The small-plates trend keeps growing, and increasingly diners’ small plates are arriving at their table in mini crock pots, tiny cast-iron skillets, or diminutive Mason jars. But while these vessels may be small, they pack large benefits for chefs and back-of-the-house crews.
For Paul Callahan, executive chef at No. 8 Kitchen & Spirits in Amesbury, Massachusetts, serving small portions in a creative way adds value to the dining experience while also helping to control costs. The farm-to-table restaurant serves comfort food with playful twists, choosing small cast-iron cookware and Mason jars for plating smaller portions. “If we have a large party, we’ll do a few of our mini cornbread appetizers in cast iron and guests think it’s so cute,” Chef Callahan says. “The cast iron has an Old World sort of feel to it.”
In the back of the house, the small cast-iron cookware helps Chef Callahan keep an eye on food costs. “It’s a measuring tool for us; we know exactly how many ounces of product we’re putting on a plate,” he explains.
The idea of putting small, fragile dishes into the hands of busy line cooks on a Friday night might make some operators and chefs cringe, but Chef Yury Krasilovsky has found that serving dishes in small ramekins is actually easier and more efficient. For a recent catering event in the U.S., the chef specialist at Barilla, an Italian food company, created individual ramekins of Barilla crawfish macaroni and cheese. In doing this, he found that getting the food out to the diner was easier than ever. “The little individual ramekins make it super easy,” he says. “You prepare the whole thing as a batch ahead of time, pre-portion it into the ramekins, and heat it in the oven just prior to service.”
These compact serving vessels sometimes require extra care. At No. 8 Kitchen & Spirits, Mason jars have a dedicated shelf in the kitchen and have to be hand-washed. For Chef Callahan the space they occupy doesn’t outweigh the room for creativity that these vessels provide. Many restaurants use Mason jars for beverages or flower vases. And in the humid South, Mason jars filled with water are used as centerpieces to deter insects.
Chef Callahan has also found that these smaller, unusual serving dishes fit with his concept. “I love white plates, but these dishes help us break away from the fine-dining image and help us have more of a homey, comforting feel for our guests,” he says.