Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Art of Menu Writing

While we might not consciously realize it, the enjoyment of a meal involves all five of our senses. The engagement of four of the senses is pretty obvious: taste, smell, touch (aka texture), and sight. But what about the fifth sense, sound? Although not necessarily the front man in a dining experience, sound does play a significant role in the enjoyment of a meal. Let me pose to you a question: Does the way a person describes food have an effect on your perception of a meal? Does it play a key role in determining what you’re going to eat that night? Absolutely.

“I love using adjectives,” a chef friend of mine told me at a party the other night, her eyes giddy with enthusiasm. “I love making my customers’ mouths water with really detailed descriptions of the food.”

When it comes right down to it, chefs are salespeople, and it is their job to seduce you with irresistible descriptions of your forthcoming meal. For example, it would not be in the chef’s (or the food’s) best interest for the seafood special of the day to be described as “salmon with yogurt sauce” when it could instead be billed as “grilled wild salmon wrapped in grape leaves, drizzled with lemon and dill-scented yogurt and finished with sizzling sesame seeds.”

Diners need to be excited about what they’re going to eat. That salmon dish was, in fact, the entrĂ©e of a dinner menu I proposed for a client’s dinner party last week. Which description do you think I used when writing the menu? The second one, of course. My client shouted a big, “Yes, sounds delicious!” when she read the menu. After all, who can resist the allure of “sizzling sesame seeds?”

Another effective menu writing technique is stating the provenance of the ingredients. With the desire for sustainable, locally grown agriculture and the rejection of hormone-treated meats, the origin of the meal they are about to eat is vital to many diners. To the joy of many in the food industry, boutique growers and artisans are now household names, and diners seek them out on menus.

This is especially true in San Francisco, where higher end restaurants make it a practice to include the sources of the ingredients in their menus. For example, this week Jardiniere is featuring “Wolfe Ranch Quail with Baby Lettuce, Agridolce Onions and Champagne Grape Salad” as well as “Blossom Bluff Nectarines, Belgian Endive and Prosciutto di Parma Salad with Marcona Almonds, Honey-Thyme Vinaigrette.” Sounds divine. The next time you’re dining out, take a moment to appreciate the crafting of the menu. It will open your eyes to a whole new angle on enjoying a meal.

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