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Improvisational Cuisine

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Increasingly, menus are made to order, with chefs in upscale restaurants tailoring each dish to meet diners’ every dietary restriction.

By Amanda Baltazar January 2016

We’ve become a nation of problem eaters and chefs are more aware of this than anyone else. So much so, in fact, that some chefs are now preparing meals designed for each specific customer.

“We never expected eating to be as big of a problem as it has become,” says Joshua Hebert, owner and executive chef of POSH in Scottsdale, Arizona. POSH is a 7-year-old restaurant, serving globally inspired food that caters to a diner’s every need, be it the almost inevitable gluten-free request, a seafood allergy, vegan restrictions, MSG avoidance, or even no Vitamin K.

“We attract two types of people,” Chef Hebert says. “Those who are really into food and the restaurant scene, and people who have health concerns.”

In this small restaurant—where a typical night sees 20 to 25 people for dinner and a busy night serves 60—if there are no special requests, Hebert serves a multi-course meal (guests can select anywhere from five to 15 courses) using the local, seasonal ingredients he’s ordered or received on spec.

But most nights, 30 to 40 percent of people come with special requests. It’s never an exact science: Sometimes as many as three-quarters of the diners have special needs or preferences. However, Hebert says, “most people have a couple of dislikes that make their way onto the sheet; it’s less common that someone’s open to whatever you put in front of them.” In the years he’s been doing this, he can also tell you the five most stated dislikes: beets, blue cheese, raw garlic, raw onions, and olives.

However, challenging eaters don’t faze Chef Hebert. “When we opened we knew these things would happen. It’s disappointing if someone comes in and says they’re a raw-food vegan and gives me no notice. Then I might have to give them five courses, not seven. It’s disappointing because I know we can do something kick-ass if we’re given even a few hours’ notice. I enjoy the challenge. It’s cool to stretch your mind.”

Preferably, diners let POSH know of special requests in advance, so Chef Hebert and his team can start thinking of dishes to serve them. “We want to be able to match the reputation the restaurant has. But if they don’t let us know, it’s not a problem. Instead, we visit the table and talk to the guests, and the meal takes a few minutes longer.”

Once seated, all guests receive a piece of paper that resembles a sushi bar menu. They choose how many courses to eat and whether they want wine pairings. This menu also details the main ingredients the chefs are cooking with that night, and guests can cross out anything they prefer not to eat. There’s also space for more details on eating preferences.

But that’s perhaps because Hebert plans in advance—and by advance, he means earlier in the day. Every day between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. he creates a schematic of 20 to 30 dishes he can make with the ingredients he has. That evening at service, when diners’ papers come back to him, he writes on each which dishes they’ll receive then hands off carbon copies to different stations.

Restaurants with Menus Defined by Guests
 
POSH
Scottsdale, Arizona
Green and white asparagus with crisp salami, pinenuts, parsley pesto, and pickled chard stems.

Owner/ Executive Chef 
Joshua Hebert


Kitchen 218
Providenciales, Turks & Caicos
Lobster salad with guacamole, micro greens, organic tomatoes, and Aji Amarillo sauce.

Executive Chef 
Cristian Rebolledo


Chestnut Street Inn
Sheffield, Illinois Spring veggie frittata with a roasted red pepper sauce.
Owner/ Chef 
Monika Sudakov

Hebert’s not been stymied by anything yet. “Sometimes people call themselves something when they’re not, so it can be confusing. Like someone says they’re a vegan but cheese is OK,” he explains. “It’s definitely made more difficult because we do several courses and try not to repeat a dish at a table.”

Difficult, yes. Enjoyable? Certainly.

“It’s fun—for me and for my kitchen staff,” Hebert says. “Almost my whole kitchen staff has [stayed] because this makes their jobs interesting, and we have so many dishes and ingredients coming through. One night is not like any other night. What they learn in this kitchen is the equivalent to seven years in another kitchen.”

Rather than being expected to follow orders, the staff are encouraged to be as creative as possible, which certainly adds to the chef’s ability to retain them for years on end—and that lack of turnover, Hebert notes, is a chef’s best friend.”

As an example, he points to one day when his staff member of seven years, Josh Duffy, came in with four ways for serving carrot that he’d dreamed up at home. That night, the restaurant turned out a poached carrot salad, a carrot sauce, dried carrot powder, and a raw shaved carrot salad with a coriander vinaigrette. “My employees inspire me,” Hebert says.

Redefining Economies of Scale

Because of the restaurant’s unusual business model, Hebert has come up with a new way of ordering and keeping inventory. At the beginning of the week, he creates a schematic of the items he’ll order and when they will be used. POSH is open Wednesday through Saturday most of the year, Thursday through Saturday in the summer, and Tuesdays are casual noodle nights.

