If the term "grazing menu" conjures up a vision of contented cattle munching off a series of plates bearing grass, buttercups, dandelions and the like, then you need to reshuffle your imagination. Grazing menus are not something designed to up your bovine customer base, they're a contemporary term for what, in another era, might have been called a "menu exceptionnel" or "menu du chef"; or, in today's world, they could translate as a tasting menu.
In other words, grazing menus are multi-course, small-portioned, fine-dining eating options, served with matched wines, which pick up on a modern-day buzz word for people who prefer to dip in to several taste sensations rather than get bogged down in a traditional three-course meal structure. The marketing term - for that's what it is - has been claimed as his own by Andrew Turner, executive chef at Kensington's Bentley Kempinski hotel.
Turner, a master of the grazing menu art, first began developing the style when he was in charge at another London hotel, Brown's. "When I was at Brown's I worked closely with John Gilchrist, the sommelier at the hotel's 1837 restaurant, who'd won awards for matching wines by the glass with our food. And one night at the end of service - giggling over a glass of wine - we just said what a shame it was that we didn't ever really sell wines by the glass, because people still thought of it as tacky.
"We decided we needed to find a word that made sense to customers that would encourage them to go for wine and food pairing. We needed something that made them feel that they were trying something new - and that's how we got to the grazing name."
When Turner moved to the Bentley 15 months ago he took his grazing baby with him. Why? Because over the three years that he ran grazing menus at 1837, they had proved to be a sure-fire winner. Not only was take-up by customers high (something that has continued at the Bentley: 99.9%, says Turner, opt for grazing menus), but the style of menu meant that profits were correspondingly good, because mark-ups on wine were lucrative - but not exorbitant - and food and wine wastage was cut drastically.
Yes, it's true. Despite the number of dishes that are sent out for a grazing menu over an evening's service, Turner is able to increase yield from his raw produce - not just order more volume. It works like this: everything on his grazing menus comes off his … la carte option, which means that there is an even spread of sales on dishes and, therefore, no redundant produce lying around the kitchen.
"Take fish yield," says Turner with the zeal of an evangelical preacher. "Chefs talk about yield as the whole weight of the fish including the bones. So there's wastage right from the start, because most of the time you're only using fillets in a dish. Then there's wastage on the fillet if you're cutting … la carte portions, because you only cut the centre part - that's 30-35% wastage on the net [ie, fillet] weight. On a grazing menu, you can use 90% of the fillet: you can cut a nice piece of fish off the tail, because the portions are smaller, and you also get one or two cuts off the same fillet for the … la carte - or you use it up on more grazing orders.
"That way, the whole fish is being sold. And because it's on the grazing menu, the fish is turning over every day. There's not one single bit of fish that is sitting in the fridge going ‘Sell me!'"
The turnover of produce extends right the way along the line - from salad leaves and vegetables to meat, foie gras and game. Because Turner has developed an audience for his grazing menus and because he knows that pretty much all his customers will order them, he knows exactly the quantity of produce he will need to get through service. The menus are set, after all - he knows the portion sizes, he knows what covers he will pull in. And everything is ultra-fresh because of the system.
Selling wine by the glass works the same way. You know what your volume is going to be, so you hold the right number of bins, and you don't have wastage, because the quantity of uptake on the menus means that you are not wasting bottles.
Other benefits from doing multi-course menus, argues Turner, are the upping of skill levels, both in the kitchen and front of house. The certainty of sales coupled with the volume and variety of dishes that fly out of the kitchen door mean that it's cost-effective, certainly in a hotel like the Bentley, to make things like bread and charcuterie products on site.
Take black pudding and terrines. "Black pudding takes half-an-hour to make, and it's a process that a lot of people enjoy once they've been taught how to do it," says Turner. "They might not enjoy the thought of tasting raw blood to see if it's salty enough - it doesn't actually tickle my fancy, either - but being able to make it is a skill not everybody learns any more. Same with terrines. Hotels, especially, don't often make them now. But because we know we can sell them on the grazing menus, we do them."
