We opened up in 2006 with a commitment to changing our menu daily. Since then we have printed (on 100% recycled paper using both sides) over 2500 menus! That number includes dinner, brunch, special events, etc. From time to time I have posted menus on this blog or tweeted about new dishes that I was especially excited about, but it has understandably been impossible for us to make available on line every single one of those 2500 menus.
Maintaining a daily changing menu has been a challenge at times, but overall an incredibly rewarding endeavor. Surprising to most, what has frustrated me more than anything else has not been the schizophrenia of a daily changing prep list or the constant strain on our creativity. What is actually most challenging is dealing with the expectations that our menus should be readily available and planned out well in advance. We occasionally have customers call to make reservations and ask what will be on the menu on the night of their planned visit. I don’t always know exactly what we will be serving that same evening, let alone what we will be cooking in a week! This expectation is reinforced by websites like Menupages and others that act as catalogs of restaurant menus. The most important and predominantly displayed component of each restaurant listing is the menu. The menu becomes more important than the food. That might work for a lot of restaurants, but with a daily changing menu trying to fit into that format can be frustrating.
Another obstacle to the understanding of what we do is our lack of signature dishes. People want to know what we specialize in. The cuisine at Palo Santo aims to be stylistically well defined, but we don’t specialize in anything. In fact, as a chef, I make a point to avoid being known for any one particular dish.
Of course he was talking about music, but KRS-ONE had some good advice for all artists when he said:
“sell your image, never sell a record
Image is respected, records come and go
and get collected
Even the records of platinum artists, that used to rip shop
can be bought, for a quarter at the thrift shop”
This can be related to cooking in so much as that a chef should strive to be known for creativity and a unique style instead of being know for a signature dish or a carefully guarded recipe. No matter what the dish is, someone else somewhere can make it better. If what you have is a secret recipe, you’d better be careful, because once it gets out anyone and everyone will be able to replicate your work. Isn’t it better to be known for your style of cooking than for your menu?
At times I have even considered doing away with the printed menu altogether. After all, some of the most memorable meals served at Palo Santo were not ordered off of the menu. Our spontaneous nine course tasting menu, for example. No two tasting menus served at Palo Santo have ever been the same. The tasting menu is never advertised or printed and the diners have no idea what they will be eating until it’s put in front of them. This type of experience is not for everyone, but then again “Market Driven Cuisine” in general does not appeal to everyone. There are some people who would go out for dinner in New York in January and throw a fit if they couldn’t have tomatoes on their salad.
I am not a purist, or a locavore extremist (as you can see from the imported Haitian Mangos and Uruguayan wine that I can’t go without) but I wouldn’t dare put a tomato salad on my menu unless they are locally grown heirloom tomatoes. We support the seasonal, local food movement, but honestly our menu changes daily for a much less altruistic reason. I fancy myself a creative type and the cooks that I hire also tend to be creative types so we get bored easily if we are stuck cooking the same 16 dishes day in and day out. We want to have the freedom to create new dishes and to shop at the Greenmarket and use what has just come in to season. From an agricultural view point, seasons change gradually, daily even. It is not as if on the 21st of June all stone fruits simultaneously ripen, but in fact they come into season one at a time. Last week we got our first case of local cherries and next week (if the weather cooperates) we might get a case of apricots. So a seasonally changing “market driven” menu is a bit of a fallacy. Limiting menu changes to four times per year may make things easier for menupages.com, but it is not enough to keep up with seasonal produce.
For all of these reasons (and despite all of these problems) we continue to change our menu daily. It is not posted on the interwebs and it is not available in advance. Planning our future menus and then sourcing ingredients would undermine the spontaneity of our cooking. We shop for what is best and at its peak season, and then we let what we find inspire us to cook. The day that all of our menus can be read on line months in advance is the day that we have run out of inspiration and stopped cooking seasonally.