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December 20, 2016

Beef Wellington is Back

Beef_welly_foodcentricBy Piet E. Jones

Ah, those classic French dishes. Back in the day, they were the height of cuisine. Over time, however, changing tastes and an overabundance of kitchen shortcuts led to many of them to fall out of favor.  Duck à l’Orange, a beautiful dish when prepared in the right kitchen, became a cloyingly sticky sweet mess. Chicken Cordon Bleu, a wonderful convergence of haute cuisine and comfort food, devolved into an overly breaded sodium bomb that most have only sampled from the freezer aisle.

Dining these days, though, is a high-demand, ever-changing business and many chefs are looking to the past for inspiration. Old techniques and classic sauces are appearing on menus, often in new and novel combinations. One dish that is getting a new lease on life owes its revival to a TV reality show—Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen. Yep, Beef Wellington is back on people’s minds.  Bad pastry and a propensity to be overcooked all but killed it off in the 80’s, but in the right hands it can be a showstopper.

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December 16, 2016

Lehja Holiday Traditions

LehjaBy: Piet E. Jones, Photography by Brooke Marsh

We all know the scene, little Ralphie and his family from A Christmas Story eating Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant to most everyone involved’s amusement. There’s even a bit of a real life tradition of going out to Chinese restaurants for Christmas dinner. Some restaurants, though, have a little difficulty making their cuisine relevant to the American holiday season.

One person who doesn’t is Sunny Baweja, executive chef and co-owner of critically acclaimed Indian restaurant, Lehja, in Richmond, VA. “Indians celebrate every event and food drives you together,” says Sunny who embraces the concept fully.

Sure, there is no tradition of Thanksgiving in India, but the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, is celebrated very close on the calendar and being a time to celebrate friends and cherish family, is an easy cultural translation. This year, as part of Richmond’s Fire, Flour and Fork food festival, Sunny hosted a Kiss My Indian Grits brunch leading up to Thanksgiving where he strives to “break habits” and show that Indian cuisine doesn’t have to be “static.” Traditionally Southern dishes, popular around the holidays, like biscuits and gravy or shrimp and grits translate easily into Lamb Khari Bhaji (using lamb from a local farm) or Shrimp with Vegetable Umpa Cake - a semolina variation on grits.

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November 30, 2016

Yes, You Need a Coffee Program

By: Piet E. Jones

Coffee_foodcentricSo, your wine program is the talk of the town. Your craft cocktail program gets updated seasonally to raves and online buzz. Your coffee program…. Wait, what? You don’t have a coffee program? Why not?

People willingly drop big money on coffee. Plus coffee is an integral part of the closing part of any good meal service. It can even be a way to jump that check average up by ten or twenty bucks per person. Without coffee, they might not get that extravagant dessert or relaxing cordial to wrap things up. Or worse, they know someplace else to get that robust cup and either leave to spend that money elsewhere or never come in in the first place because they want a fuller dining experience.

The sad reality, too many restaurants treat coffee as an afterthought and the lack of planning to integrate coffee into what is otherwise a well-choreographed meal shows. Yes, you made the pasta yourself with imported, small batch flour that’s been extruded from a custom ordered, hand-made bronze die. The sausage was created in-house using a heritage pork breed. Everything is served on ceramic plates, made from locally sourced clay, thrown and glazed by two ladies living off the grid just outside of town. Your coffee, well, your coffee comes from the same machine and is served in the same Bunn carafes as the culinarily questionable greasy spoon down the street.

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October 31, 2016

How to Open on Thanksgiving Without Making Your Entire Staff Hate You

By: Piet E. Jones

Thanksgiving_foodcentricGreat, you’ve decided to open for Thanksgiving. Now the next question, how do you pull this off without sending staff morale into the basement? Competition for both front- and back-of-house staff is fierce, especially for experienced and competent employees. Sure, you may get through the holiday without anyone actually quitting, but a month or two down the line when the new locavore bistro around the corner opens or there’s a position at a downtown high-end hot spot, your staffers may remember not being able to spend a holiday with their family and be more open to making a move. Watching that sous chef you’ve spent the last year training and grooming or the bartender who created your hot cocktail program walk out the door represents a lost investment and can be disruptive to your future earnings.

Striking a balance for both the business and your staff is key. Some restaurants, especially those in hotels or resorts, are expected to be open. Others have a long history of holiday dining. Employees recognize this but, in terms of your staff, make sure days like this aren’t taken for granted. A few relatively simple steps can go a long way toward making them feel better about missing time with their families.

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August 26, 2016

Bring State Fair Flair to Your Menu

State_fair2By: Piet E. Jones

Summer is winding down and there is something in the air. Well, yes, the kids are getting ready to return to school but there’s also something else. The smells are familiar. A little greasy. Something sweet hangs in the air along with some… more earthy smells… 

Yep, it’s time State Fair time again.

The sights and smells of county and state fairs are ingrained into most American’s childhood memories and even if your patrons are no longer the fair going type, there’s much that can be done to play off this seasonal nostalgia. Play up the theme. Pull out a few blue ribbons and celebrate the local foods that make your region great.

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July 29, 2016

Smoothies on the Upswing

By: Piet E. Jones 

SmoothieGone are the days of artificial and chemically produced flavors. Fresh, real flavors are what customers are looking for these days. One way to take advantage of seasonally fresh flavors is through fruit smoothies. Relatively easy to make, smoothies can help you leverage local produce that’s in season and appeal to health conscious customers who want to enjoy a refreshing beverage but are avoiding over sugared sodas.

