What's in a Name? Honesty and Authenticity in Restaurant Menus
Updated: Mar 4, 2022
Sometimes things are not what they seem at first. That's obvious of course, I've talked about artifice and analogue and I don't want to cover the same ground again, but I have made quite a big thing about honesty on my menus recently; Honesty to the produce, the dish, the product, and the customer. What? Well I'd better expand on that a bit, otherwise it's just a meaningless catchphrase, though this may be an exercise in making enough rope with which to hang myself.
Restaurant menus are not governed by the same stringency that is applied to food labelling generally; The title of a product can try to lead you to think that the content may be one thing or another, but the details on the label will leave you in no doubt! (Italian Pasta Sauce... Made in the Netherlands.) Think about the recent arguments over plant milks; The dairy industry and the EU complaining that plant milks can't be 'milks' because the plant has not been 'milked.' An innocuous verb which hides the kind of violent assault that would get you kicked out of any Mother and Baby group, and likely arrested and jailed.
By example, a recent enquiry by a customer highlighted a regular misconception that restaurants allow to happen: "Are the chips homemade?" enquires the customer (the answer is no, there was nothing on the menu to say they were.) They had the wedges instead, they're made from scratch in the kitchen. The customer was obviously used to terms like: 'Hand-cut', 'Skin-on' and (Heaven-forefend) 'Thrice-Cooked.' (Seriously Daniel, use the word 'Thrice' on your menu, and you're destined to have the entire East-Anglian contingent of the Frankie Howerd impersonators club descend on you! ...I understand they're both keen to come as soon as the doctors say they're safe in society again.) All are appellations designed to allow the impression to form that a chef with an expensive knife has been lovingly tending the raw potatoes from the moment they came in the door. In fact 'hand-cut' could simply denote that an East European worker in a processing plant has been crunching spuds with a manual potato chipper before they're chilled or frozen and sent out. Even if they have been made in house, do you think that a chef, a sous chef, a CdP, or even a Commis was involved? Why spend the money? Probably just a kitchen assistant or porter. I mean, exactly where does a chef need to be involved in the production of chips? That's right, cooking them! (There's plenty that can't get that right either.) The exception here of course would be Heston and his quadruple cooked pin-pricked chips made by chefs that will go on to have their own Michelin stars, but you'll only get three of them in a portion and it'll cost you a month's wages. That's not to say that any of these bought-in chips are any less good in terms of flavour, crunch or quality as those made in-house, usually they're miles better, you're simply outsourcing the low skilled labour activity.
I would add here, that our wedges are somewhat more involved than chips, but a task that certainly doesn't require a classical chef's training. We developed them when we ditched the McCains' Sweet Potato Fries that my predecessor had been using. They had been popular, but were not gluten free and had been contaminating dishes all across the menu. The general rule now is that if there is a product that is unique, or local or superior quality, and meets our requirements of being vegan, gluten free etc., then we would happily buy it in. In practice, most products are not as good as home made, and rarely cheaper which might also be a deciding factor. That's why just about everything on the menu is made from scratch including all the sauces, mayonnaises, dressings etc. Still other things can't safely be made in-house without the danger of cross contamination, so we have not made (wheat) breads and cake, and (gluten) pastry in-house except on special occassions when extra precautions can be put in place.
When it comes to labelling these items on the menu, it's best not to declare everything home made, and then make exceptions, it's too confusing. I prefer to emphasise a homemade product when it's something that could equally be bought in (burgers, sauces, desserts.) The label 'homemade' is scattered about the menu like punctuation, but still doesn't cover all the items we produce in our kitchen.
Going back to the vegan analogues that I talked about previously; We're all familiar now with the various forms of Banana Blossom or Tofu masquerading as beer-battered fish. To be honest, it was really exciting to begin with, all those years ago:
"Hey, this stuff is flaky just like real (but we're not sure which) fish!"
