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Chef John Foster: Great menu-planning comes down to one mantra — keep moving ahead with purpose

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Moving ahead, always moving ahead, that way it’s hard for someone or something to catch you!

It’s also the way most good kitchens function, whether at home or in a professional setting.

There are restaurants that pride themselves on longevity, and within that formula, lies the strength of most successful businesses: consistency. But let me first say that consistency has broad interpretations across the spectrum. It ranges from never changing a thing, to constant change with a consistently professional approach.

I fall somewhere closer to constant change, and therein lies the secret to true farm to table eating. I am comfortable changing with the season, and even changing within a season, if I’m equally consistent in my approach to the creative and practical sides of my menu.

It’s the change for change’s sake that gets people in trouble, not only with the loyal customer base, but their staff as well.

Some chefs will claim it as their right, others really don’t care. The chefs who must hew to the bottom line recognize that change for change’s sake is a self-centered way to do business. They will find a way to keep it fresh, keep it moving and still stay engaged. Part of that formula revolves around changing product; another part is the methods used to actually cook and serve the food.

In both instances the cook or chef should be looking to learn or at the very least, revisit a past success or old favorite. This forces the chef to reflect again and perhaps re-invent themselves in the process.

It’s not an easy path to take for people used to making decision based on choice. Even the humblest among us must exhibit enough ego to make a decision. If not, menus would not be planned and then changed, staffs would not be trained past a certain point, and restaurants would stagnate, losing the interests of staff and patron alike.

Thank god for seasonal eating then, because that takes a lot of pressure off the chef or cook who chooses to embrace it. I know that seems a bit of a stretch, especially with a foot of snow on the ground. What farm to table does though is make you think and adapt. And once you become a part of the local food scene, connections to seasonal produce and product is far easier to understand. Your next step is to do your homework. Whether you’re cooking at home or in a professional kitchen knowledge of your ingredients and their applications are key.

At the Sage Rabbit: flapjacks with cream cheese and fresh strawberries

Culinary students at Sullivan University cook a lot, good culinary students understand their ingredients, the history of a dish and the proper methods to cook it. They realize that talent goes only so far before the creativity comes to a halt. Worse yet is the cook who assumes less of their tools and fails to see possibilities because they know very little about what they cook.

Once again there are solutions to those issues, and they start with building a data bank of information. When is the product available? Who has the best quality or quantity or price? Getting to know the people behind the product also allows you to pick their brains and palates for ideas. It may just be a jumping off point, but if this is a first time for you, embrace it.

Which brings me back to my original point: moving fast and with a purpose. Years of functioning this way has given me a blueprint for staying engaged, and for pro-acting instead of reacting. I get twitchy this time of year, because I know what’s coming. After a season of root vegetables and stews, things are about to explode, maybe not today, but soon.

I need to be ready, because I hang my hat on farm to table food. I’m anxious, not for success but to try a new twist on a popular dish, or an update to a technique I haven’t tried yet. I know right out of the gate that a new menu is a must, it will capitalize on the ever-growing opportunities earlier in the spring season.

At the Sage Rabbit, Lexington

If I hit the ground running, it will be easier to keep moving. My customers will feel the energy and respond accordingly. They’ll appreciate the experimentation as a new direction, a fresh approach to food. And we’ll feed off that response to continue the process through the summer and fall. It’s change with a purpose that encompasses all the facets of my business and is easily translated to you at home.
The very action of approaching menu planning this way will also open doors for you. The constant movement to improve or create is why this career is so inviting. Even to the home cook, the ones who truly enjoy it, there is joy to finding a new recipe or re-discovering a past one that can be renewed.

Relationships with farmers will yield quality products. Recipe research will allow you the freedom to highlight technique and tradition, even to the point of showcasing something in your restaurant. Opportunities are created when you don’t settle or become complacent.

In this go-go world, a certain amount of speed and movement, properly managed keeps you relevant.

Whether it’s a new ingredient, a new chef or the old standard, being nimble, adaptable and decisive can make a dish into a meal and in my case, a love of cooking into a career.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here. 

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