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Archive for October, 2009

Raising the Bar

Monday, October 26th, 2009

October, 2009

By Jaymi Curley

The alpha and omega of the dining experience, cocktails and desserts, seem to keep selling, even in lean times. For the customer,they represent the fun and decadent side of dining out, but for the restaurant owner, these two profit centers can be a lucrative path to securing both the bottom line and the goodwill of their customers.

Despite the recent squeeze that is being put on the restaurant industry, it seems that diners who are still patronizing restaurants are bent on having what Jonathan St. Hilaire, Head Pastry Chef for the Concentrics Restaurant Group, calls “the full experience,” and are figuring out ways to have their cake and eat it too, even on a smaller budget.

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“They may share an appetizer, have the entrée and then share a dessert,” says Chef St. Hilaire. “It’s not so much cutting out anything, just figuring out a way to afford all three courses. People want their chocolate, they want their custard and they want their fruit.”

As such, Chef St. Hilaire is reporting fairly steady traffic in the dessert side of Concentrics’ operations even through the current economic pressures. “[Sales] change more from winter to people getting ready for swimsuit season.”

The costs to the kitchen of bringing a little sweetness to the lives of customers are relatively small when compared with the majority of the food budget.

“I don’t have much loss to take into consideration,” says Chef St. Hilaire. “You might burn something here and there, but at the end of the day we’re talking about pennies. A 50-pound bag of flour is maybe $15. An egg is three cents.” Not all the necessities are to be had for pennies, though, and Chef St. Hilaire reports wholesale chocolate costs that can range from $4 per pound to “$12 per pound for some of the best chocolate.”

Still, Chef St. Hilaire points out that the benefits of an attractive dessert menu cannot be understated. “If I have a plate cost of $1.25 and I am getting, maybe, $6 for a dessert, the rewards
are so much greater.”

Among the more popular dessert trends right now is the use of savory ingredients mixed in with sweet, like using goat cheese in cheesecake, or the popular tart frozen yogurts that have begun to dot the Georgia restaurant scene. A trend Chef St. Hilaire sees as very advantageous, however, is the offering of mini-dessert “tastings,” served in small portion vessels like shot glasses.

He is not alone. The National Restaurant Association’s chef survey “What’s Hot in 2009,” released last October, listed “bitesize/ mini desserts” as the second most popular food trend based on a nationwide poll of more than 1,600 chefs.

For Chef St. Hilaire, it makes sense from both a culinary and a customer service angle.

“People don’t eat the same way anymore. They don’t just expect one flavor note through a whole meal. Dessert tastings let them explore.”

The added incentive of smaller prices for the mini-desserts can also be a big draw for the diner.

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“Even coming off a dollar, two dollars from the regular price is reasonable,” says Chef St. Hilaire. “If I was selling a 5-ounce tart, and now I am selling a 3-ounce tart, it’s my way of saying to the customer, ‘I’m going to come up with a way I can keep selling more desserts, but at the same time I’m going to help you save some money and you still get to enjoy them.’”

The farm-to-table food trend, in which chefs strive to use as many local and/or organic ingredients as possible, gets limited play in the pastry kitchen, with Chef St. Hilaire only applying the concept where it will make the most difference in flavor or quality, rather than across the board.

“If I am creating a tart, my flour’s organic, but the butter, the sugar, probably not,” he says.

A score of excellent local fruit would be treated with minimal prep to highlight the quality the chef is paying for.

“I’m not going to stew them or put them in a cobbler with a whole bunch of other flavors. I’ll probably use them on top or macerate them, something that will bring out that flavor for the customer. You have to think about how you are using your ingredients.”

Mixologist Greg Best, a part-owner of Holeman and Finch Public House, also sees this “farm-to-glass” approach as a valuable trend in the restaurant bar trade. Best firmly believes in “using all fresh juices, dispensing with high fructose corn syrups and other chemicals, and making your own grenadine syrup or mint syrup for juleps.”

Though labor intensive, Best believes the jump in quality and flavor provided by fresh local and organic fruits and juices keeps his patrons coming back for more.