Seafood and vegetables are ordered daily, meat two to three times a week, and he also goes to the farmers market almost every Saturday. Buying local vegetables can be challenging due to Arizona’s hot, dry summers, so June through September he relies on produce from California.

Orders are for smaller amounts than a traditional restaurant because the portion sizes are not as large, and because the menu offerings are so diverse. “We’re portion-appropriate here, which is a polarizing decision to make because quantity is more important to many people than quality,” the chef explains. “But people who are health-conscious appreciate that we try to give the same amount of food you’d have over the course of a normal meal, but divide it between the several courses.”

An issue with ordering supplies in this manner is that the restaurant sometimes has trouble hitting minimum quantities, which means costs can be higher because the vendor often has to break cases of product. Additionally, POSH often serves premium ingredients like truffles and tuna, which come with their own steep costs.

However, in addition to the obvious satisfied customers and stimulated employees, there is another advantage with all this freedom and off-the-cuff cooking. “We have an amazing ability for product utilization,” Hebert says. “We are very creative and figure out a way to go through all of our product.” Saturday menus are especially creative and interesting, he says, since it’s the last day of POSH’s week.

Individualized Dining in the Islands

Kitchen 218 at Beach House, a hotel in Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands, takes care of its guests as carefully as POSH. Each night the restaurant offers a Chef’s Affair, for which the chef creates a meal specifically for the diners requesting it.

“When they select this I go to the table and say hello, and ask about preferences for flavors, colors, fish, meat, and then create a tailored menu for them,” says Executive Chef Cristian Rebolledo.

On a typical night, a third of the restaurant’s customers request the Chef’s Affair, which translates to about 30 people in peak season and at least half that number during the slow season. Entire tables are required to order the Chef’s Affair because it is a seven- or eight-course meal (more if the amuse-bouche and the tapenade are included) with wine pairings. The meal takes two to two and a half hours and costs $155 per person. Before guests order, Chef Rebolledo spends a few minutes with a table, learning about any allergies or food intolerances.

“Then I start doing the menu in my mind so I ask about what people like.” He also takes into account cultural preferences—Europeans and Japanese tend to like more fish and seafood; Americans like meat, he says. While servers may deliver some courses to tables that are having the Chef’s Affair, the chef serves at least two or three courses and discusses them with the diners.

“I’m cooking, I’m going out, I’m cooking, I’m going out. It’s very important for people to see the chef,” he says.

Because Kitchen 218 is on an island, most food is imported from the U.S., though the fish comes almost exclusively from local fishermen. Since food isn’t readily at hand and because he abhors waste, Chef Rebolledo is innovative in how he uses ingredients, but he enjoys the creativity this naturally incurs. He makes a lot of powders, such as black olive powder and bacon powder, and jerky from leftover meat. He also makes butters, like broccoli butter—he boils the vegetable then adds baking soda and blends it with butter, olive oil, salt, and pepper. He serves this on the table with the bread.

The most challenging part of his job, Rebolledo says, is when diners have multiple dietary restrictions or preferences at once, and to keep track of the different requests he simply stores it all in his head. Once a couple gave him a piece of paper with more than 20 different allergies. “But the great thing is that people with lots of restrictions really appreciate it when you’ve made their meal,” he says.

As for individual difficulties, he says the hardest is when people don’t eat garlic, onions, black pepper, or salt, while gluten-free and lactose-intolerant requests are a piece of cake.

The Personalized Prix Fixe Menu

Making meals specifically for individual guests is something not every restaurant is able to do, but it is becoming the natural evolution of the prix fixe menu.

Chestnut Street Inn in Sheffield, Illinois, has been serving prix fixe menus for 10 years, and this enables chef/owner Monika Sudakov to be creative as well as take advantage of seasonal, local foods. It also keeps meals fresh and exciting for guests and builds a loyal following, since regulars come back repeatedly to see what she’s come up with.

With a prix fixe menu, it is also easier for a chef to accommodate special dietary restrictions and preferences because she knows of them in advance. Chef Sudakov gets “a special thrill” out of meeting someone’s needs.

In fact, in the decade she’s been doing this, there has been a sharp increase in requests from people with allergies or dietary preferences, especially gluten-free, but also dairy and soy allergies and people who want to eat non-GMO ingredients. But requests are becoming even more specific and to keep track of requests on a nightly basis, she keeps a spreadsheet for each table in the kitchen. However, because she does not use any processed foods, it’s not that difficult to cook without allergens. “Ninety-eight percent of what I serve is naturally gluten-free,” she explains.

Offering so many choices and being so flexible—like making a special dessert for one person—creates more work for Chef Sudakov. “But that was what I wanted to be known for, and [this is] the place people can come because they can trust me," she says. "Yes, it might mean a 16-hour workday turns into 18 hours because I have to bake two types of bread and two desserts, but it’s a business decision and it’s a passion of mine.”