Tasting menu-only restaurants are popping up in unexpected places. Here's why.
After the pandemic hit, chef Alex Perry of Vestige in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, was serving food in boxes to go. He didn’t like it. When he could welcome customers inside again in May 2020, Perry made some changes.
Vestige became a tasting-menu-only restaurant. Customers commit to a five-course menu, and everyone is served the same food. The cost, on most nights, is $85.
“I just wanted to make beautiful food again,” said Perry, who in 2019 was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award for outstanding chef in the South.
Not all customers were happy when he made the change. A first, some got up and walked out. Now, Perry’s approach is appreciated by local diners, enough to keep the restaurant’s 18 seats full. And Vestige, which opened in 2013, is succeeding as a business, despite the pandemic setbacks.
“It’s one of those things we should have done sooner,” Perry said.
Tasting menus frequently are offered at high-end restaurants, where a chef's creativity unfurls across a series of small, often bite-sized courses.
Those that only serve a tasting menu traditionally are among the most elite and expensive. Rarely are they found outside large cities. In recent years, however, more restaurants have adopted the tasting-menu-only format, in smaller towns, at a lower price and with a more relaxed attitude.
The trend grew as restaurants emerged from pandemic shutdowns. A tasting menu is a way to control the experience. It lets chefs share a vision. But it also has practical benefits: less waste and smaller staff.
Saint-Germain in New Orleans may be modest in size, with only 12 chairs in its dining room. But the restaurant's ambitions are large.
Saint-Germain in New Orleans doubles down on luxury
A five-course dinner at Saint-Germain, which opened in 2018, costs $110. But the format lets co-chefs Trey Smith and Blake Aguillard, who were named best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine in 2021, give customers ingredients most other restaurants couldn't serve at that price.
Once, Saint-Germain brought in live Norwegian king crab, which can cost $400 a piece. A restaurant with an a la carte menu would need to serve a quarter of the crab to make a portion large enough for a regular-sized entree, Smith said.
Instead, Saint-Germain served the crab as a bite-sized first course. Two of the expensive giant crabs were enough for an entire weekend of customers.
“Everybody got to try a perfect little piece of crab,” Smith said.
Homestyle tasting menu at Mosquito Supper Club
At Mosquito Supper Club in New Orleans, Melissa M. Martin makes food that is an ode to the Cajun cooking she grew up eating in Chauvin, Louisiana. Gumbo, marinated crab claws and strawberry pie. She offers just one menu each night, and the food is served family-style at a communal table.
A major advantage of a set menu is that it cuts down on waste.
Martin knows exactly what she will serve, so she knows exactly what to buy. No ingredients get tossed at the end of the night because the stuffed crabs ended up being more popular than the red snapper.
“What you save on food costs, you can just roll that into wages,” she said.
The restaurant industry pays notoriously low wages. Martin, who worked for many other restaurants before opening her own, believes that paying her staff fairly is the right thing to do. Her servers, Martin said, make $14 an hour plus tips and everyone in the kitchen earns at least $18 a hour.
The struggle to hire employees has recently been in the headlines, but even before the pandemic, many restaurants could not find enough workers, particularly for the kitchen.
“You have to fight to find employees,” Martin said. “And then you have to offer employees something that makes sense.”
Small, tasting-menu-only restaurants can also operate with less staff. With a single menu, the kitchen can be streamlined. The chefs often deliver plates to the table, explaining the dish to the diners. The interaction with the chef adds to the experience, but it also means fewer servers are needed in the dining room.
A lean staff at Heirloom in Arkansas
In Rogers, Arkansas, Heirloom at The 1907 produces elaborate courses like mapo tofu agnolotti, bluefin tuna tartare with fermented cashew purée, and scallop crudo with winter citrus, avocado and puffed rice. The restaurant has a staff of four — two cooking in the open kitchen and two serving. The restaurant seats up to 22 people in a space the size of a big-city efficiency apartment.
Heirloom began as a pop-up. From the start, chef Jason Paul and partner Danielle Ribaudo served a tasting menu. In those early days it was three courses. Today it is 5 courses for $105.
Many of the chefs behind this new breed of tasting-menu restaurants got their start as pop-ups. They learned about the efficiency of a set menu. They figured out how to bootstrap any situation. And even if they went on to open more luxurious restaurants, they often held on to the laid back attitude of a pop-up.
An opportunity to explore at Southern Soingé in Jackson
Zacchaeus Golden began hosting pop-up dinners at his duplex in Jackson, Mississippi, after he was laid off at the start of the pandemic. The Delta native had moved back to Mississippi after working his way through top restaurants in New Orleans and San Francisco. The positive response to his pop-up dinners made him think a tasting-menu-only restaurant could work in Jackson. In December, he opened Southern Soigné.
“People are excited that there’s something new and different,” Golden said.
He only orders what he knows he’ll need. Like other tasting-menu restaurants, Golden keeps his staff small. It’s just him and another cook in the kitchen. His mother moved from Mobile, Alabama, to oversee the dining room.
Golden knows that tasting-menu-only restaurants will never be the norm. But the format lets him pursue his vision of modern Southern cooking, with dishes such as chicken skin cannoli or peas, sorghum-glazed pork jowl and yellow foot mushrooms. The wider acceptance of tasting menus means more ambitious chefs will have a platform similar to the one Golden has at Southern Soigné.
“I would never be able to do this style of dining in a big city, because the cost would have been astronomical,” he said. “Mississippi is one of those places where you can make a lot out of a little.”
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