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Says Best, “I think it has gone a great way to make cocktails visually appealing,” he says. “The customer getting to see those fresh juices squeezed right in front of them adds to the value of the drink they’re going to enjoy.”

Navarro Carr, head mixologist from Beleza Lounge, also sees this approach as a way of connecting to the customer.

“From a storytelling standpoint, knowing something about the types of ingredients you use and specifically where they are from is a win-win.”

Dovetailing with the rise of fresh ingredients as a focal point of the bar trade is a craze for classic cocktails. As the customer takes more of an interest in these drinks, a great mixologist has to make sure that they are a part of his or her repertoire.

“People are into it,” says Best. “They are educating themselves, so bartenders have no choice but to stay on top of that learning curve. You buy books and do a bit of research so that you know how to make, say, that Manhattan in the correct way, or that whiskey sour properly, with egg white.”

Carr says that with these recipes, some of which have been around since the 1800s, along with some creative twists on some traditional bar favorites and “something a little out of the box,” a good bartender will be able to create a bar menu with the broadest appeal to the customer base.

Both Chef St. Hilaire and Carr advise not to underestimate the value of hosting events to help drive traffic and create relationships between the bar or restaurant and its customer base. Chef St. Hilaire recommends courting locals
who are in the know with an invitation to a meet-and-greet for the venue.

At Beleza, Carr and his staff host monthly cocktail classes that have developed a very regular following.

“It’s one of our biggest successes,” says Carr. “On a slow night we can do this cocktail class and attract 25 to 30 people who have purchased the all-inclusive cocktail experience.”

In addition to the benefit of developing a loyal crowd of educated cocktail enthusiasts, the students often stay for additional mingling that develops into meals.

Carr is greatly in favor of hosting events as often as the bar calendar allows. “Things are lean right now,” he says, “and building relationships is crucial.”

With the nonprofit group or individual booker delivering both the audience and usually some sort of marketing for the event, Carr sees these as opportunities that should never be passed up.

“You’re missing out if you let even one of these events slip through your fingers. People get to experience your bar, see your menu, taste your food.” When a good time is had by all, the captive audience of the event night often turns into repeat business.

Best doesn’t necessarily agree. “It’s tricky. Events and sponsorships can be great, but it can hurt you in the long run if you get in the habit of relying on them. You’re not operating on a true scale. [At Holeman and Finch] we don’t book events during normal business hours. I think it may be more important for restaurants who are trying to establish themselves in an area where there is a high volume of restaurant traffic.”

Ultimately, while popularity is going to drive business in a bar or restaurant, both Best and Carr are wary of creating artificial buzz, which can backfire in the long run. “You can manufacture hipness. You pay attention to the current trends in music, on TV. You see what is drawing people to look and apply these trends to your place,” says Best. “But I think that kind of hip can go out of style just as fast as it comes in. A place that is doing something that feels real to the consumer has a way of becoming fashionable whether you intend it to or not.”

“When all the smoke is gone, true relationships, good service, creativity and connecting with the community – that’s the long-term hipness,” says Carr. “That’s the hipness that keeps you in business.”

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Harvesting a Passion for Food

Monday, October 26th, 2009

October, 2009

By Dora Burke

If you had ever met Carvel Grant Gould, you’d know she is a determined woman.

When she was 20 years old, she was so set on becoming a chef that she left the University of Georgia to pursue her dream.

But her determination – and love of cooking – was there from an early age.

“I was 6 when I started making chocolate lollipops and selling them door to door,” she recalls. “At age 11, I would visit my great-grandmother and cook beef tenderloin and boiled custard for her.”

Chef Gould thought every kid cooked, and didn’t realize how unique she was growing up.

Once she started watching cooking shows, like those hosted by Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet, she knew she wanted to be a chef.

Unfortunately, her family was not so excited. The young Chef Gould’s mother was distraught, thinking the labor-intensive line of work was not appropriate for a young lady.

In 1991, her mom called a family friend, Aria owner Gerry Klaskala, then chef and managing partner of Buckhead Life Group’s Buckhead Diner. She asked him to scare Chef Gould so she “would not want to work in the kitchen again.”

