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A menu and the moment of discovery

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By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

For a chef, there’s nothing more poignant than that moment when a new idea or vision hits you; when you see a new dish in your head.

For years, Food Arts magazine periodically featured a department its editors called “Hits and Flops.” In each issue, it profiled half a dozen chefs who described dishes they created that were huge hits, and those that were complete flops.

When asked about the flops, almost every chef had the same response: that those were the dishes with the most time and passion invested, and that guests had no idea how much thought went into a dish only to have it dismissed.

Inevitably, when I read the flop dishes aloud to my staff or peers, comments like “I would so order that!” were common. So therein lies the challenge of a chef: creating a menu that you and your team of like-minded professionals find interesting, and one that will also sell. They’re not always the same thing.

Many factors such as atmosphere, quality of service, and décor, give a restaurant its identity. But the menu is at the heart of every eatery. It’s the most important factor for creating identity. However, creating that menu is different for every chef.

Some chefs create a menu – a heart – that evokes their personality, namely the items they want to cook or eat. But that method comes with limitations. Not everyone wants to eat what a chef does.

Others base their menu on what is available and seasonal. But that, too, comes with its own set of challenges. What’s available in California or even the south of France is not always available – or affordable – in the mountains of Big Sky.

Immensely skilled chefs, like Marcus Nilsson of the popular PBS series “Mind of a Chef,” create dishes based on the seasons and landscape despite his remote northern Sweden outpost. Not many chefs possess this skillset.

Eric Ripert, chef at Le Bernardin in New York City’s borough of Manhattan, holds weekly research and development meetings just for menu items. He breaks his team into groups and has them spend a portion of every day developing new dishes.

Personally, my head is already swimming with winter ideas by June.

Denise, one of my pastry chefs, once compared me to the professor in “Back to the Future” when I suddenly ran off mid-sentence, started rambling, interrupted myself twice, and frantically looked for something – anything – to write on, as I was determined to not let this potential duck dish slip through my proverbial fingers.

Most of us chefs in Big Sky are virtually handed the perfect schedule for menu changes, since fall and spring are considered shoulder seasons and are typically not as busy as winter or summer.

These “breaks” allow us time to experiment, seek out new products, and build new relationships. Our busy seasons give teams enough time to master a dish and then move on to the next one when trees start to bud or the first snowflakes begin to fall.

In the end, the moment of discovering and the journey of creating new dishes are as rewarding as the final result.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

In the print version of this story, published in the Sept. 4 edition of the Explore Big Sky newspaper, Marcus Nilsson’s name was misspelled. It has been corrected in this version.

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