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It’s every diner’s nightmare: you walk into your favorite eatery, sit down to order your staple dish and find out it’s discontinued. From seasonal considerations and economics to artistic boredom and even all-out failure, there are many reasons why chefs retouch, revamp or remove dishes on menus. Now the power of the web, from Facebook complaints to online petitions, makes it harder for kitchens to cast off their classics quietly. Kojo explores what happens behind the scenes when restaurants make big changes to the menu.
- Todd Kliman Food and Wine Editor and Restaurant Critic, Washingtonian Magazine
- Ann Cashion Chef, Co-Owner, Johnny's Half Shell and Taqueria Nacional
- Ype Von Hengst Executive Chef and Vice President of Culinary Operations, Silver Diner
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt was news that rocked the culinary world. Chef Alain Ducasse the godfather of French gastronomy banished meat from the menu of his famed Paris restaurant. While scrapping frogs legs and guinea fowl for quinoa and shellfish might be behavior you'd expect from a leader in oat cuisine, the rest of us can usually rely a lot more predictability when we pick up a menu, or can we?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom trends in healthy eating to seasonal considerations and even boredom in the kitchen, there are many reasons why menus these days seem a lot more dynamic than just the daily special. And now more than ever social media playing a part in determining what goes on and what comes off the menu. Burger King recently learning that lesson after a web campaign compelled it to revive its chicken fries. But what's really happening behind the scenes when restaurants play the now-you-see-it-now-you don't with the menu. And what power does the lowly diner have when a favorite dish just disappears?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio to discuss this is Todd Kliman. He is food and wine editor and restaurant critic at Washingtonian magazine. Todd, always a pleasure.
MR. TODD KLIMANThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Ann Cashion, chef and co-owner of Johnny's Half Shell and Taqueria Nacional. She's also the former owner and chef of Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan. Ann, good to see you again.
MS. ANN CASHIONHi, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Ype Von Hengst, executive chef and vice president of culinary operations at the Silver Diner. Ype, thank you for joining us.
MR. YPE VON HENGSTKojo, thank you for having me.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation with your questions or comments. Have you ever had a favorite dish that was pulled from a restaurant menu? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. What was it? Did you complain? You can send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Ann, I'll start with a big question. When is it okay to make changes to a menu and when should you leave well enough alone? As the head chef of three of your own restaurants over the years in D.C., does part of the answer lie in your clientele and what your clientele expects...
NNAMDI...or is it just you?
CASHIONNo, it isn't just me. The clientele is definitely a consideration And I can say that, you know, comparing for example the clientele that I cultivated at Cashion's Eat Place, which was very comfortable with a constantly-changing menu, and expected that and wanted that. So I had complete freedom there. You know, fast forward to Johnny's on Capitol Hill...
NNAMDI...not so much.
CASHION...and not so much. And I should also say that it is -- you know, in addition to the different clientele, the conception was different too. I mean, I always knew that Johnny's Half Shell was going to have a core menu. I always knew that crab cakes were going to be sort of the center piece because I wanted it to be about this area, you know, the Chesapeake, the eastern shore. I, of course, expanded that to include the Gulf South.
CASHIONSo it became more of an American regional seafood restaurant but I always knew that there would be a menu that would define who we were. Whereas at Cashion's what defined who we were was it was kind of me. And so I had to basically develop a clientele that was interested enough in me and liked my cooking well enough to play the game.
NNAMDIYpe, you've been the head chef of the Silver Diner chain for 25 years but about four years ago you eliminated about 35 percent of your menu.
HENGSTYes, we did.
NNAMDIThe Diner, it's a sacred American eatery. No one expects anything more than comfort food and bottomless coffee. So why did you make such drastic changes?
HENGSTWell, because, Kojo, like you just said, it's not totally true anymore, you know. Comfort food is what people expect at a diner but the world is changing and you've got to change with it. Just like Ann said, you know, you have to evolve and you have to give the guests what they want. It is not something that is driven by me. It is something what the society wants. And when you see they want to have healthier eating, they want to have better food, they want to have higher quality, then you have to accommodate that because otherwise you're not going to be around. And...
