It’s one of the hardest decisions we make each week – what to order! Do you ever wonder what goes into formulating some of your favourite dishes though? We sat down with Popolo‘s Head Chef Chris Mollee, Aquitaine‘s Head Chef Sam Lonsdale and Executive Chef of South Bank Surf Club and South Bank Beer Garden, Michael Stillman.
Where do you get your inspiration from for your menus?
Chris, Popolo: Georgio Locatelli – Brilliant Italian chef, with fantastic stories behind his menus. I also allow amazing produce to inspire great dishes. Italian food is done best when you respect the produce, and keep it simple!
Sam, Aquitaine: From old Head Chef’s to old French dishes, from cutting edge restaurants to new developments in food technology, I would say the source of my inspiration is multi-faceted. And for the menus I write, I try to strike a balance. Traditional French dishes are always at play, but a few things drawn here and there from the higher end of European dining or the food science scene are what keep things interesting.
Michael, SBBG & SBSC: Having a great relationship with your suppliers certainly helps. For me, they really ignite my creativity by telling me what’s in season what’s great at the moment. I have a seafood supplier that rings me every Monday to let me know what’s new and what’s the best at the moment, things catch my ear and I run with it.
Okay, fess up! Are there any ‘happy accidents’ that have occurred when you have been experimenting in the kitchen which you have managed to incorporate into one of your dishes?
Chris, Popolo: Our new Lemon and Lime curd with Italian Meringue. When trialing a lemon and lime tart, I burnt the pastry case. We started playing around with the curd, placed it in a glass, piped on the meringue, added some pistachios and presto – a star was born!
Sam, Aquitaine: Not really. In our kitchen, before attempting any experiment we usually nut out the theory until its sound enough that the end result is at worst qualifiable.
Michael, SBBG & SBSC: None that I would like to admit to.
What’s your favourite ingredient to experiment with?
Chris, Popolo: Anything from the ocean! I was raised on seafood! I love that eating seafood requires so much interaction, in particular shellfish. Having to use your hands to discover the jewels in their shells heightens your connection with food.
Sam, Aquitaine: A poor question! There cannot be one. It defeats the purpose!
Michael, SBBG & SBSC: At the moment I am enjoying playing around with beets, baby beets in particular. I love those target beets and even standard beetroot. I just did some beautiful beetroot cured salmon for an upcoming menu where I used the beetroot juice to dye the fillet. The colour is awesome.
How do you go about developing the right ‘mix’ for your menu items?
Chris, Popolo: Balance is key! Making sure you have the right proportions is vital. A menu that makes it hard for customers to decide is a well designed menu!
Sam, Aquitaine: Everything in moderation I find. Never double up on elements! Each and every dish needs to have its own reasons to be ordered by a customer. Whether it be dietary concerns, the weather, or just certain popular flavours, the more that is taken into consideration means the more people you can reach and that’s what we are about.
Michael, SBBG & SBSC: I think it’s a good idea to run everything you put on a menu as a special first to gauge what your guests want. I could write a million menus but I have to make sure that what I put on my menus are the right match to my venues. I guess I have the luxury of having two venues to write for so Surf club is always a little seafood-centric. In comparison, the Beer garden is always going to have a strong char and smoke house element, but still plenty of freedom for a chef to be creative.
What is the biggest risk you have ever taken with a new menu?
Chris, Popolo: Our new Wild Boar Ragu with Porcini and Pappardelle. Wild Boar is yet to become the main stream (it should be though!). Like a slightly gamey version of pork, it is perfect with the thick ribbons of pasta. Fingers crossed people don’t shy away from it!
Sam, Aquitaine: As a recent addition to the caste of head chefs in South Bank, I’ve tried to keep things as risk-free as possible while I get into my stride. Some would say that in itself is a risk though, as none were too pleased when I tried to put “Steak au Frites” on the menu. ‘French Brasserie’, as I have recently discovered, means ‘fancy’. But as time progresses, so shall we, and I look forward to really pushing some limits in the future. One step at a time for now.
Michael, SBBG & SBSC: I love tongue, duck liver and marrow, I enjoy that classic European cuisine. I don’t think they are a huge risk but you always have to fight to get them on the menu.