• Specials board or blank canvas: How your specials menu can fuel creativity

Specials board or blank canvas: How your specials menu can fuel creativity

It’s an all too familiar question diners get asked in restaurants, from low-key breakfast bars to fine dining establishments: “would you like to see the specials?” Today, it’s a question that holds a lot of weight, regardless of the establishment. But specials boards offer more than just added work for wait and kitchen staff. Special menus serve an important purpose - they give chefs the ability to communicate their brand and personality to their customers beyond standard restaurant items. Weekly specials fuel creativity for many chefs by providing a platform to experiment with unique flavour combinations with minimal risk of significant capital loss.

Alex Guttierez, head chef at Alegrias Spanish Tapas compared the importance of creativity and the need to constantly evolve in the kitchen with the art of music. “Musicians must keep making music or else run the risk of becoming invalid,” Chef Guttierez told Superior Food Services. According to the experienced chef, nothing is permanent on his menu. He and his team offer exciting and new share dishes to his band of loyal customers almost weekly. “We’re always evolving and changing. If we don’t experiment, then the same old dishes become lacklustre,” he said. “Nothing is permanently offered to guests, no matter how popular they are.” The head chef stressed that originality in the kitchen creates an unforgettable experience; you want to be able to serve your customers a meal they can’t find anywhere else.

To help spark your inner creativity, here are four specials board ideas to help boost creativity in your restaurant:

Take advantage of the changing seasons

As fresh produce changes with the seasons, so do many restaurant menus. Seasonal produce is generally tastier, more abundant and affordable than those that are off-season, so altering a menu to encompass fruit and vegetables in season comes with many benefits. Chef Guttierez uses the specials board at Alegrias for this specific purpose. He explained he and his staff use the specials board “when developing the new menu before the transition from winter to spring, when we’re starting to look at vegetables like beetroots, broccoli, eggplant and parsnip.” 

The transient nature of a specials board gives chefs a podium to trial unique, inventive and not-so-run-of-the-mill ingredients and methods before making them a regular menu item. Chef Guttierez said being able to gauge how adventurous meals might fare in the real world not only saves money but “you appear more authentic to your customers, which gives a sense that you’re wanting to grow and evolve.” He added that “specials boards give you a vessel to do that, without significant investment.”

Create unique drink options

Six infused drinks lined-up

In the age of craft beer and boutique wine, it’s becoming less and less acceptable to limit alcoholic drink options to Hahn, Peroni, Penfolds and Jacob’s Creek. Today, people are dining out more frequently as they’re working longer hours, having less time to cook and enjoying more disposable income. Millennial consumers have outgrown the drinking habits of their youth and are becoming keener to pair brews and wine with their food. For this reason, many restaurants and bars are putting craft beers like Modus, Stone & Wood and Balter on their menu to offer a unique dining experience to their customer base. They’re seen less frequently on drink lists and are widely considered more versatile when it comes to meal pairings, so patrons may be more inclined to give it a try.

A similar concept can be applied to cocktails. Consumers enjoy brave cocktail ingredients and a simple ingredient twist on a classic can go a long way. For instance, ditching traditional Whisky toddies for a cinnamon-infused, warm Old-Fashioned, adding Elderflower syrup to your shaken Margaritas or orange essence to your gin martini can go a long way in sparking interest. Work closely with your bartender and brainstorm ways to offer drink specials that goes beyond the no-frills classics and pairs perfectly with your specials offering.

Minimise food waste

Image of a meat pie cut open

Creativity stems from inventiveness in times of unfavourable circumstances; for instance, when a kitchen is faced with a significant amount of food and no meal to pair it with. When building a creative specials menu, chefs and kitchen staff need to be aware of the cost of ingredients, especially those that are less easily found on food supplier lists. Bush cucumbers, desert limes and Burdekin plums are unsurprisingly hard to find, more expensive than generic fruit and vegetable options and complex to work with, so they’re less likely to be on your radar. On the other hand, look at unique ways to use ordinary meal elements you’ve already prepped that may be nearing the end of its life. If you’ve got a meal that just isn’t selling but there’s a vat of mushroom sauce sitting in the reach-in that’s meant to go with it, why not use the sauce for hearty beef and Guinness pie? Found yourself with an overwhelming surplus of mandarins? Make a sweet and sticky marinade for beef ribs. Turning a problem into something pleasurable is no easy task and requires ingenuity, but get it right and you’ll learn what makes your customers tick and how they want your food to fit in with their way of life.

Take fusion cuisine to the next level 

Sydney restaurant Acme has been serving up innovative cuisine combinations since 2014, blending an intriguing yet fluid combination of Italian and Asian flavours. Their linguini with black garlic and burnt chilli attracts patrons by the dozen, as does their lumache, vongole, preserved lemon and wakame dish. They’re known for their bold, unassuming flavour combinations as their dishes go beyond modern Australian cuisine by forcing polar opposite flavours in a harmonious and surprising way. When contemplating exciting ways to express creativity in your specials offering, why not experiment with bold ingredient combinations that blur the lines between cuisines. On face value, hamburgers and dumplings might sound like enemies but in reality, they could offer a delicious flavour profile. 

For Alegrias, blending flavours and ingredients isn’t a choice at times but a necessity. Many core ingredients typical of the Spanish cuisine are not readily available to the Australian restaurant market, so chefs who run Spanish restaurants are required to improvise with what’s accessible. “Some Spanish restaurants substitute traditional Calasparra Paella rice with short grain Arborio rice, which can stick together more than the Spanish kind, giving paella an interesting texture and milder flavour,” said Chef Guttierez. He suggested using ingredient limitations to your advantage. “Try swapping saffron for turmeric to achieve a similar colour to your dish but slightly different flavour notes of orange and ginger,” Chef Guttierez revealed.” Interesting flavour combinations set your restaurant apart from those that stick to the status quo. 

So, it’s no secret that chefs are intensely creative people, who thrive on the ability to transform brilliant ideas into something deliciously edible. A specials board gives chefs a priceless tool to express their creative flair, be adventurous and make mistakes through the art of originality without the shame of failure.