How do top Malaysian restaurants come up with new dishes?


Many restaurants introduce specials on the menu to ensure the menu doesn’t remain stale. — TABLE & APRON

Fidelity is not something that is often associated with restaurants. Customers are fickle and in need of shiny, new meals all the time and they’ll find it wherever they can. A restaurant that is incredibly alluring when it first opens may find this appeal wearing thin as the years go by and age catches up. This is why most eateries have to constantly innovate and strive to stay ahead of the game in order to succeed in the long-run.

For many restaurants, this often means coming up with a multitude of new dishes – whether that’s a special of the day, a special of the month, a menu facelift or even a total overhaul. This change is particularly crucial for restaurants looking to remain relevant in an age where loyalty is no longer a given.

“For us, we are a casual dining restaurant and yes, there are some casual dining restaurants that have maintained the same menu for many, many years and become iconic because of it, but I think in some way, change is inevitable. Because if you don’t change, there will be a time period when your restaurant is no longer relevant,” says Andrew Lai, the founder of popular pork-centric eatery Curious Kitchen.

According to Lai, sometimes a new dish isn’t an instant star, and instead takes time to grow on customers. — CURIOUS KITCHENAccording to Lai, sometimes a new dish isn’t an instant star, and instead takes time to grow on customers. — CURIOUS KITCHEN

When determining what should stay and what should go, Andrew Tan, one of the directors of Chinese eatery Crab Meet says most restaurants will apply a formula of sorts to determine the number of new dishes to add to a menu.

“This is how I feel – if your restaurant has 20 items on the menu, you have to keep 11 to 12 of your best things as a staple and the other seven or eight items can be swapped around every six months or so or you can do seasonal dishes.

“If you’re a very small set-up or a full-fledged family restaurant, maybe you can keep your full menu but it is still good to have different specials every week or month, because if not, things can get very stale,” says Tan.

For Isadora Chai, the chef-owner behind modern French eatery Bistro a Table, finding a balance between being innovative and keeping steadfast old favourites on the menu is the trickiest bit of updating a restaurant menu.

“I have customers who eat the same thing every week. So it’s hard to constantly change things but yeah, you need to innovate. So I think it’s about getting that fine balance.

Chai says many of her new dishes were devised based on the need to utilise kitchen gadgets she bought online on a whim! — BISTRO A TABLEChai says many of her new dishes were devised based on the need to utilise kitchen gadgets she bought online on a whim! — BISTRO A TABLE“Because some customers want to come and eat something new but then there are those comfort diners who had a bad day and only want to eat your beef bourguignon, so you know you can’t take that out of the menu. In my case, I will have portions set aside for them because they eat it for comfort, and how do you challenge that?” she reasons.

New meals

Restaurant menus are updated with varying frequency. Very often, eateries introduce daily, weekly or monthly specials with more dramatic changes occurring two to four times a year.

So how do new dishes make it on the menu? For some restaurants, it is all about developing and inspiring the kitchen team from the very first day.

Marcus Low, the owner of popular neighbourhood restaurant Table & Apron, is a proponent of staff education and training. Consequently, at his eatery, everyone in the kitchen team is thoroughly trained – both formally and informally – in subjects as far-ranging as how to fillet a fish and making mayonnaise from scratch. Low also takes the team on field trips or visits to local producers so that they have a better understanding of the provenance of ingredients.

“About 60 to 70% of our kitchen team are trained in culinary arts and 30 to 40% are not formally trained. But in our restaurant, it is not so much about what special dish you can make – it is ‘Do you have the fundamentals?’ Because then coming up with dishes is more natural.

“The last thing I want is for the chefs to present a dish and I am critiquing it based on the fundamentals. The critiques should be based on how the flavours complement each other or how a dish should be marketed and sold; rather than ‘Oh, the mayonnaise has split’. So it is about building on the fundamentals to develop the team,” he says.

Low’s views are echoed by Tan, who also goes to great lengths to ensure his staff get all the training that they need in order to excel.

At Table & Apron, staff receive in-depth training on everything from filleting a fish to making a sauce from scratch, all designed to help them develop solid menu ideas. — TABLE & APRONAt Table & Apron, staff receive in-depth training on everything from filleting a fish to making a sauce from scratch, all designed to help them develop solid menu ideas. — TABLE & APRON

“Sometimes we have chefs from elsewhere coming in to train the team. Also three times a week, the team doesn’t take breaks between lunch and dinner service; instead we do training focusing on research and development, how to create new dishes and plating,” explains Tan.

Inspiration abounds

When it comes down to actually creating a brand-new dish, inspiration can be found literally everywhere. Most often, this boils down to ingredients because what’s available often dictates what goes on the menu.

