WORDS BY DIANA HENRY
ILLUSTRATIONS BY PATRICIA CURTAN
WORDS BY DIANA HENRY
ILLUSTRATIONS BY PATRICIA CURTAN
Whether it’s a minimalist list of dishes or an intricately designed work of art, a menu can speak volumes about a chef’s style and vision. Diana Henry explores the pleasures of the humble bill of fare.
If Prufrock’s life was measured out with coffee spoons, mine has been measured with menus. Their importance to me became clear one summer in France. I’d just been in hospital and, in truth, there was plenty I could have been worrying about, but I sat on the roof terrace of a modest-but-good restaurant, Kir in one hand and menu in the other, and felt so happy it was almost tangible. I was only choosing between goats’ cheese salad and a terrine, between guinea fowl and monkfish, but knowing that someone had bothered to devise a meal that worked – there were only two choices for each course – and write it out made me feel cared for.
This love of menus started early. My family only went to restaurants on special occasions. In those days, the bill of fare had usually been written up on a typewriter and stuck into a faux-leather case. The choices were limited: perhaps a glass of orange juice, grilled grapefruit or prawn cocktail to start; steak, a mixed grill or chicken Maryland for the main course; and poire belle Helene or apple tart for pudding. But once I had the menu in my hands, I considered it with reverence and relished the time between opening it and eating the first course.
The menu sets the scene and acts as a shop window. It also acts as a prop when you arrive at an unfamiliar restaurant – you have something to focus on
While you read a menu, time is suspended. For a brief moment, your evening, or lunch- time, is full of possibilities. What does this list of options say? In some places it will communicate what group the restaurant belongs to – you’ll find celeri remoulade and coq au vin if it’s a French brasserie, for example – while the menu design and font can convey an era, a country, a particular place, even a feeling. This can be done clumsily (Cafe Rouge has never transported me to France) or with great skill and style.
Jeremy King, restaurateur of the Corbin & King partnership (responsible for such distinguished places as The Wolseley and The Delaunay in London) claims the menu is central to a restaurant, even more so now that diners can look at it online. "The menu sets the scene and acts as a shop window. It also acts as a prop when you arrive at an unfamiliar restaurant – you have something to focus on. It’s a conversation opener, too. We are often insecure when we arrive at a restaurant, so we like something in our hands to stabilise us, and even hide behind – metaphorically as well as literally. I always believe that restaurateurs are at their best when they create restaurants they would like to eat in themselves, and therefore by definition create a menu they would like to eat." King changes the menus in his restaurants several times a year, though he’s subtle about it. "Menus are always a work in progress. They look the same but change in the way that the Coke bottle has changed – they appear classically familiar but in fact have changed immensely while retaining the same ethos and spirit."
In smaller restaurants, where the chef is also the owner, the menu will give you an insight into what one person is trying to do. Short menus and no-choice menus – which I like more than any others – are your first communication with the chef. When I was at university (and couldn’t afford to eat at fancy restaurants), I used to travel to Raymond Blanc’s Manoir aux Quat’Saisons near Oxford just to read the menu that was posted on the wall outside. I’d never met him but had eaten at his first small restaurant in Summertown, Oxford. The menu at the Manoir gave me clues as to how he was developing.
When I moved to London after college, I discovered a set of menus that stopped me in my tracks. They were, in fact, almost life-changing as they pulled my focus from France (my first love) to California, and have influenced the way I cook ever since. They were the menus of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. I came across them in her first book, Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, in a bookshop one rainy afternoon. As I flicked through it, a shiver went down my spine. It was the mid-1980s and nouvelle cuisine was at its height, with its complex dishes and concomitant over-fussy menu descriptions. To read that something was "sat on a bed of" something else, or that "pillows" of food would be "nestling" in a "nage" was not uncommon at that time. Reading one of the menus near the front of Alice’s book – Provencal fish soup, griddled pork with roast peppers, plum sherbet – was like arriving on a sunlit Californian beach after being confined in a Baroque cathedral. It didn’t matter to me that the book contained menus for which there were no recipes, the thrill was in looking at Alice’s style, what she thought went well together, what she had chosen. The dishes seemed so pure and unfussy – a bowl of fresh cherries with homemade almond biscuits was an acceptable pudding – that they had a kind of magic. I felt as if I was looking at food for the very first time.
The dishes seemed so pure and unfussy – a bowl of fresh cherries with homemade almond biscuits was an acceptable pudding – that they had a kind of magic
Sally Clarke, a British chef and restaurateur who trained at Chez Panisse, offered only set menus when she opened her eponymous restaurant in Kensington in 1984. I used to visit it every Monday to read her menus for the week ahead. Often I would take notes. These menus were a touchstone for my cooking at home and my link to the Californian ethos which, at Clarke’s, I could see being applied to British ingredients. Simple and seasonal were writ large. It’s hard to believe this mantra hasn’t been around forever, but it was new then. Sally’s menus had the same clarity as Alice’s.
