To win the reality television show "Project Runway," a designer needs to create clothes with major wow factor—or so says the show’s chief mentor, Tim Gunn. The restaurant world is not so different. For a chef to build a following, it helps to have a dish that keeps customers coming back for more.
A dish that wows “tends to be punchy,” explains Chef-owner Johanna Ware of Smallwares in Portland, Oregon. An unusual but harmonious combination of flavors or textures can impress, too, she says.
Creating dishes that strike an addictive balance between salt, sweet, acidity and heat requires a bit of trial and error—and luck. But what separates a good dish from a wow factor moment is the audience reaction.
“If you walk away and you can’t get that dish out of your head, you will tell other people about it,” says Ware. For chefs, “it’s the best free press you can get.”
Get Creative With Acidity
A splash of lemon juice or vinegar is a sure way to brighten flavors. But when acidity is integrated into a dish in a new way, it can wow even more.
At Bar Tartine in San Francisco, chefs Cortney Burns and Nick Balla searched for an ingredient to brighten a wilted kale and rye bread salad served on strained yogurt and spiced sunflower tahini.
Yogurt powder did the trick. Burns makes the powder from drying yogurt in a dehydrator, breaking it up as it dries, and then pulverizing it in a blender. The dish has since become one of the few that never leaves the menu. “You get the unctuousness, the creaminess and that acidity that rounds it all out,” Burns says.
At Restaurant 1833 in the Stokes Adobe house in Monterey, California, former Executive Chef Abby Burk knows all about the power of acidity. “It gets your mouth watering and makes you want more,” she says.
She used lime juice to punch up a sweet corn soup poured tableside over mole and a sesame crumble, then garnished with finger limes, a citrus variety that contains pulp resembling caviar.
“It’s one of my favorite ingredients,” she says, adding that she uses finger lime pulp for oysters, too. “It’s acidic, aromatic and has a really fun texture.”
Break a Few Rules
To take down the “no cheese with fish” rule, he served a seared skate wing at a special dinner with braised cabbage and sprouted lentils prepared like risotto: cooked slowly with shallots, bacon and stock and then thickened at the end with a creamy washed-rind cheese. The guests were blown away.“Everyone says you can’t serve cheese with seafood,” McClelland says. “For me, it’s a challenge.”
Marshmallows are also somewhat taboo—or at least unusual—in savory dishes. But McClelland leverages them as a smear of charred onion marshmallows alongside bone marrow with hazelnut gremolata and tomato jam.
Sometimes diners are skeptical. “But then they eat it and say, ‘Oh, my God, it’s amazing,’” he says. “It’s not that sweet, and it all comes together.”
Engage the Wait Staff
Menus can’t always speak for themselves, acknowledges Deb Paquette, chef and co-owner of Etch in Nashville, Tennessee.
Take Paquette’s ratatouille crudo, which changes with the season. In one version, she dehydrates raw eggplant and blends it with salt, shaving in ribbons of raw zucchini, fennel and carrots. She polishes it off with a bright sauce of charred red bell peppers, tomatoes and smoked paprika, anchored by sunflower hummus and a garnish of micro basil. Diners are wowed by the bright flavors, but sometimes they first need to be sold on the idea .
“You have to train your wait staff to be part of your wow factor,” she says. “The guarantee to the customer is that they’re going to like it.”
"You have to train your wait staff to be part of the wow factor. The guarantee to the customer is that they're going to like it."
-Chef and co-owner Deb Paquette
Before Ware presents a new dish, it undergoes a tasting panel of servers. If they leave a few bites on the plate, she decides the dish isn’t ready for prime time and doesn’t put it on the menu.
Other times, she unexpectedly gets rave reviews about a dish, such as her grilled lobster mushrooms experiment. The mushrooms were seasoned with cardamom, clove, chili flakes and dried Persian limes. After they were grilled, Ware tossed them in onion pickling liquid, soy sauce and olive oil and then served them atop a walnut puree. Ware was so focused on getting the mushrooms to taste smoky and rich, like bacon, that she overlooked the appeal the dish would have for non-meat eaters.
“I presented it at lineup, and one of the servers said, ‘Oh, it’s vegan!’ They were really into it,” she says.
Capitalize on Wow
Recognizing when you have a hit on your hands is just as important as creating new dishes.
In 2008, when Autumn Martin first served molten chocolate cakes baked in mason jars at a charity dinner, the dessert took the guests by surprise. The cake, made solely with chocolate, eggs, sugar and sea salt, was velvety, rich and warm—nothing like the lava cakes served on salad plates with raspberry coulis circa 1995.
“People literally said, ‘This is amazing, a cake in a mason jar—oh, wow!’” says Martin.
The response encouraged Martin, a Seattle-based chocolatier, to start a side business selling her bake-in-a-jar cakes at farmers markets. That led to the opening of Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery in 2012, with another location slated for this year.
Martin has since expanded beyond molten-chocolate cakes, selling cookies and s'mores kits with smoked chocolate, boozy milkshakes and a rotating selection of caramel sauces infused with preserved lemon or foraged nettles. But every new item still needs to blow her customers away. The successful ones earn an “Oh Wow!” stamp on their packaging. If they fall short, it’s back to the drawing board.
“If a flavor or a new product that I’m working on does not evoke an awesome response, then it is not worth putting out, even if I’m wowed by it,” she says.
Kate Leahy, an Oakland, California-based freelance writer, is wowed by the simple things, like the elusive, perfectly seasoned salad.
Anatomy of Wow
When Chef-partner Brett Cooper drafted the first menu for his San Francisco restaurant, Aster, he focused on creating dishes with balance. “You need an acid, some sweetness and some kind of heat,” says Cooper.
In this preparation, a slow-cooked egg yolk with caramelized sunchokes breaks on the plate, turning into a rich sauce for the nutty, sweet vegetable. It's balanced by fermented chili paste, pickled apples and crisp chicken skin.
Take a closer look:
- Egg yolks and olive oil sit in a water bath circulating at 150 F for about 50 minutes; rest in the oil.
- Sunchokes are scrubbed (but not peeled) and cut into 2-inch pieces. Marinate in muscovado sugar, salt and olive oil for 30 minutes.
- Roast at 425 F for 20 minutes. Stir occasionally and continue roasting until caramelized and soft.
- Pickle diced Granny Smith apples in apple cider vinegar, champagne vinegar and a pinch of salt and sugar.
- Gochujang (fermented chili paste) is smeared in a circle on a plate.
- Sunchokes are mounded on the gochujang with an indentation.
- An egg yolk is nestled on top.
- Apples, crisp chicken skin and red sorrel leaves finish the plate
Tell Me A Story
Sometimes customers might need a little convincing to get the wow factor. And if the chef has time to work his or her magic, the diner can become a customer for life.
“When I had my restaurant, Prospect, in New York, I had a popular squash soup with a root beer cream, marshmallows and toasted hazelnuts,” says Chef Kyle McClelland of Misery Loves Co. "One guest told me she hated hazelnuts. I asked: ‘Can I just try to serve it to you?’ I served her that soup. She said, ‘Wow. It works. It tastes so good.’ I love when I’m standing there and they’re saying, ‘Wow.’”