Whether you’re a chef running a full-scale catering business, an entrepreneurial restaurateur, or a straight-up home cook hosting a dinner party, designing a brilliant menu is about two things: planning and flair. Without one, the other falls apart – the most elaborate and seemingly extraordinary menu will never work in practice unless you’ve carefully thought out how to execute it in the kitchen.
Having spent 30+ years as a chef designing menus for events, my own restaurant, and to serve to my friends and family at my own kitchen table – I’d like to think I have acquired a few tips on creating beautiful meals that you’ll enjoy preparing and serving just as much as you will eating them. Here they are – as well as a list of my favourite suppliers for sourcing the best ingredients.
1. Make life easy for yourself. Over complicating matters is a recipe for disaster, and the stress you put yourself under will come through in the food itself. Instead, keep things simple. Cooking shouldn’t be difficult, it should be enjoyable. For example – for summer eating, keep your cool and elevate a elegant chilled tomato and basil soup with fresh crab, lime, chilli and fried tortilla chips, freeing your time up to join in the fiesta with your guests. The Italians do this brilliantly, choosing well-sourced antipasti like burrata and Parma ham paired with grilled vegetables and rustic breads for a stress-free, interactive first course.
2. On that note, produce food to delight, rather than impress. A great rule of thumb is to focus on three key ingredients, chosen for their quality through a seasonal lens. Honest, understated, sophisticated simplicity sings for itself – wow your diners with bold and bodacious flavour – much more memorable than foams, swipes on plates and my personal bête noire … multiple dots!
3. Don’t be afraid of taking a shortcut – a really authentic, good proprietary brand ready-made paste for a curry can be zinged up with the addition of some fresh lemongrass and lime leaves, while pouches of pre-cooked pulses and grains are great bases for a instant salad – think variations on tabbouleh with plenty of chopped soft herbs, pistachios and summer vegetables. Top with whichever protein you choose: grilled chicken, hot smoked salmon or soft boiled eggs always work well.
4. That said, you can’t beat freshly toasted and ground spices for raising the game, which doesn’t take long to do. I’m rarely more than arm’s length away from my pestle and mortar.
5. Good shopping is key. A great piece of produce really doesn’t need much doing to it – see what your local delis and independent grocers have on offer, and incorporate that into your menu. For example – local handmade vanilla ice cream, a little poached rhubarb, fresh strawberries and a rose syrup like the one from La Fromagerie are easy to fashion into a stunning summer sundae. Take a trip to one of Mr Ottolenghi’s outlets and pick up some of his spectacular meringues, inviting your guests to build their own pavlovas with bowls of crème fraîche, passionfruit and summer berries. You can still take the credit!
A Few of my Favourite Suppliers