Chefs Talk: What’s on the Menu?

Chefs explore food and menu trends, supporting equipment and food cost challenges.

Mushrooms have proven popular in Chicago, where one chef says he “treat[s] the mushroom like a mushroom” vs. a protein replacement.

Sometimes it’s not about dropping a fried chicken sandwich 3.0 on the menu. Panelists of the Midwest Chefs’ Perspectives, a virtual roundtable sponsored by FER and manufacturer RATIONAL in April, shared how connecting with guests in a meaningful way through food was more important than adding the newest craze to the menu. They also talked about equipment changes in the back-of-house to support menu production, and ideas around absorbing rising food costs.


Stories Behind the Food

Vinnie Cimino of Cordelia, which opened in July 2022 in Cleveland, has seen a movement toward a more culturally relevant food scene. Chefs are embracing where they came from and showcasing what they do, and sharing those back stories with guests.

“On our menu, we lean into this ‘modern grandma’ mentality when it comes to cuisine,” Cimino says. “When we set out to open this restaurant we thought, ‘How can we be this quintessential Midwestern spot?’ What it boiled down to was, we all come from different backgrounds but what we all had in common were these grandparent figures who we surrounded ourselves with for most of our lives who drove our thought of cuisine and hospitality.”

Cimino points to the menu’s Hanky Panky, which includes pork, wagyu, smoked cheddar and fermented mustard, as an elevated version of a food he grew up eating. He leans on Cordelia’s staff members to translate the back story to guests.

Dustin Urbanik of the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva, Wis., agrees guests appreciate stories around food. “During the pandemic there was a shift, where 10 to 15 years ago it was ‘Where’s the ingredient coming from?’ to today it’s ‘What’s the back story?” Urbanik says.

Looking at food trends overall, Urbanik says, the resort has seen a demand for international dishes and has added Middle Eastern and Mediterranean-type dishes to its Grand Cafe menu. “One of the dishes is a Lebanese hummus with the traditional accompaniments and we’re doing a grilled chicken shawarma as well with our own tomato relish and rolling it in pita bread to make it into a wrap,” Urbanik says. “We’re taking traditional, authentic ingredients and preparations and showcasing them in our unique fashion.”

Mushrooms are a booming menu item in the Chicago area, says Noah Zamler of Irene’s. A mushroom-growing facility recently expanded in the city and a number of restaurants are using the ingredient as a meat alternative, he says.

“Something I’ve always preferred is not just grilling a mushroom and saying that it’s a mushroom steak but using it more strategically,” Zamler says, “in a way that’s not just like a meat substitute but to treat the mushroom like a mushroom.” Irene’s Easter menu included mushroom toast.


Back-Of-House Impact

Panelists shared upgrades to equipment—from combi ovens to mixers to sous vide systems—they’ve made in their kitchens to better support menu production.

At Simple Food Group’s cafe, market and bakery, located in Lake Geneva, where Young Cho relies more on what farmers want to produce than trend lines when updating a menu, combi ovens act as workhorses.

“As a breakfast place, we go through a lot of potatoes and our prep method is to par-cook them,” Cho says. “When we first opened, we boiled them in pots. We got to the volume that we’re doing … now we’ll run through 30,000 pounds of potatoes a year. We ended up going to combi ovens.” The team looked at specifying steamers but found they had limited capabilities.

Cimino also heavily relies on combi ovens. “I’ve opened enough restaurants over the years that I got to a point where I would never open another one without a combi oven,” he says. “The amount of time that the single piece of equipment saves you … it’s one whole prep person.”

Cordelia recently invested in a 60-quart mixer to keep up with volume. The team makes their own burger buns and ended up selling far more burgers than they imagined and so had to replace their original 15-quart mixer. Now, instead of making bread every day, they make it a few times a week.

A sous vide system allowed Irene’s, which opened in October, to reduce the number of employees working at the egg station from two to one, Zamler says. “We sell a lot of benedicts, and we were poaching all the eggs and eventually, it’s just so much easier to circulate the eggs,” he says.


Improving the Bottom Line

Topping the list of challenges in the industry is food costs, which 92% of operators say is a substantial issue for their restaurant, according to the National Restaurant Association’s State of the Restaurant Industry 2023 report. Panelists pointed to the following menu-related strategies they’re taking to help combat rising costs:

Reducing food waste. A chef’s tasting menu at Cordelia serves as one way to use up food scraps or small amounts of items coming off the menu. “We just call it a ‘belly up’ kind of thing,” Cimino says. “We bring out a bunch of dishes; we talk about them. It’s another way to build those relationships with the guests.”

Buying less-than-ideal produce. Zamler once worked with a farmer who had tomatoes that didn’t ripen. He bought them cheap, pickled them and used them on the menu throughout the year. Cimino, too, buys things farmers can’t sell at markets. “We’ll find ways to use it, which helps lower our costs in the restaurant and helps ensure the farmers aren’t losing out on product that they need to make money on,” Cimino says.

Not apologizing about menu prices. “That was one of the silver linings of the pandemic, is people starting to understand the actual cost of food,” Cho says. For a long time, the 14-year-old group kept menu prices low. In fact, for the first seven years, they basically didn’t raise prices at all. Now they’re associating pricing more closely with costs and educating guests on why certain things are expensive. They’ve had little pushback.

Looking ahead, the group will host a dessert-and-wine evening event as a profit-generating on-premise dining opportunity that doesn’t take a toll on the back-of-house.

Midwest Chefs’ Perspectives April 2023 Panelists

Young Cho
Partner/COO/Executive Chef
Simple Food Group

Vinnie Cimino
Operating Partner/Executive Chef

Dustin Urbanik
Executive Chef
Grand Geneva Resort & Spa

Noah Zamler
Co-Owner/Head Chef

Allison Rezendes
Foodservice Equipment Reports


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