Menu creation is a fundamental task in a catering business. Menus strive to balance available produce, the skills of the kitchen and, most importantly, the tastes of the diner. If menus are important, then the centrepiece of the menu - the main course - is key. So how do you go about providing a balanced selection without overloading the kitchen?
Main courses are the highlight of a meal, and in some cases - the lunchtime trade, for example - perhaps the only course ordered. For this reason, says Dave Howarth, trading director with Woodward Foodservice, it's vital to have a solid range of choices on the menu. "A basic main-course menu should consist of one fish dish, one white meat, one red meat and one vegetarian option," he says.
"Chefs can save on preparation time and reduce wastage by using the same ingredients to create different dishes. Experimenting with sauces, for example - adding different flavourings into tomato-based sauces, using one for a meat-based dish and one with pasta."
Making the most of items of produce across courses is another way to cut costs. It's good old-fashioned kitchen economy and feeds
on the trend towards the back-to-basics approaches that has seen an upswing in the use of less expensive cuts, slow cooking and local and seasonal produce.
Sean Hope is the culinary brains behind the Michelin-starred Olive Branch, at Clipsham, Rutland, and the Bib Gourmand-awarded Red Lion, at Stathern, Leicestershire. Hope's procurement policy is to buy whole animals. Some cuts end up in main-course dishes, others can find their way behind the bar of the two pubs - his home-made pork scratchings, for example.
"We buy a whole Herdwick lamb for £120," says Hope. "We use the belly to make a rillette with reconstituted dried apricot, lime, ginger and vanilla. We get 40 portions of that from a lamb, and then you can use the other cuts, like legs, for Sunday dinners."
Provenance is a key concern of diners, with Mintel's recently published Menu Trends report stating that nearly half of consumers would like to see more traditional dishes made from local ingredients on menus. Hope illustrates his menus with maps of where his meat comes from.
Inspiring diners with a spin on traditional dishes is a way to add creativity, says Richard Fagan, food service development manager with the British Pig Executive, which promotes the use of pork on menus and quotes research by England Marketing that indicates 84% of diners would order pork dishes when eating out. "Experimenting with rare and traditional breeds, such as the Tamworth, Berkshire or Gloucestershire Old Spot can add real interest and value to a menu," he says.
Sausages are increasing in popularity, and there are now so many varieties and flavour combinations that sausage and mash, a dish which the FMCG Menurama survey says regularly features in the top five most frequently listed main courses in chain operations, need never be boring.
Alongside the interest in all things local, seasonal and traditional is the well-established and growing trend for slow cooking methods. At one stage slow cooking was favoured only by chefs in fine-dining restaurants, but now we're seeing this type of dish more widely. Traditional favourites are here to stay - rump, sirloin, cutlets and legs - but the surge in popularity of lamb shanks, for example, shows how popular slow styles of cooking have become.
Hugh Judd, food service project manager for the English Beef and Lamb Executive, says: "There's a growing trend at the moment for chefs to take the cheaper cuts of beef and lamb - such as beef brisket or shin, or lamb neck or shoulder - and cook them ‘low and slow'. Cuts like these, when cooked on a low heat for a long period of time - perhaps in a sous-vide - makes them incredibly tender, succulent and full of flavour. Portions can be set aside and easily regenerated as required.
"Lamb knuckles, or shanks, have seen tremendous growth in popularity, with many manufacturers now producing quality products for the food service sector which have been cooked by the ‘low and slow' method - and which can then be regenerated easily using a steamer or microwave."
Cuts which have been slow-cooked can easily be served as the main protein element of a dish, but combining these value cuts with more expensive hindquarter cuts is an emerging trend. This is where, for example, you serve a prime fillet of lamb with a braised neck. "Rich man, poor man dishes are a fantastic way of offering your customers the more expensive premium cuts of beef or lamb which they expect to see on your menu, such as beef fillet or lamb cannon, while keeping your costs relatively low," says Judd.
The trick is to serve your customers a smallish portion of the premium cut of beef or lamb along with a mini-portion of a dish which makes use of a cheaper cut. That's what Robert Thompson, head chef at Winteringham Fields in Lincolnshire, does. On the menu there's roast rump with braised shoulder of lamb in crisp Chinese breadcrumbs, with black lentils and watercress tortellinis.
Another establishment taking the back-to-basics ethos seriously is the Three Fishes at Mitton, Lancashire. Alongside meat dishes such as braised oxtail steeped in red wine with herbs and spices, horseradish mash and buttered root vegetables, fish is a big part of the menu - in the form of good old fish and chips. The Three Fishes' battered deep-fried haddock with marrowfat peas, chips and tartare sauce is a big success, says head chef David Edward.
But while fish is a staple main-course food item, many people just won't go near it. According to Sea Fish Industry Authority surveys, 18% of people say they don't like fish and of these, 70% have never tried it.
Brigitte Read, market insight executive, says much of this is down to perceptions. "A lot of people think they won't like what's going to come on the plate, that it'll have heads, tails, eyes and fins," she says. "We suggest including detail that tells people, for example, that it's skinless or headless. People are also intimidated about asking serving staff, so it's a good idea to make sure they proactively reassure people."