From berries to melons, the seasonal abundance of fruit (and corresponding affordability) allows seasonally shifting choices that will keep interest as fresh as the fruit. Of course, after you’ve picked out your fruits for puree, either single or a blend of multiple fruits, what other choices can you make for an exciting beverage?

First, you need a liquid to get the puree to a drinkable state. Apple juice or cider brings both liquid and flavor to the party but not might match with every fruit combination. A 1% milk will add smoothness to the drink or, for the lactose intolerant or those just avoiding dairy, almond milk will achieve a similar result. For true trendy appeal, try coconut water.

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July 11, 2016

The End of the Entrée as We Know It

By: Piet E. Jones

Entree_snackChange. It keeps happening. Look at menus from a hundred years ago and you see what would be considered now to be a gluttonous number of courses with meals that started late and ran well into the evening, lasting many, many hours. Between the Great Depression and war rationing, things got a little more streamlined with but one entree course (instead of a fish and a fowl and a meat!), a reasonable number of starter courses, and maybe a dessert if the menu is really enticing. 

Over the years, restaurants and their diners fell into a fairly predictable routine that most of us recognize today. Early couples grabbing a bite to eat before a movie or a show, a main dinner hour with sets of two or three couples, and a few late couples out for a more romantic, quiet meal. Restaurant design grew to accommodate this with the right mix of four-tops and two-tops, menus and staffing to match, and a reservation book tuned to turning tables every hour and a half or so.

Change, however, is in the air again and the old paradigm is showing signs of fracturing. Some tables order a couple of appetizers and leave. Others split a side, a couple of cocktails, and stay long past closing. Deuces dominate, leaving many a four top half full with the corresponding income lost. What is driving this change and how can you cope?

Technology and the more frenetic pace of our lives are possible contributors. The Washington Post points to Tinder, the ubiquitous dating app, as one of the culprits. Ill-conceived first dates that range from public disaster to R-rated floor show playing out in the middle of the dining room. Sometimes it’s harried parents who, on a special night out, have traded in bar-hopping for restaurant-hoping—making the most of getting a babysitter by hitting four or five restaurants in a single night, ordering nothing but appetizers and top shelf cocktails. Then there’s the reserved 12 top, taking up a big chunk of dining real estate and sometimes a server’s only table for the evening that turns out to be a “girl’s night out.” That can end up being a huge check with lots of fun or a whole lot of side salads and single glasses of Pinot Grigio. 

The Post reports that some restaurants are dealing with this by rethinking their dining space. Adding more two-top tables, creating private nooks with a little privacy to encourage more romance, even expanding foodservice and space in the bar areas to shift some people away from the dining room. Of course, not everyone can afford costly overhauls or even shutting down while they occur. You can, however, make some tweaks to your existing operation to better accommodate the new reality.

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June 13, 2016

Step Outside the Box and Inspire Summer Sales

EggsBy: Piet E. Jones

Summer is here. Warm days and long evenings. Extended weekends full of holiday cookouts, grilling with friends and unless you’re lucky enough to be a tourist destination, empty tables. What can be done to keep that revenue flowing during the off season?

You could start by thinking outside the box. The box being your restaurant. And outside being, well, outside. In today’s busy world, people love weekend cookouts and holiday barbecues, but many don’t have time to make a dish to bring. Add to that the increasing sophistication of people’s palates, along with a desire to show off to friends, and suddenly that quart of three-bean salad from the grocery store just doesn’t quite cut it anymore.

Why not take advantage of the season and offer your menu as an alternative for all these needs? Look to your side and appetizer menu, even your dessert list, and let your imagination run. Got garlic mashed potatoes as a side? Maybe you’re well known for your gruyere mac-n-cheese. You probably already make these items in bulk—why not offer them in portion sizes perfect for picnic tables? Some items might not even require reheating. Your green bean and bacon side with a mustard vinaigrette? It’s just as good served cold as it is hot.

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June 6, 2016

Find The Perfect Burger For Your Restaurant

BurgerBy: Piet E. Jones

The lowly burger.

There used to be a sameness about it. No matter where you went. Same buns. Same toppings. Same slices of yellow cheese. Same taste—too often dry and overcooked. Sure, there were good ones to be found, but all too often it was just a quick bite on the run, an afterthought on many a menu.

Today, things have changed. A lot. Burgers have become exciting and dynamic. Buns that can absorb the juices without becoming soggy and disintegrating have elevated the texture. Artisanal cheeses add flavor while celebrating local food culture. Toppings are designed to complement the theme of the restaurant.

With these innovations, the burger, once relegated to diners, fast food, and pubs, has exploded onto the scene. Out of the way, hole in the wall diners are now foodie destinations. Trendy hotspots in newly gentrified neighborhoods tout their burger on social media. Even the most upscale and pricey establishments are jumping on the burger bandwagon.

The key to getting all components together for a signature burger isn't that hard. It just takes a little bit of thought to create a unique combination that appeals to your clientele and fully represents your eatery.

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March 21, 2016

James Beard Nominee Spotlight: Tyler Anderson

Chef_tylerHaving cut his teeth in Chicago, learning his craft from the likes of the late Charlie Trotter and two-time James Beard Award winner, Sarah Stegner, people expected a lot from Tyler Anderson. And the Best Chef, North East Division, semifinalist for the 2016 James Beard has lived up to those expectations.

Striking out on his own in 2012, Chef Tyler opened up Millwright’s in Simsbury, CT, and set to work celebrating New England cuisine. Inside this 17th century sawmill, he focuses on reviving regionally traditional techniques and ingredients to create dishes that are both nostalgic and fresh. - PEJ

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