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Common Foodsense: Every Menu Tells a Story

I’m down to my last pint of sauerkraut, so as soon as we’re done here I need to make a batch. It’s simple, really; the ingredients are just cabbage, salt, and patience, with a bit of pounding thrown in as stress relief. When I was a kid I’d assumed that kraut was a commodity, like ketchup and mayonnaise, all of which were grown in a field somewhere and harvested with oddly-shaped tractors. Imagine my surprise when I found out there were recipes.

Back when there was a culinary program at the south campus of Hennepin Tech, I used sauerkraut to give my students some historical perspective. In the first two weeks of class, they’d make a sourdough starter (the easy way; I let them use yeast. The tough part was keeping it alive until the end of the semester) and sauerkraut. In the last two weeks of class they’d grind meat for bratwurst, stuff the casings, twist them into sort of even-ish links and smoke them (on a grill, this wasn’t the ‘60s). Finally, the day would come that we’d use the starter to leaven buns, decant the kraut, grill the brats, and sit down to eat a simple lunch that only took three months to make. If I’d had time to continue this theme, I’d have had ‘em canning pickles (to eventually become relish) and mustard (to eventually become T-shirt stains).

This sort of kitchen organization was the ancient precursor to what we now know as supply chain management. Nowadays you call up your bakery for buns, your meat company for brats and your full-line for kraut, mayo and mustard (and for a reminder that you’d get special pricing if you ditched the butcher and baker). From the point of view of an executive chef, my childhood assumption was right: These things do come fully formed, and you just choose the ones whose taste you like. Changing a product does not require a recipe, it requires samples from six brokers and a formal cutting.

It’s inevitable that the pace of our industry pushes us to just skim the surface of things. There are indeed famous restaurants where the chef goes into the woods each day to forage for the evening’s specials, sometimes making the Michelin judges swoon, sometimes causing anaphylactic shock. The philosophical contribution that those places make is real, but their economic impact is negligible, beyond ravaging the wallets of a few elite foodies. Most of us have to serve our philosophy with a side of fries, if we want to pay the bills.

That doesn’t mean there is no place for the origins of things to show through. If the local food movement has taught us anything, it is that attaching a story to food can make good business sense. It can be aggravating, too; I’m as tired as anyone of line-caught arugula and hand-harvested hummingbird tears—but past a certain price point, customers want to know that you know where your food comes from. And that price point is getting lower and lower: Look at what Panera and Chipotle have done with their sourcing, and look at the poor QSRs who are going to have to pony up for antibiotic-free chicken and cage-free eggs.

If I were to give advice about this—and believe me, it’s painful to offer advice without a substantial hourly fee—I’d suggest looking over your menu from a kindergartener's point of view. What story does each item tell? Will it keep my attention, paint a picture in my mind? What do I learn about the food from the menu copy? What words bring me into the kitchen, the walk-in, the places where the food comes from? 

And so, back to sauerkraut. From two simple ingredients plus time, through the magic of bacteria-mediated anaerobic fermentation, you get a substance which elevates your Reuben above its 9 billion competitors, and gives you an actual reason to have that damn sandwich on the menu. And, incidentally, a way to sell it. You don’t have to do this with every item, of course; just enough of them to show that you’re paying attention. 

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