NNAMDIBut I persist you've got 15 restaurant locations to worry about. Weren't you afraid you would alienate a segment of your customer base when you made these changes?
HENGSTWell, when you do them, you do them real carefully. And what we did is we had focus groups. We asked people what they wanted to see as the core menu. And, you know, you always have your basics. You have your pancakes, you have your meatloaf, but even those you can make better. And that's what we did, you know, making with grass-fed beef and making with unbleached flour.
HENGSTAnd then around that, you know, you take the things off that don't matter so much. And sometimes you find that you are duplicating items almost, you know, by just a little bit of a different preparation and they're not needed. And we had extensive focus groups and then what we did is we had service in the restaurant asking the clientele. We recorded all these facts and based on that feedback we eliminated about 30, 35 items so we could focus on quality rather than on quantity, which is important.
NNAMDIOh, so this was just not an overnight decision.
HENGSTNot an overnight...
NNAMDINevertheless, Todd, do you get a sense that he's right, that people now expect menus to be dynamic when they go out to eat, whether we're talking about a diner or a white-tablecloth restaurant?
KLIMANIt's certainly a remarkable thing that he's done because it's turned the Silver Diner into, yeah, as you said, a much more dynamic place, a place where you can go in for a pancake or a meatloaf, as Ype said. But you can also have kind of a kind of casual bistro meal, if you will. And I think the culture of dining out now is one in which people expect dishes to constantly shuffle in and shuffle out.
KLIMANThere is this sense that it's good for the morale at a certain level of dining, a higher level even, at sort of a midlevel dining, that it keeps things fresh, it keeps the diner engaged. It stamps the restaurant as being a place that is kind of influx in a good way, a restaurant that is responding to the times that's staying relevant. Whether that's actually true, of course, is another story.
KLIMANAnd I think a lot of times you have restaurants that change too much and dishes shuffle in and out too quickly. And chefs, you know, flatter themselves by having a dish on the menu and they haven't taken the time to perfect it. And there are a lot of times you see a lot of inconsistency because of that. It's exciting when it's good. And when it's inconsistent it starts to seem like a lot of grab bag.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you like eating at restaurants where the menu stays the same or do you like restaurants where items change, 800-433-8850? Todd, you spent a lot of time watching dishes develop for restaurants. What have you found out about why some dishes get a place on the menu and others never see the light of day?
KLIMANSome dishes see the light of day because a chef is determined to put it out there. It's become more and more the case that the -- you know, to borrow from the realm of gymnastics, you need a high degree of difficulty. And chefs want to have a bar set really high and try to scale it. And so these are kind of feats of daring. And you see...
NNAMDIWell, I want you to tell a specific story about a blue foot chicken fry...
KLIMANOh, yeah. So this is a restaurant I don't have to mention in name, but this is a very, very high profile restaurant. And when I reviewed it when it opened some time ago, I remember talking to the chef and I wanted to double check on some things. And I said, this was an extraordinary dish. This was a blue foot chicken, one of the most prized chickens in the world from France. And the chef had roasted it very, very gently, slipping black truffles under its skin. The skin was beautifully roasted this gorgeous light brown crispy. The meat was juicy and succulent.
KLIMANAnd there were pearl onions and carrots and everything perfectly cut. And there were these wonderful biscuits, they wonderful buttermilk dumplings, not biscuits. And it was as close to a perfect dish, I think, as you can get for that dish. That's a very difficult dish to pull off and was beautiful. It was delicious. And he said, well, I'm glad you enjoyed it because it's coming off the menu. And I thought he was joking. And I said, well, you know, you don't mean it's coming off the menu for good. He said, yeah, we're retiring it. It was the first time I'd heard that term before, retiring a dish.
KLIMANAnd, you know, even Picasso duplicated himself. Many great artists have duplicated themselves. I don't believe a chef is an artist but I -- there is artistry there and it's great to see a dish like that. But I think if you have a dish that's perfect that you've mastered, you've taken the time to perfect, leave it on the menu.
