Best Practices in Menu Development

How to avoid ever hearing someone say: “I’ll have the lamb consommé” and other tips for training kitchens.

The menus created by Catalyst Kitchens member organizations play an essential role in guiding student development. At the same time, these training kitchens are also forced to reconcile the value of culinary education with the costs of programming. The situation is unique, and many of the resources available to guide chefs through menu development were not designed with training in mind. It made us think…what unique factors should training kitchens consider when developing their menus?

We developed the following list based on conversations and resources from Executive Chef Wayne Johnson of FareStart.

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Fit with trainee labor

  • Questions to ask yourself – Is your menu meeting all the competencies for students? What things can the students do and not do?
  • Design with the default being that the staff will handle anything the students are not ready for.
  • You have to leave some aspirational room for the students to grow into. Don’t assume they won’t ever be able to do it just because they can’t do it right now.
  • Students will make a greater frequency of mistakes, mitigate those mistakes by making them low cost and low stake.
    • There are many butchery tasks that do not make sense for a trainee kitchen. Cutting your own steaks comes with too high of a mistake cost.
    • A mistake on a sauce or dressing from scratch is much lower stakes and gives more seasoning experience.
    • You can also build in ways to use up wasted food that would otherwise be lost – chicken meatballs from scrapped chicken portions, smoked salmon from extra pieces leftover from portioning
  • Baking in-house is always a risk due to loss of consistency from trainee to trainee. For example: avoid rich dough and projects with potential to waste butter.


Fit with program schedules

  • Build in room for your students to be creative and see innovative techniques. Your paid staff will be more motivated by a menu they have stake in and are motivated to teach.
  • With more hands to do the work, you can build everything from scratch. Highlight that for your customers and you can build a base of customers whose desires fit with your menu design.
  • Have a good, structured cleaning program, and build that into the work. Lots of learning that can be done within that work which shouldn’t be lost on the students by making it just busy work or an afterthought.

Size and complexity

  • Your menu just needs to be big enough that you have work to do every day, without too much to worry about.
  • A good start for a cafe or restaurant is 6 or 7 appetizers, 6 or 7 sandwiches, 3 to 4 plated entrees, and a couple of desserts. Not crazy big, but you probably won’t run out of things to do with trainees.
  • Build in broadness to cover culinary skills, cuisines, approaches, etc. New skills can come through specials you run week to week or month to month as well.
  • Anything your menu doesn’t cover can also be taught through conversation and in the classroom

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Fit with community

  • One of the biggest concerns is that you need to have the customers coming in. You need the menu to be competitive within the community.  You can’t rely on community support for your mission to keep customers flowing.
  • Do not be afraid to start your own trends and highlight your unique business and trainees through innovative menus.
  • At the core of your menu, stay in your wheelhouse and make sure you’re making the best culinary food and art that you can. Have a reason for your dishes, do not just chase trends.
  • When designing dishes, think with the food chain in mind. Any animal consuming something in the food chain carries those flavors, so use vegetables and plants that your animals consume.

Outside Resources

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