Story by Nancy Ransohoff
Photos by Amy Barnard
Professional chefs are pretty good at predicting what their customers will go for on a menu. Seasoned chefs trust their instincts and years of experience.
They take into account what’s in season and consider the intricate matrix of taste, texture, color and presentation to come up with dishes that are most often big hits. But sometimes it can seem like a culinary crapshoot, with a dish or two that fail to strike a chord with diners. Here we talk with notable local chefs about some of their hits and misses over the years.
Executive Chef, San Ysidro Ranch
“We lean toward classic dishes that people come back for, but we like to raise the bar a little, too. One of our biggest hits is Steak Diane, which is done tableside. Another dish that’s so popular we can’t take it off the menu is the miso-glazed Channel Islands black cod, which we serve with jasmine rice and veggies from our organic garden. On the miss side, once I did green curry braised veal cheeks. It was not a big hit, but [I thought] it was really good. The people who ordered it loved it.”
Executive Chef/Partner, S.Y. Kitchen, Santa Ynez
“Our menu at S.Y. Kitchen is very seasonal. During our first winter, I made a braised lamb shank that I served on fresh polenta with gremolata and rapini. It was a huge seller. To make a few customers happy, I put it back on the summer menu, but it didn’t sell at all. It was way too hot to eat this hearty dish. Lesson learned. And you won’t find gazpacho at S.Y. Kitchen in December either.”
Executive Chef, The Lark
“How are you ever supposed to please everybody? I have no idea. Really. I cross my fingers and hope it works out. A bizarre hit in my restaurant is a crispy Brussels sprouts dish served with fish sauce, dates, sesame seeds, Serrano chilies and lime. As for a tragic loss, last fall I presented poached quince with burrata, hazelnuts, endive and a black pepper gastrique to what felt like an empty audience. Swing and a miss. I still liked it.”
Chef/Co-Owner (with wife, Liz), Downey’s
“I first started offering The Chef’s Dinner about 20 years ago as a way for me to serve some affordable personal favorites that didn’t fall into my ‘fine dining’ niche. I grew up with some fine stews and slow-cooked meats. Ninety-nine percent of the time, guests are really happy with the likes of Christmas goose or slow-braised short ribs. But on one occasion, I wanted to make the very best chicken that I could. I found some really tasty organic, free-range chickens and cooked the breast very gently with leeks, chanterelles and fresh thyme, finishing the resulting sauce with a little cream. The chicken was tender as butter and the flavor incredible, but the first guest I spoke with said, ‘Well, it was okay, but when I come to Downey’s I don’t expect to end up eating chicken!’ But…that was the whole point of this dinner. Oh well, can’t win ’em all. Our big favorite is, of course, the grilled duck. We frequently hear, ‘That was the best duck I’ve ever eaten in my whole life!’”
Executive Chef, Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara
“When we write the menus, we have to try to make it so the guest can envision the dish…sometimes I think success depends on the way we write the menu. All of our pastas are made in house. We have a chive gnocchetti with roasted chanterelle mushrooms, fresh dungeness crab and California caviar. It sells, but not as much as our other pastas. Sometimes we, as chefs, make things more complicated than they need to be…we try to make it exciting and sometimes we overdo it. Our Italian sausage ravioli with roasted cherries, sage, toasted pine nuts and aged balsamic sells like crazy. For soups, I once made lobster bisque with a tomato base. People said, ‘It was not really what I expected.’ But I wanted to lighten it up!”
Originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.