Giving staff incentives - like learning new skills that will benefit their careers - also keeps them with you longer. And volume of trade means that consistency of service in the restaurant and in the food on the plate becomes the norm. Practice makes perfect.
But, surely, all those dishes mean that service is a nightmare for the kitchen and restaurant staff, I venture to suggest. A seven-, eight- or 10-course menu multiplied by 60 is asking for trouble: how can you possibly be cool, calm and collected when you have to cook and serve three score of cream of French fennel and wild mushroom, truffle ravioli; native lobster and asparagus salad; foie gras, mango and crushed potatoes with sauce périgourdine; seared Celtic scallop with cauliflower and courgette, white sultanas and capers; fillet of Angus beef with herbs, morels, lardons and spinach; a plate of French cheeses; ice-cream and sorbet; and a warm creole banana with coconut ice-cream? All in a short space of time.
Easy, he tells me, with a placating look that you might give to the greenest of green commis on your team. You do all your mise en place in the normal way, and when it comes to service… well, I'd better let Turner explain.
"It's like riding a wave. Surfers count the waves, and every seventh wave is a big one. Service is the same - you wait for the big wave [ie, the first course of a given menu], then you count for the next one. You know the size of the wave because of the number of covers booked - so you know where it's starting. You know the distance and length of the waves, because you've set the menu. So if we start with a soup, say, the guys doing the meat and fish do that. It comes up; you put a simple garnish on it; it's done. Then you know that you've got 10 minutes before the next course, so you get ready. You bring foie gras up to room temperature if you need to; you sort out a lobster cocktail, whatever. And so on… "
Table service is easy, too, he maintains. "Because the dishes [and, therefore, plates] are smaller, the waiters get more on the tray. We can do a seven-course menu in half-an-hour with wines by the glass, if the customer wants to go at that pace." In fact - and why didn't I think of this before I asked the question? - running multi-course menus successfully is rather like mastering banqueting, only on a smaller scale and with more complicated dishes.
Want another reason to do multi-course menus? Here it is: they provide great opportunities to do themed menus without being tacky. Think Valentine's Day (see page 32). Think new-season game in autumn. Think truffles. And you don't have to stop at dinners; the grazing concept can extend to teas - how easy is it to tie in with Wimbledon or the Chelsea Flower Show?
There are lots of sound reasons to think about specialising in multi-course menus. But if, after reading this, you are fired up and itching to create your own, here's a word or two of advice. First, make sure you know what your customers eat and what their optimum portion size is. It won't be the same in London as in Yorkshire. The only way to do this is by observation: check what gets cleared off or left on the plate. Get waiting staff to ask for comments; have a comment book if necessary.
Second, make sure you get all your staff passionate about what you are doing. If the waiting staff believe in the menus, they'll sell them well. If the kitchen boys and girls are committed, then they will cook better. Turner knows that if he didn't have people like his sous chef Sharon Roberts or pastry chef Ian Burch on board, then his grazing menus would not be successful.
"My team extends to the people that wash my pots and pans, because without them feeling part of the whole thing then how can I control my breakages? It's no good if only the chef believes in it. There are too many opportunities for it all to go wrong if everybody doesn't believe that they can deliver," he says.
A top-notch sommelier - or, if you haven't got one on staff, an expert wine supplier - is, naturally, an essential linchpin. "When you match food and wine together you create something that is a totally exceptional experience. The food is better, the wine is better. And when you've got someone who can hit the note every time, then you'll get a happening place and a successful restaurant."
Valentine's Day The feast day of St Valentine presents a perfect opportunity to market a themed grazing menu. This year it falls on a Monday, traditionally a slow trading day, so being able to fill a dining room with romancing couples is a bonus for restaurants.
Before composing his Valentine menu - which, incidentally, he drew up four months ago in order to be able to sell the evening properly - Turner sat down and surfed the internet. Why? To check out which foods have aphrodisiac qualities. That's why it's got oyster, lobster, mango, asparagus, passion fruit and chocolate included in its dishes.