I wasn’t surprised to find that creating menus is still one of the best parts of Sally Clarke’s day. She takes her staff, as well as her ingredients, into account. "It’s important to create a menu that will be comfortable for the younger members of the kitchen team but also give the experienced cooks some sense of involvement in its development," she says. "The main consideration, though, is the food that has arrived or is expected that day. I might also think about what was popular the previous evening, what the weather is like and who’s coming to dinner." She believes that a long menu cannot, by its nature, offer excellence in terms of quality and freshness.
The other remarkable thing about Alice Waters’ menus is their design. Patricia Curtan’s linocut and letterpress prints communicate the spirit of the place. They are bold but delicate, simple but carefully done. Curtan is a cook as well as an artist and it shows. I kept the menu from the first meal I ever ate at Chez Panisse and framed it. It still hangs in my home. Alice’s vision was in the very font and choice of paper on which the menus were printed. She and her chefs are still my favourite menu writers.
Stevie Parle, a young chef whose style I really admire, started o doing set menus at his first restaurant, Dock Kitchen in west London, and now has both aÌ€ la carte and set menus in all three of his restaurants. "The whole DNA of a restaurant is in the menu," he says. "When I started cooking in my own place the menus were made up of what I fancied cooking that day. Now, they’re more about what I want to say to the customer. I love writing them, particularly set menus. Set menus are usually about a place, but sometimes an ingredient. Thinking about the progression of a meal is a thrill. You can roll things into each other and play with the pace." A good menu should have – like a play or a story – an arc.
I kept the menu from the first meal I ate at Chez Panisse and framed it. Alice’s vision was in the very font and choice of paper on which the menus were printed
Stephen Harris, chef-owner of the Michelin-starred dining pub The Sportsman on the north Kent coast, likes his set menus to be long. "Eating a three-course meal is like flying to Paris, then coming back home immediately. I prefer to spend time once I’ve arrived somewhere." So, in line with how he likes to eat himself, he offers a 10-course set tasting menu. "It’s much easier to put together than the aÌ€ la carte menu. You think about all the ingredients that are available and turn them into a menu that has a rhythm. It’s good to have flavour echoes in there too, or a gently running theme. Particular ingredients can recur throughout the meal. Tasting menus give the chef a bit of power as well – I often put on dishes people might find difficult, that they might not otherwise order. I want to push my diners a bit."
Language is one of Harris’s key considerations, especially when he’s writing the aÌ€ la carte for the day. "Fergus Henderson at St John was the first person to use really pared-down language. I remember being quite taken aback by it. It just said ‘grilled lemon sole and peas’. It was pretty brutal, and very English, in a way." However, the pared-down approach can go so far that it becomes pretentious. "Ash, blood, mushroom"? You’re not writing a haiku. And you’re not even telling me what I’m going to eat. Writers have to find their voice; so, too, do chefs in their menus.
As Harris writes his a la carte on a blackboard, brevity is forced upon him, but he still labours over getting the language right. "There’s a fine balance between keeping descriptions short and conveying what a dish is like. You can get it wrong. I once put on ‘mille-feuille of strawberries’ and it didn’t sell. When I put on ‘strawberry and vanilla slice’ it did."
So who, in this country, is admired for their skill in menu writing? Time and again people cite Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray at the River Cafe. Jeremy King describes the daily changing menu there as "masterful" and Stevie Parle explains just how much of a chef’s very being is in their menus: "I don’t keep menus – they’re temporary, they’re of the moment," he says. "But the other day I opened an old cookbook to find a River Cafe menu, handwritten by Rose. She must have done it 12 years ago, when I started cooking there, and it made me cry. She would sit in the restaurant and write the menu every day. All the chefs wanted to be the one who sat down and wrote it with her. It was a huge privilege. She’d look at everything fresh that had come in. ‘Do the girolles need garlic today? How big is the asparagus? Get everything out, let’s have a look,’ she’d say. Rose was a genius and her genius was in the detail. The tiny changes she would make elevated what we were doing there."
This is partly why I love menus. They are the portal through which I can reach the soul of the chef. But Stephen Harris pointed out something else as well. "I want every menu to sum up the day. If you showed me past menus from The Sportsman I could tell you the week of the year in which they were served. Menus are about a particular day in a particular place." An expression of the chef, a snapshot of a day: what special things menus are.