Small wonders

Restaurateur Mark Best  recognises the value of offering  his customers a degustation option

Restaurateur Mark Best recognises the value of offering his customers a degustation option

Two top chefs reveal the business case for the degustation menu. By Rob Johnson

Imagine if you could offer customers a menu that cuts your produce costs, virtually eliminates wastage, lowers labour costs, stabilises income and significantly increases yield-per-customer, all while showcasing your chef’s talent and enhancing the ‘theatre’ of your restaurant. It’s long been a bit of a fine dining secret, although one that more and more restaurants are finding out for themselves.

If there was a tipping point when everything changed, it was around the middle of 2004. Suddenly, it seemed a slew of restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne started offering degustation menus—previously a marker of a top-end, fine dining restaurant.

Matthew Evans, author and former critic for The Sydney Morning Herald, says it’s still growing. “There’s so many foodie types out there who want to get the best out of a restaurant when they go, so it’s a good use of diners’ time if they’re that way inclined.”

But why go down the degustation road at all?

It wasn’t long before 2004 that Mark Best’s restaurant, Marque in Sydney’s Surry Hills, started offering a degustation menu. Best had been plying his trade at Marque since 1999, following stints at Macleay Street Bistro, Peninsula Bistro, L’Arpége in Paris and Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saisons in the UK. At the beginning he only offered an a la carte menu, as he felt degustation was something you needed to build up to. “You have to be fairly confident because there are all sorts of pitfalls,” he says. “It took us three years before I felt there was a body of work I could transfer.

“A degustation menu shouldn’t be for immediate financial gain or higher yield-per-customer. It should be a showcase for your work and what your restaurant produces. That’s the only reason to do it. The financial reasons were not a factor at all for us. That followed, but it wasn’t the reason.”

His experience working with Alain Passard and Raymond Blanc in Paris and Oxford taught him that great restaurants offer many menus at various price points—the idea behind their a la carte menu being to push customers towards a degustation menu. The high price point of the a la carte menus in France generally make the set menus good value.

But Best’s main reason for developing degustation was an awareness of the law of diminishing returns for the classic entrée-main-dessert format. “There’s a degree of boredom that sets in with the larger portion of the dishes. The palette becomes tired and loses interest,” he says. “With the degustation menu, that doesn’t happen. You’ve really only got maybe three bites of any one course—with the first you go ‘wow!’, the second is even better, and by the third it’s all gone. So you leave them wanting more.”

But the slow build to gastronomical art isn’t the only way to do it. Down at Interlude in Melbourne, Robin Wickens always offered a degustation as well as a prix fixe menu, but after two years switched to degustation only. As he explains, “We’re a small restaurant, so we have only two ways we can go—turn over as many tables as possible or try to get as much yield from each table. We decided to go for more per head.”

Like Best, Wickens also worked with Raymond Blanc, as well as with big names like Bruno Loubet and Stephen Terry, and had consolidated his own reputation at Toofey’s and diningroom 211 in Melbourne.

When he made the switch to degustation only, Wickens found that his customers’ profile changed. “It does draw a different crowd. You get the more serious foodie in. We offer six to 22 courses, so you can have people here for four-and-a-half to five hours. They have to be pretty serious about the food.”

But whether it’s art or commerce that drove their decision, just the fact that two such celebrated and experienced chefs chose to go down this route suggests it’s a good idea for others to follow, right?

Well, there is a catch.

“When you first do it you do lose a lot of bookings,” says Wickens. “We’re more expensive than we were before, and a lot of customers just want an entrée and a main. So they would ring up to book and when you explained that it was degustation only they would change their minds. I think initially we lost about 20 per cent of our custom—it wasn’t really that number, I’m just coming up with a figure off the top of my head—but it was a significant drop. But over time, things levelled out.”

Wickens says one way you might counter the loss of business is by offering an a la carte menu on a couple of weeknights, and offering degustation only on the weekend. In the end, he decided not to do that because they wanted to keep continuity throughout the week.

