As you develop a menu, it can be a fascinating process of comparing and contrasting, of finding textures and flavors that work well together as you also find ways to surprise and delight diners. You may start with a signature dish and then develop a creative menu around that culinary centerpiece, or you may start with an idea for an appetizer and then build from there.

Menu development can be as unique as the chef, with endless riffs on the theme. In this post, we’ll share insights about how we develop menus at the Culinary Vegetable Institute.

As a baseline, when preparing a multi-course meal, we look at the following ingredients—meats, fish, grain, herbs, condiments, alcohols, spices, nuts, fats, dairy—and, of course, fruits and vegetables. We are fortunate to have ready access to an abundant cornucopia of fresh vegetables, herbs, microgreens, and edible flowers from The Chef’s Garden, and we carefully source other quality ingredients.

We then explore traditional and non-traditional ingredient pairings. As a simple example, we might have an appetizer that includes the iconic pairing of tomato and basil. This pairing works especially well, aromatically speaking, and is a combination that people are used to seeing together, which provides a comfort factor. Or, to do something somewhat less expected, the fresh basil could be switched out for mint—or marigold.

As Executive Chef Jamie Simpson says, “When you want to challenge yourself, to get out of the box, you can take classic cultural staples, like tomato and basil, and find other ingredients with the same intensity to come up with new food pairings. Experiment.”

The experimentation within a single dish can also come from the culinary techniques used to create it, whether that means sautéing, frying, roasting, baking or grilling, fermenting, dehydrating, juicing, freezing or pulverizing—or something else.

Once you’ve decided upon one dish in a particular multi-course menu, you can then find ways to tie the menu together—perhaps based upon a theme, cuisine or special ingredient—while presenting a variety of textures and more. Will, for example, rich and delicious dishes alternate with light and bright ones to cleanse the palate? Or will the dishes build up in intensity?

Art of Balance

When considering the aspect of balance, Jamie may ask himself numerous questions; for example, he may look at a single ingredient and ask:

  • How far do you sear it?
  • How hard do you sear it?
  • Do you poach it?
  • Do you grill it?
  • Do you fry it?
  • Do you dry it?
  • Do you freeze it?

Balance also plays a role in colors and flavors, including “flavors of high acidic notes, and deep dark charred alkaline notes . . .  greens, blues, purples, pinks, yellows—whatever. And if there’s a certain amount of pastel to a color, then that level of pastel can be applied to other elements in the dish, which is really fun, usually achievable by adding milk or cream.”

To develop creative menu ideas, it can also help to follow your bliss.

Finding Culinary Inspiration

“Conventionality,” according to the Bee Gees and Frankie Valli, “belongs to yesterday.”

Jamie wholeheartedly agrees. Each time he strolls through the gardens at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, he starts with a mindset of tabula rosa, allowing his mind to become a pristine blank slate so that whatever he sees is fresh and new again. The conventions of yesterday are put into a mental balloon that, once he steps out onto the soil, is released to the clouds, allowing preconceived notions to simply float away.

“It’s really about what’s going on today,” he says. “What’s going on now.”

For example, when he made his wedge salad, he gave this example of focusing on precisely what he saw in the moment: “Tiny little fennel is starting to push out of the ground. Pea tendrils. Crocus flowers are up. Wild onions are starting to shoot. Dandelions, day lilies.”

When preparing for a Vegetable Showcase event, as another example, he imagines new ways to apply culinary techniques to showcase the highlighted ingredient in a rainbow of iterations. For example, at a potato showcase, the potato salad used vinegar, malt, mustard, celery, egg, mayo, onion and petite lettuces; guests also got to enjoy Potato Royale, which was a textural roller coaster of a soup, and numerous other unique courses.

“During each of these showcases,” Wine Steward Liz Studer shares, “a particular vegetable or type of veggie, such as cruciferous ones, gets to be the star of the show. But, that’s just the starting point.”

Liquid Magic

Beverages also play an important role in menu development, with Liz responsible for creating unique pairings for CVI events—such as at the popup dinner when Scott Schneider of Ai Fiori led a collaborative dinner with the young chefs from the Lorain County JVS Culinary Arts program. “That night,” Liz said, “the theme didn’t center on a specific product, but that was when lavender was blooming magnificently on the farm. And, since that’s a favorite of mine, I highlighted it in two different drinks that evening.”

The first was a unique take on the frothy Ramos Gin Fizz, a drink invented by Carl Ramos in New Orleans. It’s said that, because this drink requires such steady and precise shaking to reach the right texture, he hired “shaker men” specifically for this purpose. In Liz’s version of this frothy drink, lavender syrup—made from the farm’s marvelous crop—replaced the simple sugar, and a lovely sprig of lavender floated on the drink’s top.

She used lavender tincture in the second drink option of the night, which was a whiskey sour with the traditional egg whites. The tincture had been made from the farm’s bumper crop sustainably grown the previous year.

Liz recalls facing special challenges with a legume-themed dinner a few years back. “I even found myself,” she says, with a laugh, “googling ‘green bean cocktails’ with no luck. So, I realized that I needed to go in another direction.”

The turning point came when she thought about Charlotte Voisey and her Aquafaba Sour.

In the YouTube video, Charlotte shares how interesting it can be to start with a classic cocktail and then add a twist, based upon the season or a special ingredient. And, in her Aquafaba Sour, instead of egg whites, she uses a vegan option—chickpea juice—to give the cocktail a nice, silky-smooth mouthfeel.

