free bread, we have the canapés all done. We’re making food fresh in the kitchens, we know what’s in everything, so we can modify our menus quite easily.