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May 11, 2006

Headig: Talk of the Table, Menus, Mom and a Word of Advice by BOB DORAN, photo of waitress lighting candle in restaurant

It may take a while to realize it, but you have in front of you a very useful tool. Of course, that's assuming that someone has not already made off with the copy of the Menu of Menus that's supposed to be inserted in this issue. [The North Coast Journal's Menu of Menus is available at restaurants, hotels and other locations throughout Humboldt County.]

cover of the Menu of MenusAs my esteemed colleague Helen Sanderson points out in the introduction, the thick, full-color guide to local restaurants was "a labor of love" by our staff, but it also represents a great deal of hard work by the people who feed us when we're not in the mood to feed ourselves. For, you see, the menu is a key document in the transaction between customer and kitchen: You read it, choose what you want and tell your server, who in turn, writes a note for the cooks and, if all goes according to plan, you get what you want to eat. It's a well-crafted menu that makes this possible.

It wasn't always so. Menus have a long history — someone found one carved in stone in the tomb of an Egyptian prince — but, as with all menus up until the 18th century, it was merely a list of what was served. There was no choice involved. It was like having a meal at home: This is what's for dinner, eat it or go hungry.

Things began to change when European chefs started offering diners a few options rather than serving the same meal to all. At first the choices were memorized by the waiters (a practice that hangs on with daily "specials"). Later, the "bill of fare" was instituted, usually a poster placed near the restaurant entrance or, for those who wanted to change the selections more frequently, a chalkboard.

Printed menus as we know them today didn't come along until early in the 19th century, when restaurateurs began offering them to their more prestigious clients: people like kings, queens, princes and princesses who demanded special treatment. Menus continued their evolution and became commonplace part-way into the 20th century — everyone who went out to eat at a sit-down establishment expected one.

In my many years in the food business, I wrote or rewrote quite a few menus, in some cases starting from scratch, in others revising and refining an already existing document. It is perhaps the most important part of a chef's job, since it involves making choices about what to serve. As with any business, restaurants are a study in buying and selling, and, since the profit margin in the food business is slim and the products involved are perishable, purchasing choices — as determined by the menu — are crucial.

Even the best chef will have a hard time convincing diners to order his lovingly crafted creations if they are not described in an appealing way — waiters are always willing to expand or clarify, but the writing in the menu is what the customer sees first. And if you don't sell it, you eat it, which may not seem like a problem if you are just an employee — until your boss goes out of business.

When describing my previous life as a food-service worker, I sometimes joke that I escaped from the restaurant world. Not that I didn't enjoy it, but it's a stressful, physically demanding line of work. And it doesn't get any more demanding than a weekend like the one coming up.

As Helen noted, around the Journal office the Menu of Menus you have in front of you was affectionately known as MoM. By chance it was released into the world just as we head into Mother's Day weekend, one of the busiest times of year in the fine dining business, since mothers are the cooks in many households, and they deserve a day off.

I recall one Sunday at the Silver Lining, where I was chef for too many years, when we served over 300 champagne brunches before shifting into dinner mode. The same sort of thing will happen this Sunday in any popular restaurant. And to make matters worse, for at least the last few years some thoughtless university administrator set the Saturday in the second weekend in May as commencement day for Humboldt State, combining two very busy days into one hellish weekend.

Here's my word of advice: Study this thick document in front of you, with its plethora of options as to where you might take your mom, or the mother of your children, out to eat — or, if you're a grad, where mom and dad will take you to dinner. And do it right now. I mean it. Make your choice, and then call the restaurant and make a reservation. Today. It's likely some places you call will already be fully booked. If so, go back to MoM and try again. MoM will help you. And when you've found the ideal place, relax. Enjoy your meal. Bon appetite.


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