“My restaurant is very unique,” says Michelle Jenner, owner of Aya Court in Ascot, England. AYA Court is a contemporary Chinese restaurant where diners can find dishes like seared foie gras with pickled ginger on the menu next to classic Chinese dishes like Ma Po tofu and Peking duck. While it’s fun to create new spins on well-known dishes, it’s also important to give traditionalists the dishes and flavours that they expect, Jenner says. How does the team at AYA Court balance the two?
Any restaurant menu is a blend of new and old ingredients, techniques and dishes but when it comes to cuisines that are as ubiquitous as Chinese cuisine, it can be difficult to integrate the new and the old and still please diners. Jenner was faced with this challenge when she and her team started working on a menu for Chinese New Year last month. “Chinese New Year is like Christmas for Chinese people,” she says. “It’s the biggest day of the year where everyone goes to temple and then eats with their family.” That night, Jenner and her team created a prix fixe menu featuring some of the most iconic holiday dishes. Below, she shares the process that she used to blend the traditional and the contemporary to create a unique dining experience.
First, think about the occasion or the tradition.
“It’s the biggest day of the year and every course has a symbolic meaning,” Jenner says of Chinese New Year. There are several dishes that are expected to be on the dinner table because they provide luck in the new year. “Everybody should have dumplings and rice cakes,” she says. “Even the colours, red and gold, represent surplus and fortune and they’re important.” When thinking about recreating the holiday meal, she and her team picked the dishes that felt necessary for a traditional dinner, and decided and which ones not to include. That acted as a base for building the menu for the holiday.
Second, talk to your suppliers.
“The biggest challenge was really the ingredients because we’re not in China,” Jenner says. Aya Court’s Chinese New Year menu features ingredients that you could find on the menu at a fine dining French restaurant but they’re prepared in a way that’s in line with Chinese cooking. Jenner knew that she wouldn’t be able to get all of the traditional ingredients to her restaurant so she looked for vendors that could provide substitutes. “We actually work with a local butcher for our menu,” she explains.
Third, think about what your guests want.
“Here, we’re kind of restricted by the market and what British diners expect and know about Chinese food,” Jenner says. There are plenty of dishes that she would like to add to the menu but she knows that her guests won’t like them. “I’d love to add the sticky rice, glutinous rice cake to the menu but I know my guests won’t like it,” she adds. Keeping the guests in mind helped her team create a menu that appealed to the diners in AYA Court’s neighbourhood. “I have to think about my guests’ British palates,” she says.
Fourth, think about your kitchen and what they can handle.
Execution is the most important part of any menu and that’s still true for a special holiday meal. “You can stick to tradition as much as possible but if your kitchen can’t handle it, it doesn’t work,” Jenner warns. AYA Court’s signature dish is the Peking duck special but it’s not possible to add it to the prix fixe menu because of the time it takes to prepare, Jenner says. Knowing that, the team created a menu that includes five different entree options so guests are satisfied and the kitchen can execute in a timely manner. “It would be really hard to make Peking ducks for every table in the dining room for the prix fixe menu,” she says.
Even though AYA Court added a modern twist to Chinese New Year they still included traditional decor touches like little roosters on every table, a singer who performed traditional Chinese folk songs and, of course, lion dancing. With these touches too, she’s managed to find a way to incorporate the town of Ascot. “The people in the lion dancing are all English,” she laughs. “You wouldn’t know cause they’re in the costume. They do a really good job.”
Photos courtesy of AYA Court