The Spring menu rolled out at Cafe Presse on April 19, 2011. Spring means the end of many of our Winter favorites, like onion soup, Axoa and oysters. But it also means the arrival of Spring produce and traditional warm weather dishes like Steak Tartare. Local rhubarb, asparagus, radishes, leeks, herbs, spring onions and peas are all among some of the first items of the season to show up on farm tables, and of course find their way into the new menu.
The unveiling of a new menu is the culmination of a process that began months before. Soon after the Winter menu began in January, 2011, I began setting down new ideas for the Spring menu. Writing a new menu in advance of the actual season is a bit of a voodoo science, since you are never sure exactly what produce will be available when the menu starts in April. This year, for example, was really non-standard, much colder and rainier than a typical Seattle Spring. The end result was that many of the local ingredients that we look forward to every spring were either not available or delayed. Local asparagus, for example, was about 3 weeks later than usual. Consequently, when we begin developing new menu ideas, we have no real sense of what produce will be available when the new menu begins.
About a month before new menu day, I meet with Jessi Aaenson, the chef de cuisine at Cafe Presse. She is the person responsible for day to day operations at Cafe Presse while I shuttle between Cafe Presse and Le Pichet. If you have been to Cafe Presse, you will undoubtedly recognize her. Anyway, at this meeting, we each present the ideas that we have for the new menu. Some of these may be dishes from the past, including certain dishes that return in the Spring each year (Steak Tartare would be an example). Others are dishes we have made for specials that were well liked. Some are traditional dishes that we have read about or seen. And some are just invented out of whole cloth.
This meeting yields the basic outline of the new menu. Then we get to work making trial runs on any new dishes to make sure that they will work as we expect. Sometimes a dish that seems like a good idea in your head either needs adjustment when it gets to the plate or just doesn’t work at all and has to be scrapped. You can find the successful dishes offered as daily specials at Cafe Presse in the weeks before the new menu begins.
After the trials are done and final menu is set, the big push to get ready for new menu day really begins. Recipes are written and checked, new prep and order lists are made, ingredients scouted and sourced. Finally, when we have all the products in house, we can set to work preparing the items required for each new dish. The day or so before new menu is a rush to finish all the preparation for the new dishes while still preparing the dishes for the previous menu.
The end result of all this planning and preparation is New Menu Day. At 9am, each of the new dishes are prepared by Jessi and myself while kitchen staff look on so that they can see how each goes together. They ask questions and give input about ways to improve or simplify preparation and presentation.
We then send these dishes out to a table in the back room, where the waitstaff has gathered for a new menu tasting.
This is the moment when Jessi and I explain each of the new dishes, its origins and ingredients, basically providing them with information to answer any questions that our guests may ask. Then staff has a chance to pose their questions as well.
Finally, the waitstaff gets to try all the new dishes and ask ask any questions they have about what they are tasting. The whole demonstration / tasting process is repeated at 5pm for the evening crew. Then the new menu is well and truly begun.
Its a long process that we repeat four times a year at Cafe Presse (and more often than that at Le Pichet). It is a lot of work and stress, but very much worth it to be able to offer new and interesting dishes to our guests and to be able to take advantage of fresh local produce.
Now we start answering phone calls from people who want to know when the French onion soup will be back on the menu (I am glad they care enough to ask!).