NNAMDIKliman loves it too much, we're retiring it. But it could do...
CASHIONBut you make an interesting point, Todd, about degree of difficulty.
NNAMDII was about to say...
CASHIONYeah, because I think that, you know, talking about that particular dish, which sounds so without pyrotechnics, to recognize how difficult it is to do that and to do it perfectly and do it well I think is something that a lot of people fail to understand. And I think it does drive chefs to do sort of the unexpected and this sort of flashy food.
CASHIONAnd that's where I feel like the push for constantly, you know, reinventing yourself falls short, I think, of what I would like to see coming to my table when I'm eating in someone's restaurant.
NNAMDIYpe, can the amount of time it takes to prepare a dish sometimes determine whether it makes it onto the menu?
HENGSTWell, yeah, you know, just like Todd says, and Ann, you know, it depends a little bit of course in terms of what concept you have. And when people go to the Silver Diner, they expect to -- not to hang out there for hours. They expect to be there for 30 minutes for a lunch or they expect to be maybe for 45 minutes for dinner. So you always have to keep in the end in mind what you have to give to, you know, what you want to provide for your guests.
HENGSTAnd if I would put an item on the menu that will take 20 minutes for me to prep, that would not fly. That does not fit in the concept.
NNAMDIHow does huevos rancheros manage to stay on the menu?
HENGSTOh, my god. You know, you don't think that you're going to go to a Silver Diner and that you are -- or of any diner that you're going to have, you know, huevos rancheros. But first of all, I make these great local ingredients of the chorizo sausage and the beef and then the rice and the black beans. And then, you know, the little bit of jalapeno peppers gives you a bit of heat to it. And then you put the eggs in there. And then by the runny eggs you get like a hollandaise almost and the salsa roja and then the crispy multigrain tortillas. You know, the whole combination is just a delight for you.
HENGSTAnd when I put that on the menu, it was one of those dishes I said too is it's going to fly in a diner. And it has become one of the most popular breakfast dishes. So, you know, you have to push but that's a dish I could never...
NNAMDIBut you learn how to do it -- you learn how to take 20 or 30 seconds off of how long it took to prepare it.
HENGSTWell, yes. You know, because what we did is we made it in two stations first and then what we did is we -- I managed to put it in one station. And that cut out like 35, 40 seconds. Now 35, 45 seconds might not sound like a lot but as Todd and Ann very well know, if you are on a busy Friday or Saturday night and you're doing it with three or four guys on the line, you know, you calculate all those 45 seconds time the many times...
NNAMDIAnd they add up.
HENGST...they add up. And, you know, then if the end result is the same, then you've got to do it.
NNAMDIAnn is a longtime mentor to many chefs. Is one reason you refresh your menu to keep your kitchen staff members on their toes?
CASHIONI like to keep them happy. And hopefully they're always on their toes. But it is fun for them. You know, it was -- it reached a point where it was almost reckless at Cashion's because you would literally, as a cook, be walking in and had no idea even how to set up your station because the menu had completely changed. So that's an extreme example of, you know, keeping people engaged.
CASHIONBut yes, it is important. You know, cooks take a lot of pride in what they do. And when you can show them something that they're going to be able to do differently, a new dish, they're going to take a lot of pride in doing that and they're going to focus on it, they're going to focus on at heart. So yes, but I should also say that in a context like Johnny's where, you know, the crab meat imperial is super important and one of our more complicated dishes and it's always on the menu, it's like I'm going to hold them, you know, to be as careful about that dish as they are about the new one that they're excited about.
CASHIONSo, I mean, you have to -- you know, you have to inspire them I think right across the menu board. It's not constantly throwing new stuff to them that's going to keep them on their toes.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. But we're still taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you tend to order the same dish whenever you go to a restaurant? Why? Should restaurants constantly innovate their menus or would you prefer that they stay the same, 800-433-8850? Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're having a Food Wednesday conversation about restaurants revamping their menus and how you feel about that. We're talking with Todd Kliman, food and wine editor and restaurant critic at Washingtonian magazine, a frequent guest on this broadcast, occasional host. Ann Cashion is chef and co-owner of Johnny's Half Shell and Taqueria Nacional. She's also the former owner and chef of Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan. And Ype Von Hengst is executive chef and vice president of culinary operations at Silver Diner. Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDII'll throw this potentially sensitive question out to all of you. In all of your years working in kitchens or writing about food, have you found that there's any difference between male chefs and female chefs in their willingness...
