At the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, chef-proprietor Heston Blumenthal regularly serves 20-course meals, while 99.9% of customers at the 1880 restaurant at The Bentley Hotel, London, opt for either a seven, eight, nine or 10 course grazing menu in place of selecting from the Á la carte menu.
Grazing, or tasting menus in French and British restaurants have developed from the popularity of dim sum, meze and tapas restaurants, where an array of small dishes is key to the operation.
While grazing menus are generally found in restaurants, they have just begun to appear at functions too. Moving Venue Caterers served the following tasting menu to guests at the 2nd Observer Food Monthly Awards, held at Burlington Gardens, on 10 February 2005:
Seared scallop on a French bean salad
Seabass with roast beetroot and sauce mousseline
Cumin lamb with sweet potato mash and saffron jus
Warm chocolate fondant
Benefits of a grazing menu - for customers
•Customers perceive the menus as offering good value for money as they know exactly what they are paying for.
•They should enjoy greater consistency in the food as the kitchen will have a smaller number of dishes in total to concentrate on.
•The menus provide an all-round eating experience with a carefully thought out narrative.
•Small hits of more concentrated flavours ensure the interest of diners is retained for longer.
•Diners may have the opportunity to taste new ingredients for the first time, without having to eat an entire dish.
•A meal tends to be eaten over a longer period of time than normal - usually three to four hours - so aiding digestion and ensuring the diner does not feel over-stuffed.
Benefits of a grazing menu - for restaurants
•Menus allow for greater creativity and innovation.
•There is less wastage with a grazing menu as there are fewer uneaten dishes than there can be with an Á la carte menu.
•A frequent turnover of fresh ingredients allows chefs to achieve a good gross profit percentage.
•Multi-course menus result in a more organised kitchen as the chefs know exactly when they are going to cook which dishes at what time.
•Every customer at the same table will be eating the same menu - essential when operating grazing menus - ensuring a smoother service for both kitchen and restaurant staff.
Key considerations in planning a grazing menu
Good menu planning is essential when offering a grazing menu. Chefs must ensure a balance of ingredients, nutrition, colour and textures. There should be no repetition of ingredients throughout the menu and seasonality should always be observed.
The size of dishes is vital - large enough to provide enough of a taste, but not too large that the meal becomes unmanageable. For each diner, allow one coffee cup-sized bowl of soup, one scallop, small fillet of fish, two to three small slices of meat, shot glass of sorbet or ice cream, and a side-plate sized dessert.
Allow one ingredient to feature prominently at each course and not become masked by accompanying flavours, otherwise the individual courses become meaningless. For example, use one plump scallop, cooked to perfection, served perhaps with a few roasted cèpes, and a little beurre noisette flavoured with thyme.
Good communication between kitchen staff is key as the chefs are all working together on the same menu.
Ensure service staff are fully versed in the composition of each dish so that they can explain to customers what they are going to eat as they serve each course. Descriptions should be kept brief and simple and delivered with confidence. Over-elaborate explanations tend to be pompous, making it an uncomfortable experience for the customer.
Grazing menus provide a restaurant with the opportunity to offer a selection of appropriate wines to accompany the food. This requires the restaurant to have a larger choice of wines by the glass available and a sommelier who is capable of knowledgeably matching the most suitable wine to each dish.
Don't forget that multiple courses require lots of plates, glasses and cutlery settings. For example, an 80-seat restaurant operating an eight-course grazing menu will need 640 plates for one session.
Thanks to Andrew Turner of 1880 at The Bentley Hotel, London, and Moving Venue Caterers in the preparation of this article.