The Bentley's Valentine menu kicks off with oyster and caviar velout‚, then moves on to lobster and asparagus cocktail; foie gras and mango; roasted scallop with shrimp, porcini and chorizo; cutlet of English lamb, confit breast, sweetbreads and spinach; Coeur et Créme (a heart-shaped, French soft cows' milk cheese, served warm); Emphasis on Chocolate (recipes opposite); coffee and petits fours.
Chocolate and orange mousse
For the mousse
210g dark chocolate
35g caster sugar
1 bronze leaf gelatine, pre-soaked
250g whipping cream
For the orange jelly
250g stock syrup
4 bronze leaf gelatine
250g fresh Seville orange juice
For the orange crisp
1 Seville orange
Chocolate and orange mousse: melt the chocolate in a bowl. In a thick-bottomed pan, boil the sugar, water and glucose for a few seconds. Remove from heat and stir in the pre-soaked gelatine. Pass on to the melted chocolate. Stir to a homogenous mass. Stir half the whipped cream into the mix when it has cooled but not yet set, and then fold in the other half of the cream. Set mousse in the required mould.
Orange jelly: bring the stock syrup the boil and add the soaked gelatine - add the orange juice and pass through muslin and set in a dome mould.
Orange crisp: slice Seville orange across core as finely as possible on a slicer. Leave in boiling stock syrup for 10 seconds, then remove to a Silpat mat. Repeat process twice and then dry in a cupboard at 50°C overnight until crisp. Store in an airtight container with silicone crystals until required.
To plate: take set mousse and glaze in a dark chocolate couverture. Place the orange jelly on top and an orange crisp alongside.
Chocolate and Baileys drink
500g semi-skimmed milk
100g milk chocolate, chopped into small pieces
100g dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces
30g créme de cacao
For the Baileys espuma
200ml double cream
60g caster sugar
Warm, heart-shaped sable biscuits
Chocolate base: bring the milk to the boil and pour over the chopped small pieces of chocolate. Stir until melted, add the crŠme de cacao and then pass through a chinois and leave to cool in the fridge. When needed, blitz with a hand blender and serve in the required glass.
Espuma: boil the cream and dissolve the sugar in it. Add the milk and the Baileys. Chill and put in a sterilised foam gun. Carbonate - shake and place espuma on top of the chocolate drink base. Dust with cocoa powder in a heart shape and serve with some warm, freshly baked heart-shaped sables.
Chocolate and passion fruit millefeuille
For the chocolate puff pastry
500g puff pastry
100g icing sugar
70g cocoa powder
For the passion fruit cream
292g caster sugar
200g passion fruit purée
Zest of 2 lemons
185g unsalted butter
8g bronze leaf gelatine
Chocolate puff pastry: roll out the puff pastry to 2mm thickness. Egg wash and sprinkle with the icing sugar and the cocoa powder. Roll into a tight roulade and rest in the fridge for 20 minutes. Cut a 5mm slice of the roulade, roll out thinly and dock. Cut to desired shape and cook between two Silpat mats at 180¡C until crisp.
Passion fruit cream: mix the eggs with the sugar and passion fruit pur‚e and pass through a fine sieve. Add lemon zest and cook in a low-heat bain-marie until it starts to form a curd. Then add soft unsalted butter and pre-soaked gelatine - pass again and leave to chill.
To plate: pipe neat equal strips of chocolate mousse and passion fruit cream on to a rectangle of chocolate crisp and top with another crisp.
Vanilla ice-cream with chocolate and almonds
300g Loseley cream
300g full-fat milk
1 vanilla pod
6 free-range egg yolks
170g caster sugar
Bring the cream and milk to the boil with the vanilla pod. Make a sabayon of egg yolks and sugar. Pour cream mixture over sabayon, stirring constantly. When mixed, return to heat and cook as for an anglaise. Pass through muslin. Chill and then freeze. Turn the ice-cream in a Pacojet and then mould. Coat in the nuts and chocolate kernels. Freeze for 30 minutes, and then it will be ready to serve in the chocolate cup.