Chefs & menu writing – a simple guide.

opinion

Earlier this week I posted on the social media about the terrible menu writing that chefs seem to impose on their customers. Whilst there are various ways to describe your dishes chefs, maybe you should just leave the actual writing of them to somebody who has a decent comprehension of the English language, & maybe an ounce of sales technique.

The menu that started all this of for me was this extract:

Grade ‘A’ foie gras and chicken liver parfait

or as I tweeted about it:

The absolute wankyness of menu writing just astounds sometimes”Grade A foie gras & chicken liver parfait”would you tell ppl you use B grade?

Then of course came a suggestion from a follower:

an explosion of cumin!…

tweeted Dave Mooney. Which I thought was just hilarious, coupled with the #BadMenuWriting (storified by Magnus Hultberg) rant from the ever entertaining Luke Mackay at the same time,  this post was born.

There have been many bugbears in my time as a chef, but none irritate me more than the use of the phrase:

Homemade

Homemade, conjures up the image of a sweet old lady lovingly spending all day crafting one particular element of your meal, the ice cream or shortbread biscuit. Let me tell you the reality is considerably different. Chefs who work, particularly in the higher accoladed echelons, in professional kitchens rarely lovingly craft anything. It is all about precision, excellence, following recipes to the most minute detail, timers constantly puncturing the tense atmosphere; and ultimately trying to please: owners; chef/patrons & egos. It often takes considerable man hours to produce quality food, let alone to even considered for a Michelin star; which many chefs are of the opinion is the pinnacle of their careers. So unless you have a mattress under the pastry section bench and you genuinely live in your kitchen, it isn’t homemade.

Next, try to avoid writing in a style which suggests you are doing a stock take for IKEA. I think you know the type, but circumnavigate words & phrases like:

  • …rest on a bed of…
  • …set on a pillow of…
  • draped in curtains of …

Then there are the obvious cooking techniques that should be missing from menus as well:

  • Oven roasted
  • Oven baked

Just when I thought that the #BadMenuWriting was drawing to an end, Oisin Rogers, of the newly refurbished ‘The Ship’ in Wandsworth, tweeted a classic which deserves to be hung in any hall of shame:

bad menu

Then there is always trying to over sell your product. If it’s a great chocolate fondant you do then just say Chocolate fondant, it may well be ‘indulgent’ & very good, but I doubt it is ‘world famous’  (again, two sets of words which should never be used). There are very few dishes which are truly world famous, but there are some if you mention them to anybody who has any level of serious interest in food, then they’d be able to link the dish to the chef, for example:

  • Snail porridge – Heston Blumenthal
  • Chocolate fondant (or Le coulant de chocolate, to give it its proper name) – Michel Bras
  • Stuffed pigs trotter – Pierre Koffmann
  • Lemon tart – Marco Pierre White

And so the list goes on.

Next up is a relatively new  phenomenon. Giving dishes vintages; I have a sneaking suspicion that this may have originated at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck or the now defunked El Bulli, which at one point was the Mecca for all aspiring chefs. But even the mighty Fat Duck has only brought this in over time, presumably when they decide that a dish can evolve no further. See the examples below, a menu circa early 2000′s and a menu from more recent times.

Bad menu

bad menu

Pleas click for a larger image.

 And a more recent menu from 2009. Please note there are only vintages on some dishes.

bad menu

Click for a larger image

Now if you’re a chef & you do this, just have a really good think about it. Is that dish original, synonymous & unique to you? The answer, I would imagine is probably not. As I’ve eluded to in a previous post (Great British Menu 2012, where did it all go wrong.), very few chefs are truly ground breaking, so the rest of us should maybe stop trying to emulate them & think for ourselves.

Then there is the use of quotation marks, why bother? To use them to me at least says that I might be getting something that might remotely resemble food I might recognise. For example, on a 3Michelin starred restaurant’s website is …”Swiss Roll”. When I went to school a Swiss roll was a sponge dessert with a filling (usually jam and a n other), rolled up & sliced. How is it possible to conjure that simple basic dessert into something that is so radically different to the basic premise of rolled up flavoured sponge? Quite frankly with that type of arrogance the chef is in danger of disappearing up his own rectum.

Over the 25 years I’ve been a chef, I’ve dined out quite a lot. When I can I try to take away a copy of the menu. Sometimes they are signed by the chef, others they are not. Occasionally I flick through them as a trip down memory lane, but even now, most of them are timeless. And this is surely the point, which ever style of menu writing you have, like all good writing, if it’s done well it’ll be timeless.

 

I guess ultimately, the rule of K.I.S.S. is best applied to menu writing – Keep It Simple Stupid.

Here are a few examples of menus I’ve collected for your inspiration.

bad menu

Le Champignon Sauvage, Lunch menu circa 1999.

bad menu

Le Manoir au Quat Saison circa mid noughties part1, click for larger view.

bad menu

Part 2, click for a larger view

bad menu

Gidleigh Park, 2010, click for a larger image

badmenu

ABaC, Barcelona. Click for a larger image

-post-





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