NNAMDI...to experiment with menus or dishes? I'll start with you, Todd.
KLIMANNext question, please.
NNAMDICome on, put it out there.
HENGSTYou want to be politically correct?
KLIMANI'll go this route. Yes, I do. I think among female chefs, and to be fair, there are not as many on the scene, but among female chefs you see a good deal less strutting bravado machismo, a good deal less cooking that is about flattering the ego of the chef about something that you might eat that you would admire but maybe not like about showing you something that you've never seen before, about a certain kind of chest thumping.
KLIMANAmong -- and these are tendencies, but among female chefs there seems to be a desire to, actually some radical notion, please the diner and cook food that is recognizably from the table. In other words, a dish that people have seen before, maybe want to taste a more refined version or a slight twist on that version. But something that is grounded in a cuisine or in a tradition, something that's identifiable and something that is pleasurable which they are going to do maybe more pleasurably.
NNAMDIWhat's your observation, Ann?
CASHIONI agree with Todd. I think women...
NNAMDIYou're not a chest-thumping chef?
CASHIONNo. Am I?
KLIMANOh, absolutely not, but you should be. You are...
HENGSTYeah, she should.
KLIMAN...you deserve to be thumping your chest at times.
CASHIONThank you. But I do think, you know, context is kind of -- very important to the male chefs. And what Todd was saying about something you may already know, something you may already be anticipating that you would love to eat, but sort of the understanding -- sort of being grounded and thinking about the context of the food that you're serving is something that I see less and less of in male chefs the younger and younger that they are.
CASHIONI don't know if that's going to be something that disappears altogether as we sort of, you know, rush towards the new and the exciting at our tables. I certainly hope not. It's definitely what's important to me but, yeah, it does seem to be gender-linked at least for right now.
NNAMDIYpe, your observations?
HENGSTYes. Well, I have a few. And one observation I have is -- would say get directly from my son Steve who works at the Culinary Institute. He is in public relations and he's also a former student from there. And what he has seen over the last 20 years since he has been there that, you know, the increase of female students thankfully is increasing. It's incredible. It was almost like a 15-20 percent and now is up to almost like a 35-40 percent ratio. So almost half and half female and male students.
HENGSTSo it has become much more an acceptable profession for the female gender, which I applaud and I think is great. And what I find in our kitchens that where the guys are, you know, the machismo and the bravado, as you mentioned, also they are more focused often on the speed, whereas the female gender is really focused on the execution and the beauty of the plate. So, you know, the product that comes out is very important to the female gender, you know, that the looks of it are exactly as it's supposed to be, whereas the guys, you know, sometimes, we need to get it out. We are busy. So there's a different mentality for both, yes.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Put on your headphones, please, so you can hear what Marie in Falls Church, Va. has to say. Marie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARIEThank you, Kojo. I actually had a couple comments. I've been in the restaurant business for 32 years. I retired last year, sold my business. And I had a comment about the gentleman who said that he didn't think that chefs were artists. I have to disagree with that myself. I mean, good chefs are artists. I'm not a chef, I wasn't a chef but I just want to say that they are artists. As well as Picasso can pop up the very nice painting, I think a great chef can come up with an amazing dish.
MARIEAnd second, for the dish that you were talking about, you know, retiring a dish even though it's really, really good, you know, the chicken with the truffles can be very expensive to make, very difficult to make. And if it's been on a menu for years, yeah, we do retire dish. And sometimes what happens also is I think some restaurants wouldn’t do that if it's very, very popular and its customers love it, then it would bring a lot of customers thinking that the dish is gonna go out, it could be, you know, publicity. But usually, you know, I think, yeah, after so many years certain dishes should go. That was my comment.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Care to comment on that, Todd?
