When it comes to the holidays, you either look forward to planning a creative and festive menu or dread it --wondering how you can combine the taste and style of your restaurant with the festive season.
Like most seasonal menus, your holiday selection can start by looking at what’s available locally. According to a recent survey put out by Starchefs.com, since 2005 there has been a 15% growth in the number of chefs who focus on seasonal ingredients, during various times of the year. With this in mind, an easy way to start building your menu is to check out the winter vegetables such as squashes, pumpkins, nuts and dried fruits and look for ways to incorporate them into your menu.
Produce is only the beginning when it comes to seasonal fare. Wild game including quail and elk are also popular festive items especially in higher-end restaurants, and so are rich reductions and cognac or port enhanced sauces.
Holiday Flavours Follow the Season
The colours of the season are rich and warm and the food generally follows the same tone. Tradition also plays a key role when it comes to holiday menus, but keep in mind that “tradition” doesn’t mean it has to limit your creativity. It’s how you use the traditional foods that will make your menu unique.
Executive Chef Marc Lepine agrees with this philosophy. He says he develops his holiday menu with the festive season in mind and uses ingredients many of his customers are familiar with and associate with holiday eating. “I like to include traditional items such as pecans, chestnuts, mashed potatoes and warm bread pudding with butterscotch,” says Lepine.
Lepine knows what he’s talking about when it comes to menu planning. Not only did he win the “Chef of the Year” award presented by the Canadian Culinary Federation for the Ottawa Branch, he also won the prestigious “Chef of the Year” award for Eastern Ontario and Quebec. Lepine currently is the Executive Chef at the Courtyard Restaurant in Ottawa and his 2006 holiday menu consists of both traditional and non-traditional festive foods.
“I like to include ingredients you wouldn’t usually have at home,” says Lepine. “Otherwise why would you want to go to a restaurant?”
Adding Your Own Festive Flair
As a Chef, many of your customers are familiar with your culinary style --whether it’s through the creative use of spices or the use of signature ingredients. While Lepine’s festive menu consists of familiar entrées such as steak, roasted chicken breast and mashed potatoes, it’s his use of non-traditional ingredients including pomegranates, quince and rocket salad that make his menu special.
Even traditional turkey and stuffing can be personalized with your own style by adding shitake mushrooms to the stuffing or seasoning the turkey with a different type of spice. Gnocci and stuffed pastas can be made festive by changing the stuffing to butternut squash or a combination of chicken, sundried tomatoes and cranberries.
Lepine adds festive sauces and chutneys to his courses to create signature holiday themed dishes. For example, his striploin steak is complemented by a three-peppercorn-cognac sauce and his chicken is dressed up for the holidays with a pomegranate-quince-coriander chutney.
Desserts and drinks are other menu items that can have a seasonal flavour. Mint hot chocolate, apple cider and hot red wine garnished with berries all make excellent end of meal beverages.
Begin Your Festivities Early
Unlike Mother’s Day, Valentine’s and New Year’s, the holiday season lasts more than a day or even a few weeks, giving you the chance to draw in new customers and increase your bottom line. It’s also a time when companies book corporate parties and individuals tend to eat out more. Many corporations start planning their holiday venues in the fall.
A holiday menu doesn’t need to dominate or take away from your day-to-day offerings. Some restaurants generate excitement and extra revenue by providing set holiday menus with wine pairing, while others switch up their daily specials to their holiday inspired meals.
Don’t forget to promote your new offerings. An insert in your regular menu is an inexpensive way to let your customers know you have something new and so are table-top signs. If your restaurant has a website, make sure you post your holiday menu online. In addition to displaying your daily entrées, use your promotional items to broadcast that you are available for catering and parties. The holiday season is a time for entertaining. You never know who will come across your menu.
By Michelle Ponto