Best, however, does offer a choice of degustation or a la carte during the week (“Not everyone wants to commit to a set course dinner, and so to retain the a la carte is a pragmatic decision,” he says). The split between the two menus is about half-half. “That wasn’t always the case, of course, but it’s built up over the years as the restaurant’s reputation has grown,” he says, adding there was a significant jump in customers when he was named Chef of the Year by the Good Food Guide last year.

“I had thought about introducing the degustation menu alone on Saturday night for a long time, knowing that limiting the choices available was alienating to customers. But given that Saturday night was 100 per cent oversubscribed anyway, I felt I had room to move. There hasn’t been a significant drop in custom—in fact, we’re full on Saturday nights, and we have seen custom increase during the week from those people who either don’t have the time to do the degustation menu, or who feel it’s going to be too much.”

It can freak out your staff

Offering degustation can lead to stressed-out and overworked staff, especially if you’re asking them to prepare a la carte options as well. But it doesn’t have to be that way. “The down side is if you’re adding a completely different menu then your labour costs go up,” says Wickens. “But degustation menus aren’t necessarily more labour intensive to prepare. You’ve got your a la carte menu and you build your degustation menu from that.”

The upside of building it from your a la carte menu, he says, is “your food costs drop, because a degustation menu offers smaller serves. So food costs drop dramatically, which is one of the great benefits. You also tend to not have much wastage, where with a la carte you have to prepare lots of things beforehand, and people may come in and all order one sort of entrée, for example. So wastage is less of an issue.”

However, it may not always be that simple balancing food and labour costs.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” Best says. “Not everything works as a degustation dish. It’s to do with relative proportion of the dish and the ingredients used. There’s some weird law that determines why that is, although I can’t explain it! But just because something works on the a la carte menu doesn’t mean it’ll also work in the degustation menu and vice versa. So it may drop your produce costs by a small percentage, but that’s compensated by increased labour costs.”

However, the other trap with degustation lies in customers’ dietary requirements: being in the hospitality industry, Best finds it difficult to say no to a customer who has a special request. “When we say we have a set menu, it’s not exactly set,” he explains. “You also have to account for dietary requirements and allergies, such as allergies to peanuts or gluten free or vegetarian options. So I’ll write the menu and then we’ll have five variations to account for those customers with special needs. Dietary requirements can be the stimulus to create new dishes and should be viewed as a positive. Some fabulous ideas stemmed from someone’s individual requirements.”

And given the whole motivation for doing degustation in the first place—to conquer the threat of jaded palettes amongst core customers—you have to keep stretching yourself, says Best. “I worked out that we’ve produced around 300 different dishes for those regular customers,” he says. “Every Saturday night we come up with a different menu, and of course, there’s seasonal variations to account for as well.”

The payoff

There is an upside to the tasting menu, says Matthew Evans. “It’s in both the diners’ and the restaurant’s interests. For the restaurant, there’s no wastage and none of the problem of fickleness, such as the salmon being ordered by everyone for two weeks, and no-one after that. And for the diners, they’re getting much better value because the meal is longer and more indulgent, and they’re experiencing the best the restaurant has to offer.”

And you can offer them a matching glass of wine with each course, which certainly helps increase the yield-per-head when they take up the option, as well as stabilising the restaurant’s income.

Both Best and Wickens say the growth in popularity of their degustation menus has been driven by customers. “People requested it as our reputation grew and as the restaurant got more press,” says Best. “And while there is an increase in yield-per-customer, that’s a short-term gain; the longer-term gain is to bolster your reputation.

“It’s to showcase what you can do and your creativity. The most difficult thing to do is have a cohesive meal that goes somewhere. It has to move from light and delicate to heavier items. It’s also tricky to ensure you don’t go from savoury to sweet. We need nine to ten courses with a couple of fillers to make that work. And that’s what a wonderful degustation menu does. And then of course there is the matching wines! Anyone can offer it, but whether it works or not is another thing.”

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