NNAMDIAfter awhile certain dishes should go.
KLIMANSure. But in the case I was referring to was two weeks. So a little soon I think to retire it. And also how often does a chef attain perfection or near perfection? It would seem to me you'd want to say, you know, let's keep that there, which also goes back to the question of chef as artists. I don't -- I think I see a lot of artistry. I think there are maybe a couple chefs I could say, you're an artist. But I think for the most part -- and I think it's a good thing that chefs do not think of themselves as artists -- they're in the business of trying to please a public, trying to connect with an audience. And it goes back to what Ann's been saying, that food is a communication and it's a connection.
KLIMANWhereas I see an artist as somebody who is trying to alter consciousness, trying to upset the status quo, trying to force you to see something in a new light. I don't think most cooking does that or even should do that.
NNAMDIHow about the reverse of retiring a dish, Ann? Can you think of a time when you put a dish on the menu that customers just did not respond to? Perhaps you misjudged your diners' tastes?
CASHIONYes. I just had this experience this past spring during shad roe season. I had decided that this spring -- we always feature shad roe at Johnny's Half Shell. I decided that since I don't particularly love hot rum myself, and I tend to like to cook things that I love, that I was going to cure the roe. And we cured it all the way to bottarga, which is -- you know, it's an Italian Sardinian specialty where the roe sack is almost like the consistency of a candle and you can slice it. And we prepared a lunch pasta with it. And people were just not interested in going there.
CASHIONAnd I think it was -- I thought I could pull it off. I know it would've sold like hotcakes at Cashion's Eat Place. It was just another sort of reminder to me that, you know, your clientele, although they shouldn't dictate, they will have -- they'll weigh in and you'll find out. So that one was, yeah, not good.
NNAMDIBack to retiring, can you remember having a signature dish that turned out to be, in a way, a blessing and a curse? Have you come into a restaurant and had to continue serving a signature dish that you didn't particularly like...
CASHIONWell, it's been a long time since I've...
NNAMDI...thought you should retire?
CASHION...come into someone else's restaurant to cook. But I have to say that we had a -- two dishes like that at Cashion's Eat Place. And one was the -- it was a chicken dish. It was dark meat and white meat cooked to order so it had a 20-minute cook time. It had, you know, pearl onions that had to be peeled and pancetta and, you know, its own jus. And it resembled in some ways the dish Todd was talking about earlier. And it was so popular that we just could not take it off. And, you know, the cooks were always like, you know, can't we just not have to spend 20 minutes cooking chicken tonight? And I'm like, no.
CASHIONAnd then there was another dish that was a halibut dish that sort of -- it took the same importance in people's, you know, sort of culinary imagination and they had to have it. So those dishes were -- I guess you could say they were curses. I actually was very proud to have been able to create something that people loved that much but I don't think it was as much fun for the staff as it was for me.
NNAMDIYpe, can you think of a dish that you never get tired of serving? What about a dish you wish you could do away with but you cannot because of popular demand?
HENGSTWell, actually I wanted to more hit on what Ann was saying over here, is that for years we had a chicken pot pie on the menu. And again it seems to be a lot going on chicken over here today that people are taking on and off the menu. And, you know, if you want to make a great chicken pot pie, you basically have to make it to order. You can make the filling ahead of time but, you know, you put the dough on and then you bake it and it takes you about 20, 25 minutes if you want to do it right.
HENGSTI had developed some shortcuts where we had the top baked off and then we baked it off for a couple more minutes as the last minute went out because it had to be in the guidelines of the ten minutes getting it to the guest. And it had a tremendous popularity but 50 percent of the people who ate the dish didn't like it because the dough was doughy and it wasn't -- you know, I felt I just could not do it the right way.
