The tasting menu is an immovable part of fine dining but it would seem that today’s diners are more interested in small plates and shared entrees for two. How can today’s chef’s build tasting menus that delight diners and intrigue them while still being profitable?
Chef Manoj Karnavar is the chef at Karnavar in Croydon, England where guests can order a five or seven course tasting menu of creative and modern Indian dishes in addition to an a la carte menu. “Everybody is different so everybody wants to eat different as well,” he says. “Some people want a long tasting menu for dinner, some want to eat in 45 minutes and get back to work, and some are dining with their families and they want more of that family-friendly atmosphere.” Offering two different tasting menus in addition to an a la carte menu is all about giving diners the choice to create the meal that they want, he says. “We want our guests to have a fantastic experience,” he says.
Below, chef Karnavar talks about how he and his team conceptualise tasting menus and how he makes sure that they’re executed properly.
A Tasting Menu is Part of the Guest Experience
Tasting menus are a small part of a larger experience that a guest has in a restaurant, Karnavar says. “First, we think about how the guests can enjoy all of the journey at Karnavar. From the moment they come into the restaurant, to the time that they are leaving, we want them to have a fantastic experience.” Offering tasting menus is a way of creating a complete experience for a guest and introducing them to that chef Karnavrar’s style of cooking.
Don’t Lose the Soul of Tradition
While chef Karnavar is trying to introduce his guests to his unique takes on Indian food, he is careful to keep the traditional interpretations in mind. “When I build a dish I try to think about if it’s appealing to the eye, healthy, seasonal,” he says. “I think about all of that and how it comes together but I try to not lose the soul of the tradition.” For example, Karnavar features a sea bass and cassava dish as part of his tasting menu; the fillet is served alongside the prepared root and the presentation is very different than the traditional dish that inspired it. “It’s a popular dish in certain parts of India but here, we serve it off the bone instead of on the bone like the traditional dish,” he explains. “So we’re doing the same thing without losing the meaning of why we do it. Finding and keeping the soul of a dish is a very important part of cooking.”
When building his tasting menu, chef Karnavar starts with proteins. “First, start with what kind of meat, fish,vegetable you like the most,” he says. “Then think about flavors, if it’s spicy or not too spicy, and then go from there.” Thinking about your guests palate in between courses is also important. “You also have to think about the palate and clearing it before moving on to other courses,” he says.
Think About Value
“One of the most important things is value for money. That’s one of the first things that can go wrong,” chef Karnavar says. Adding value to tasting menus can mean including surprise courses or tailoring a certain dish to a guests preferences. “You want to make sure you exceed your guests expectations and then everything is fine, if you don’t then it will go wrong.”
What Can Your Staff Handle?
“Make sure your tasting menu is staff friendly,” laughs Karnavar. The best planned tasting menu won’t go over well if it’s poorly executed in the kitchen or if the front of the house staff can’t describe it or answer guests’ questions. “Try to picture a busy night with 10 tasting menus going on and people ordering a la carte,” Karnavar advises. Can your staff handle that amount of tastings and still execute a high level of service? If not, you may need to adjust your tasting menu to fit what your kitchen and front of the house staff can handle. A big part of the success of a tasting menu depends on education. “When you create dishes have your staff taste it so they can understand,” Karnavar advises.
The Golden Rule
“The golden rule is to always keep the quality high,” Karnavar says. While tasting menus can be a great way to flex your creative muscles as a chef, it’s important to remember that every dish, as part of a tasting menu or not, must achieve the same goal. “I have a duty to the people that come into my restaurant to give them a great experience and healthy food,” he says. “If we don’t do that, we’re in trouble.”
Photos courtesy of Karnavar