So, in Liz’s cocktail for the CVI’s legume-focused Vegetable Showcase, she used sweet pea syrup, Calvin pea tendrils, fava beans—and chickpea juice.

Another time, she walked among the grove of fir trees at the CVI where honeybees are sheltered, and this inspired her to create a drink with honey syrup from the Culinary Vegetable Institute’s beehives, infused with spruce tips. “The CVI is such a radical place,” she said, “giving us access to fresh vegetables, edible flowers and herbs throughout most of the year, allowing us to create menus based upon a sense of place throughout the changing seasons. The CVI is magical, a living, breathing thing, earthy and natural, a place that spurs on creativity.”

She points out something else. When using the seasons for creative menu ideas, the CVI is really talking about micro-seasons.

Micro-Seasons and Menu Development

“Each season brings a different kind of awareness. The way the air feels on my skin, the angle of light striking my eyes as the sun moves across the sky, the sensations of the ground underfoot as I walk or kneel all affect my thinking, my hoping and dreaming, the way I put words together and go about solving problems.” (The Old Farmer’s Almanac)

Yes, the Jones family has been farming a long time and, by now, they have an intuitive sense of the seasons—and yet, they’ll be the first to tell you that you can’t ever predict Mother Nature’s timeline or know what will grow best this year—at least, not precisely. So, really, when using nature and crops as your culinary inspiration, it makes sense to think in terms of the beauty of micro-seasons.

In Ancient Japan, they had far more than four seasons. In fact, they had 72.

Yes, 72 micro-seasons.

The Creative Adventurer shares how, in 1685, astronomer Shibukawa Shunkai wrote down these mini seasons that mesh with that county’s climate, calling them a “poetic journey.” For example:

  • February 4-8: East wind melts the ice
  • February 9-13: Bush warblers start singing in the mountains
  • March 6-10: Hibernating insects surface
  • May 10-14: Worms surface
  • June 11-15: Rotten grass becomes fireflies
  • September 2-7: Rice ripens
  • October 3-7: Farmers drain fields
  • November 22-26: Rainbows hide

This is only about one-tenth of these micro-seasons, with each one containing within itself a multitude of possibilities.

A fly-fishing author, John Gierach, has said that only two groups of people recognize the seasons within the seasons—fishermen and farmers—but it’s also ripe with potential for chefs.

Additional Sources of Culinary Inspiration

Other people can be an endless source of inspiration—something that has become clear at each and every Roots culinary conference that we’ve held. Plus, The Chef’s Garden offers a menu planning guide for each of the seasons that can spark new ideas—with product specialists able to say what’s ready for harvest in a particular micro-season, in an exact moment of time.

Inspiration can be found from other chefs and food and beverage professionals, just like Liz Studer found her legume enlightenment in a drink created by Charlotte Voisey. And, as Liz has pointed out, even children can provide the impetus for a brand-new creation.

“My son loves baby carrots,” she said, “so I gave him some dragon carrots from the farm to snack on. He loves dragons, too, and he thought these carrots could help him to breathe fire. So, I ended up creating a Kiss of Dragon drink for an outdoor event where I used lucky sorrel in an infuser, plus a higher-proof alcohol, and shaved dragon carrot peels to mimic flames.”

Inspiration can be found in art, in music, in poetry—in anything that offers up an opportunity to be eloquent, that provides a new way to approach creativity, that offers up a connection to other people.

For example, here’s what Jamie has to say about balancing flavor profiles in a dish—and, for that matter, in a menu—using music as the metaphor: “Look at those like notes as a chord. Each ingredient is a note. Each bite is a chord. Each dish is a song. The entire dinner as a whole? That is your album.”

Going Beyond How to Develop a Menu

Although, as a chef, you’ll need to orchestrate the nuts and bolts of creative menu planning, the ultimate goal is to create an unforgettable dining experience for guests. That transcends any culinary technique or application, with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

To deliver a message through narrative plating, Jamie may take a single ingredient, a specific moment in time or place. For example, it could be when a pheasant hurries through the corn fields, eating what’s in its path as preparation for winter.

Then, as he chooses ingredients to tell his story, he thinks about how the dish will taste, how it would smell, how the texture would feel upon the tongue, the sound made when chewing, and more to create a multi-sensory dining experience for guests at the CVI.

If using petite mixed carrots, for example, he’d think about that candy-sweet carrot flavor, its intensity of flavor, deep and vibrant colors, delightfully snappy crunch, clean, fresh, earthy aroma, and even the vivid feathery tops.

As part of a dish’s crowning glory, it’s important to use quality plating—meaning the physical plates, bowls and so forth—to present the creative dish at its highest and best. Because we have a wonderful partnership with Steelite®, we sometimes even design a dish around the tableware. For example, when Jamie created a dandelion composition, he used a stunning translucent gray plate. Stems curled around the plate in ribbons; in the center of the plate were four upright columns made of pureed spinach gelatin.

Jamie also put dandelion leaves in a vacuum compressor, making them as translucent as the plate. As a final touch, a long-stemmed yellow bloom that resembled a large dandelion was gently added, with dandelion petals sprinkled on the plate.

Sound intriguing? We’d love to see you at an upcoming CVI event!