HENGSTAnd although this plate had a tremendous popularity, the lobster filling with the fresh veggies and the carrots and the great, you know, a little bit of a mustard tarragon sauce, great flavors, I finally decided to take it off because I could not execute it well. And, you know, those are sometimes the hard calls that you have to make. This is a dish that held over many other dishes when there are five, six people in the restaurant couldn't get it out at the same time. And then 50 percent of the time when the people got it, I didn't make it the way I really wanted to make it and it disappointed people.
HENGSTSo the expectations were there but I couldn't live up to it so then we finally retired it. And, Kojo, that was one of the 30 dishes that, you know, came in retirement among with spinach dip.
NNAMDIProbably caught some flak for it too. Here's Mel.
HENGSTYes, yes. I still have some dripping eggs on my windows and my house where they came by and...
NNAMDIMel, you're on the air in Fairfax, Va. Go ahead, please.
MELI just wanted to thank the Silver Diner for giving us vegetarians and vegans an alternative place to eat. You know, you get like two thumbs up because the veggie chili is to die for. And...
HENGSTWell, thank you so much for saying that.
MELYeah, we would not have any other place to -- well, I wouldn't say any other place but that is an excellent, very economical place to go. And I just wanted to personally thank you for that.
HENGSTWell, thank you for that nice compliment. You know, it's been my goal to put vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free food on the menu. Of course that's what the guests want now. And so one day I feed you hearty and the next day I feed you healthy. So it's your choice. Thank you for that compliment.
NNAMDIThis comment we got on our website from Dennis, "Can you have your guests comment on the implications of scale on their supply chains and how it guides their choices for a seasonal menu? Is it really possible to bring farm fresh ingredients to chain restaurants at reasonable prices or is it really just a marketing fad?"
HENGSTNo, it's not a marketing fad. I don't think you should ever try to do it for that reason. You know, I'd much rather support the local economy over here, and Todd wrote a wonderful article about that in the Washingtonian last year. And, you know, I've been able to come to 30 percent of the menu being able local products. And I wish I could do more and I'm still working on it. And my goal is to get it actually up to 50 percent. But, you know, if you have different locations, yes, it takes a lot of work but everyone can do it. Everyone can do it.
NNAMDIOh, I'm sorry, Ann.
CASHIONI think it's also important for the emailer to recognize I mentioned cost effectiveness. It does cost more.
CASHIONIt absolutely does cost more. And that's a commitment that the restaurant makes because they believe in what they're doing.
CASHIONSo I just wanted to put that...
NNAMDITodd, same issue.
KLIMANI think it's exceedingly hard and I think Ype deserves a lot of credit for what he's done with Silver Diner. To have a restaurant at the level that that restaurant is, very accessible, two people can eat for 25, $30, to be doing that -- 30 percent of all the food being local doesn't sound like a great deal. But you have to realize that most of the restaurants that you see in this area, when they say they have a commitment to local and they have a signboard out front with the farmers that are being celebrated, they're doing about 30 percent. That's probably the industry standard for a restaurant that's really being conscientious in that way. So that's remarkable.
NNAMDIWe got a comment from Tanisha on our website who says, "We eat at Silver Diner Laurel at least once a week. The change in menu items for those of us that want to eat healthy and have variety is awesome. I've never been a fan of diners before." There we go.
HENGSTThank you so much. But, you know, I would just like to comment on what Ann is saying. It really costs you a lot more. When we started with this in 2008, 2009...
NNAMDIYou've only got about 20 seconds.
HENGST...it cost us a million dollars more that we could not pass onto the customers. But, you know, it's the commitment we made, (unintelligible) commitment.
NNAMDIAnd finally this email from Jonathan, "What does Ann Cashion think of her Taqueria Nacional? Is she happy with how it turned out?
CASHIONI am so happy with how it turned out.
HENGSTYou should be. You should be.
NNAMDIShe is the chef and owner of Johnny's Half Shell and Taqueria Nacional. Ann Cashion is also the former owner and chef of Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan. Ype Von Hengst is executive chef and vice president of culinary operations at Silver Diner. And Todd Kliman, well, you know who he is. He's a writer. Todd Kliman is the food and wine editor at restaurant critic at Washingtonian magazine. Thank you all for joining us and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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