“Writing a menu is like writing a song or a book. It can take days and months to get it right,” says chef Barry Vera of STK.
As the culinary director for the stylish steakhouse brand, he has to wear many hats, writing and executing both food and beverage menus that speak to what his customers are looking for. It can be tricky to craft a menu that is the right balance of all of those desires. “The idea is to make all of our guests want to eat all of our menu”, he explains. At STK London, the menu is a balance of steakhouse classics and more contemporary dishes like tofu with kimchi broth, shrimp and scallop ceviche with plantain and chipotle chili creamed corn. “We make sure it’s ahead of the time but also current,” he explains.
In order to create the best dishes possible, a chef needs to have the best ingredients possible. That’s where suppliers come in and help secure high end or limited ingredients. A good supplier will also help you source products at a price that make sense for your bottom line. How can you nurture your relationship with your supplier to make sure that you’re getting the ingredients you want at a price you need?
Nurture supplier relationships
When Vera took over the role of culinary director for STK he did so very cautiously since he was responsible for the European and Asian locations, he says. “I was given the challenge of overseeing purchasing across these different markets,” he remembers. He knew that in order to make it work, he would have to develop key relationships. “One thing you need to do is build a relationship with your purchasers. It’s a partnership.” While it’s still a business relationship, it’s important to remember that suppliers are people too and they want to help out.
For Vera, one of the best ways to make sure that suppliers are willing to help you in the future is to invest in taking the time to talk to them about what you need now. Also, being fair will help you in the future. “If they’re feeling like they’re getting ripped off they won’t go the extra mile for you or your restaurant,” he warns. That means you won’t have your pick of those gorgeous chanterelle mushrooms that are in limited supply and they won’t be on the menu at your restaurant.
Pick up the phone
Sending texts and emails is one way to communicate but picking up the phone or having a coffee with a supplier can make all the difference. “The age of technology has taken away the art of communication. In my days I picked up the phone and talked to my suppliers,” Vera says. “I nag my chefs to talk to their fish or meat suppliers at least once a month. They’ll give you support and look out for you.” Vera also says it’s important to communicate upcoming menu changes so that suppliers can adjust and help you out.
Staff involvement is crucial
When creating that relationship it’s important for chefs to not only communicate what they need or want, but also what they know and have heard from staff and guests. At STK, Vera treats the opinion of his staff as a crucial decision element when deciding what products to work with. “I constantly talk to my team about purchasing,” he says. Chefs need to let go of being “narrow-minded” he says. Meaning don’t just purchase a certain ingredient because you care about it a lot. This is especially true when purchasing for the beverage menu. “When you’re purchasing for the bar it’s really about the deals you can get,” Vera says.
It’s important for him to find a product that doesn’t sacrifice quality and makes sense for STK’s bottom line. When Vera was tasked with finding a lower cost alternative for the house vodka he turned to his bar staff to help him make the decision. “I made sure to talk to the barmen because they’ve got to believe in it too,” he says. “If they don’t believe in it, they won’t sell it.” The team came together to try new and existing recipes to find the right vodka replacement. “We spoke to our supplier and said, ‘this is what we need to pay to use this product’ and they worked with us to help us achieve our goals.” Instead of just issuing an order to use a new product, Vera included his team in the process which made them more connected to the results. “It was a really amazing experience,” he says.
Share customer feedback
Listening to guests is also an important part of purchasing for Vera. He acts as the tie between suppliers and customers that come into STK. He tries to keep suppliers up to date about what customers are asking for and what they like. “Guests will come in and say, ‘I had the most amazing wine at this place, do you have it’,” he says. Not every request is going to make sense for the brand, but your customers can keep you up to date on what’s new on the market. “You can ask your supplier about that product and see if you can get it in.” With this knowledge, your supplier can also recommend other products your guests may like or alert you to any sales or price breaks on an item.
Overall, Vera says that chefs must remember that suppliers are on their side and while it’s important to know what products you want to work but also be willing to listen to your team and suppliers about what they think. “The team has to bring their knowledge and ideas to me,” Vera says. Combining their knowledge with his is one of the ways he makes sure he’s creating menus that his guests want. “We’re all working towards the same goal. If you’re all working on different goals and going differently then it won’t work.”
Photos courtesy of STK