"Who'd have thought this tofu (which is well known for taking flavours and doesn't taste of much) can be made to taste like something a bit salty and tangy like fish shop fish?"
Anythehow, that's all well and good, and actually, so easy! (just ask me for the recipe), it's no wonder that you can get it at just about any seaside fish and chip shop with vegan leanings, as well as restaurants and pubs all over. I'd credit Mark G who used to cook at the Tramways in Lowestoft for bringing banana blossom to the borders of Norfolk, but what do you call it? I'm not a fan of 'Tofish,' 'Vish,' 'Vegan Fish' or any of those names (with apologies to whoever is using them.) I settled for 'ish' ('ish and chips, 'ish cakes, etc.) "Is it like fish?" ".. Well, fish...'ish." I'll let you have 'F'ish', but not 'F'sh' everybody needs vowels as well as vinegar with their ch'ps.
Honesty is not just about naming things accurately, it's about using ingredients correctly according to the context and the season. A reviewer complained on a certain review site that our food was 'humdrum' citing the use of tinned tomatoes in a sauce. Now, on the face of it, you'd say they have a point, however, here's the context: It was February, and the dish was a comforting winter filler with lots of calories and potatoes. If you went to a restaurant in February and they said their tomato sauce was made with fresh tomatoes, you'd have cause to pause, just as you would if their Christmas menu contained asparagus. Where did they get their fresh tomatoes in February? They certainly weren't locally grown (unless you're in a restaurant in Buenos Aires.) They're greenhouse grown and imported, and taste of... nothing. As every Italian Nona knows, there's a time and a place for everything, including tinned tomatoes. These tomatoes have been picked and canned at their prime, and the time to use them is mid-winter, and the place is a blended tomato sauce! The dish was not about the sauce, it was integral, but not the main part. I wouldn't expect anything less if I were out. (Whether they still have a point about the food being humdrum is a matter of opinion.)
I occasionally worry about the possible charge of cultural appropriation. Several of my dishes are inspired by others from around the world. I'm particularly influenced by Indian dishes, since a lot of my first 'safe' meals out as a vegetarian many years ago were at Indian restaurants of varying, but often very good quality. I know that many of the dishes that you come across in British Asian restaurants are 'authentic,' that is, they are based on recipes from the subcontinent. Others have been specifically devised for a British clientele, with spice levels either dialled up or down, and ingredients adapted to those available and British tastes. Brits are used to having a 'Naan' bread (literally a 'Bread bread') with all sorts of dishes in our restaurants, but your average Indian household would certainly not possess the hot tandoor oven that you need to make them. Colonial influences in India itself gave rise to such fusion dishes as Kedgeree, Vindaloo, and Mulligatawny Soup. Cultural borrowings across Indian traditions and religions are commonplace, as well as from neighbouring countries (Eg: Manchurian from China.) However, if you're going to do for example: "a Korma" or "a Dopiaza" you need to be true to the essence of the sauce, as opposed to a general: 'Bhajia', 'Daal' or 'Pakora', a side dish or fritter that can take many forms. Where I feel most British Indian restaurants miss a trick, is that they use British ingredients as straight substitutes, not in the context of their seasonality or regional significance. Once you start using the ingredients as your inspiration, you're freer to mix and match flavours and textures that work together with that ingredient, regardless of whether they 'grew up together.' It's just that you can't then name the dish in a way that will lead the customer to expect a certain thing if you are presenting something quite new or different.
When you're next out, I hope you won't take everything you read at face value, just question it a little. I hope my menu is honest to the customer, or at least not misleading. You should be able to see what the main element and inspiration is (whether the produce or the product.) You can see what's in it, and where it fits and is adapted in seasonality. The ingredients are exposed without becoming a bald emotionless list, some hint of how the food is prepared and cooked, and any dish that has been a stylistic influence on its development. That said, like all chefs, I want my customers to be pleasantly surprised when they actually put the food in their mouths!