Klaskala agreed, and put the young Chef Gould to work at the Buckhead Diner. She loved it.

“My mom [and Gerry] thought that if I worked in the line of a busy kitchen, I would see how much hard work it was and just go back to school,” she says.

But after a week on the job, the fire was lit, and Chef Gould asked Klaskala if she had a job. With no prior experience, Chef Gould was working the line at the Buckhead Diner.

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“At that time, the diner was always busy, and you had complete interaction with the guests,” Chef Gould recalls. “The open kitchen allowed everyone on the line to feel the excitement from the georgia restaurant and even talk to the guests eating at the counter.”

In 1995, Klaskala left Buckhead Life and partnered with George McKerrow, Jr. and money advisor Ron San Martin to create We’re Cookin’, Inc. restaurant group. Not long after, they launched the idea for Canoe, a venture that would showcase American fusion cuisine.

During this time, Chef Gould moved to another of Buckhead Life’s establishments, 103 West. Klaskala soon called and asked Chef Gould if she would join him at Canoe. She happily obliged.

Chef Gould worked her way through the kitchen at Canoe and finally became chef de cuisine. After a brief stint helping Klaskala open another restaurant, Chef Gould returned to Canoe in 2005 as Executive Chef.

For her, it was a blessing in disguise to return “home” as the boss, and she’s served as Executive Chef ever since.

Southern Roots Run Deep

Chef Gould, a seventh-generation Atlantan and native of the city, has an authentic appreciation and a true flair for regional cuisine. Her sophisticated Southern style is a fundamental part of the Canoe experience.

“She has a very natural ability towards cooking,” Klaskala says. “A lot of folks in the industry are not naturals, but she has the skills. She loves what she does and it shows.”

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Chef Gould’s diverse experience and Southern heritage combine to create her truly original culinary style.

Dishes include such offerings as BBQ pork shank with Vidalia onion, quick carrot pickle, and lavender vanilla jus and slow-roasted Carolina rabbit, with Swiss chard-applewood smoked bacon ravioli and candied garlic jus.

Such dishes have led Chef Gould and Canoe to be featured in Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, Gourmet, The Wine Spectator and The New York Times.

Harvesting A Passion For Sustainable Seafood

Aside from Chef Gould’s love of Southern cooking, she also has a passion for seafood and cares deeply about the sustainability of the industry.

“I am just as passionate about sustainable seafood as I am cooking,” she says. “I was always a big fan of the Discovery Channel’s show The Deadliest Catch, but once I started learning more about the industry I could not stop.”

Chef Gould was first introduced to fresh Alaskan seafood through her relationship with Brodie Lang, Director of Purchasing at Concentrics Restaurants and a veteran of Alaska’s renowned fisheries.

“[Lang] is very knowledgeable about the fishing industry and sustainable fishing practices,” Chef Gould says. “She introduced me to some reputable distributors who in turn introduced me to the fishermen. They brought me king crab that had never been frozen. I was amazed – having never been a fan of crab in the past, this tasted like nothing else. I was hooked.”

Chef Gould learned the challenges of harvesting Alaskan king crab firsthand when she traveled to Dutch Harbor in Alaska in 2007 to meet some of the fishermen, including those on The Deadliest Catch, and learned how the crab is caught.

“It is an amazingly difficult process with violent, unpredictable waters and many long days at sea,” Chef Gould says. “I saw how the crab was processed and how perishable the product really is, and it only increased my appetite and appreciation for king crab.”

Chef Gould returned again in 2008, and is planning another trip this year.

Until recently, the crabbing industry worked under a derby-style season, which encouraged fishermen to catch as much crab as possible as fast as possible, often driving them to maximize their haul at the expense of safety.

After 2005, however, the industry transitioned to a quota system in response to the dangers of having too many boats competing for crabs. This new system deals out individual fishing quotes to boats based on participating and catch history.

The most popular harvesting months are October through February, but the actual season when crabbers are allowed to catch crabs can last as little as four days or as long as one to two weeks. Once harvested, it takes approximately one week to move the Alaskan king crab from the Bering Sea to local markets.

