With skilled restaurant labor at an all-time low, chefs are turning to reliable solutions.
Industry menus are beginning to align with an old idiom: quality over quantity. A complex menu that runs the gamut of ingredients and cuisines is difficult to support amid pandemic-born supply chain disruptions and a historic labor shortage. Simplified, quality menus could be the perfect solution to the industry’s current thorny landscape.
“Not only is restaurant labor at a record low, but skilled kitchen labor is even more scarce, and then there’s the rising cost of ingredients,” says Chef Dana Cohen, corporate marketing chef for Unilever Food Solutions. “It makes sense to do 10 things really well rather than put 40 dishes on your menu and they don’t get the attention they deserve or are too difficult to execute with limited staff.”
The key to streamlining menus without losing flavor? Cohen recommends stable, affordable proteins and versatile, speed-scratch products that can be easily prepared and offer a wide variety of flavors. These ingredients standardize often-messy kitchen processes, take up less kitchen space than a host of dry goods, and slash back-of-house labor.
But while these products are simple to prepare, the flavors they bring to applications are far from one-note, which helps chefs deliver dishes that will delight diners without adding operational complexities into the mix. For instance, Knorr Professional Liquid Concentrated Bases work as the foundation for a litany of soups and sauces. The bases also work as a tenderizing brine for chicken, or (Cohen’s favorite use) as a pan glaze that gives a deep umami flavor. LeGout Cream Soup Base, a gluten-free product that works on its own in any application where you’d use a bechamel sauce, is another kitchen workhorse.
These speed-scratch products can also help take available, affordable proteins and turn them into something special. That’s especially important in a world where the supply chain for items like chicken breast has been less-than-reliable. Cohen reports that proteins like hanger steak and chicken thighs can be paired with Knorr Professional Intense Flavors to create something unique and memorable. With flavors like Knorr Professional’s poblano and jalapeno-enriched Charred Chili Heat on hand, kitchen staff can push the limits of basic proteins with solid supply chains.
Cohen cites cauliflower as another menu workhorse. According to Datassential, the trendy vegetable grew 39.3 percent between 2016 and 2020, perhaps due in part to its ability to be used as a blank canvas for flavor in a variety of applications. Readily available (and also gluten-free), the vegetable can be riced and used in bowls, steamed for “mac and cheese” or soups, or battered and fried for tacos, dippable appetizers, or sandwiches.
“In my restaurant experience, a versatile ingredient is something that can be used in at least three dishes, and in a variety of different ways,” Cohen says. “Cauliflower is one of those ingredients that you see all over menus right now because there's a lot of different things you can do with it. The key here is, don't be afraid to go bold with flavors, especially at a time when we're falling back on those basic ingredients.”
Rather than constantly shifting the menu according to supply chain, or relying on large, varying sets of kitchen staff to prepare dishes the exact same every time, speed-scratch ingredients stabilize and streamline back-of-house operations. This is an important perk for kitchens that are understaffed or that experience high talent turnover.
Furthermore, standardizing prep with a set of versatile staples means chefs can avoid prepping endless quantities of kitchen essentials such as chicken broth and focus instead on transforming those affordable, dependable bases and proteins with seasonal ingredients and uniquely-crafted flavor profiles. The resulting menu is one that is not only budget-conscious, but also consistent and creative—a menu focused on quality over quantity.
“Speed-scratch products do not mean that you're taking a shortcut or taking the easy way out as a chef,” Cohen says. “Why break your back over something that's difficult and that’s not going to come out consistently when you have the solution right in front of you? Relying on speed-scratch products allows you to focus on getting creative with those fresh ingredients and thinking outside of the box.”
For more thought leadership and labor-saving solutions, visit the Unilever Food Solutions website.