It is only during this time that Chef Gould serves the crab in her restaurant, overnight shipping the product straight from Alaska to ensure peak freshness.

In recent years, there has been a flood of foreign caught crab, but for consumers interested in sustainability, foreign crab is caught without much regulation. (See sidebar on resources for applying sustainable practices.)

“I realized the danger of buying foreign crab, especially from Russia,” Chef Gould says, noting they don’t follow the same regulations for sustainability but yet still import back into the U.S. “Our government is doing a great job at regulating the fishing industry and has helped Alaska’s crab population grow. Unfortunately, not all governments maintain such high standards.”

Growing Toward The Future

When Chef Gould is not preparing for king crab season, she is working at making Canoe a special place. She recently created an “Edible Garden” education dinner series in the overgrown space between the restaurant and the Chattahoochee River. Tomatoes, radishes and broccoli punctuate the beds while cucumbers, squash and eggplant wind their way through V-shaped trellises throughout the 2,000 square feet of 12 raised gardening beds.

Nearby, remnants of an eastern red cedar that had fallen during a tornado on a century-old Georgia farm has been transformed into a custom table that seats 22 guests. With the Chattahoochee River lazily wandering past, it’s the perfect setting for Chef Gould’s dinner series concept.

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Chef Gould’s natural talent allows her passionate sensibility to be infused into all her dishes. Her recent invitation to cook at the James Beard House proves Chef Gould has come into her own. “As I think of new dishes, I can actually taste the flavors in my head,” she says. “Finding the freshest ingredients, respecting their flavors and applying solid cooking techniques in the kitchen is how they come to life.” In 2008, Chef Gould traveled to Alaska to observe how king crabs are caught, riding on the boat with fishermen and learning the importance of sustainability within the seafood industry.

Tips on How Operators Can Practice Sustainability

By Brodie Lang, Director of Purchasing for Concentrics Restaurants

  •  Buy directly from the source when you are able. You can get great seafood directly from individual fishermen or small processors at the fishing grounds. A search on the Internet and a few phone calls can lead you to wonderful fishermen who are willing to be direct marketers.
  •  Set up accounts with FedEx or use suppliers who are known shippers on major airlines so you can get the freshest seafood just hours out of the water, skipping the middle man. It is a little more work but well worth it for the product quality – and the story you can tell about the fishermen and community who caught the fish.
  •  Be loyal to your suppliers. Build good relationships with your fishermen or processor and they will take good care of you. When you flip-flop to save pennies, they will not take care of you when you are desperate for product.
  •  If you are unsure about the sustainability of a fishery or type of fish, use resources from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Blue Ocean Institute or the Marine Stewardship Council. The more research you do, the better able you will be to source sustainable seafood.
  •  If wild, sustainable fish is a priority for you, then get involved in the communities where your fish is caught. Go visit, if possible, share your menus with the fishermen, help them build a market for their products in your area, talk to your customers about how you source your seafood and truly try to build close relationships.

Additional Resources

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Taste of Suwannee

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

October 24, 2009 – Town Center Park Suwannee, GA, 770-945-8996,
www.suwanee.com.

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Georgia Organics’ Woodland Garden Party

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

October 18, 2009. Woodland Gardens in Winterville, GA.  For more information, call 678.702.0400.

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Taste of Roswell

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

October 17, 2009, Roswell Town Square, www.ci.roswell.ga.us.

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Taste of Acworth

Saturday, October 17th, 2009
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October 17, 2009, downtown historic Acworth, www.acworth.org.

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2nd Annual Rock N Rib Fest

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

October 17, 2009, downtown Lawrenceville Square, www.visitlawrenceville.com.

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GRA-PAC Awards Luncheon

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

October 13, 2009 at Ray’s on the River.  For more information, visit www.garestaurants.org.

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Fundraising Dinner for Local Flooded Farms

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

October 13, 2009 at Muss & Turner’s.  For more information, call 770-434-1114.

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Georgia Grown Food Show

Monday, October 12th, 2009

October 12, 2009, at the Georgia Freight Depot in Downtown Atlanta. For more information, e-mail  GAGrownFoodShow@agr.state.ga.us or call (404) 656-5899.

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