“Sometimes it is about a product or ingredient that we really like or is really fresh. Because that forces us to accelerate the conception of the dish and offer it as a special. And secondly, it is also about the narrative behind the dish – like what story does it tell diners,” explains Low.

This dish of crab curry noodles was developed by Crab Meet’s chef after three weeks of trial and error and was inspired by Indian crab curries. — TABLE & APRONThis dish of crab curry noodles was developed by Crab Meet’s chef after three weeks of trial and error and was inspired by Indian crab curries. — TABLE & APRON

The hilarious Chai meanwhile says she is addicted to buying all sorts of kitchen gadgets and equipment and confesses that her shopping compulsions end up inspiring (read: compelling) her to create dishes that actually makes use of all these new acquisitions.

“I buy so many kitchen gadgets online – I think I am a shopaholic! So I just accumulate all this stuff (like a rotary mandolin!) and then I end up thinking ‘Let’s cook something with it’. Otherwise it will go to waste, so I need to justify these purchases!” she says, laughing.

Tan meanwhile says his kitchen team derives a lot of ideas from an app from China called Little Red Book, which essentially functions as a content sharing site.

“Our guys will look at certain Chinese chefs on the app and from there, they draw inspiration and and experiment and see if they can use local ingredients to make something similar,” says Tan.

Low says at Table & Apron, new dishes that come out on the menu are often devised based on ingredient availability or whether there is a potent story to tell about the dish. — TABLE & APRONLow says at Table & Apron, new dishes that come out on the menu are often devised based on ingredient availability or whether there is a potent story to tell about the dish. — TABLE & APRON

Tan also invests in monthly staff dinners where the team gets to pick a new Chinese restaurant to try out – both to scope out the competition and to see what new meals they can mimic and add to their repertoire.

“So every month, we have a team dinner and pick a place to try, because if you don’t know what is out there, you’re just in your own bubble. So after the meal, if something inspires the team, they have to give input on it and we have to figure out if it is do-able and if we have the right equipment to cook the dish. So it all works hand-in-hand to create something new,” says Tan.

Meal ideas

Trends come and go, but while they are around, why not latch on to their evanescent appeal and memorability? This is exactly what Lai discovered when his chefs came up with a Hokkien mee dish incorporating Iberico pork lard.

The Iberico Hokkien mee is a dish that the chefs at Curious Kitchen came up with, which has since become a huge hit. — CURIOUS KITCHENThe Iberico Hokkien mee is a dish that the chefs at Curious Kitchen came up with, which has since become a huge hit. — CURIOUS KITCHEN

This is a trend that is increasingly prevalent in many upscale restaurants, which have been repurposing high-end ingredients like Angus beef or wagyu in inherently local dishes like fried rice. To Lai’s great delight, the dish has been a huge success since its inception!

“It’s one of our big crowd favourites, we always have this on the menu now. It started off more like ‘Let’s try this, it hasn’t been done before!’ and it just stuck on because people were like ‘Wow, it’s quite different!’ So the inspiration comes from everywhere and sometimes you really hit the spot with it,” says Lai.

Perhaps the one thing that really does work as a gathering point for ideas is the daily staff meals. This typically takes shape when staff at restaurants cook up their own meals after a long day1’s work. Sometimes these seemingly benign dishes are met with such enthusiastic reception that they end up on a restaurant’s menu. In other eateries meanwhile, staff meals are utilised as a creative pod, where the entire team gets together to eat and give feedback on meals.

A random conversation with a group of bankers inspired Chai to start doing more locally-driven, sustainable menus like her head-to-tail grouper degustation menu. Pictured here is grouper with tuak beurre blanc and kailan. — BISTRO A TABLEA random conversation with a group of bankers inspired Chai to start doing more locally-driven, sustainable menus like her head-to-tail grouper degustation menu. Pictured here is grouper with tuak beurre blanc and kailan. — BISTRO A TABLE

Finally, inspiration can also sprout from very unlikely situations. Chai for example, found herself shifting the direction of her entire restaurant’s menu after a conversation with a group of bankers!

“A few months ago, I was having a conversation with bankers and they were talking about sustainable industries. And I started to think about the long-term effects of food security.

“So now my direction moving forward with the restaurant is to reduce my carbon footprint by using more local produce. So I have been rediscovering local fish like grouper – I even did a nose-to-tail grouper degustation menu!” she says.

Does it always work?

Once a restaurant has decided to introduce a new dish on the menu (after plenty of trial-and-error to perfect the dish), many things happen to get it on the table. According to Low, his standard operating procedure once he and the team have given their seal of approval for a new dish is for the marketing team to do first do photo shoots with the new meal.

At Table & Apron, everyone gets a chance to try new dishes on the menu and see what they think about it. — TABLE & APRONAt Table & Apron, everyone gets a chance to try new dishes on the menu and see what they think about it. — TABLE & APRONIn the kitchen, the lead R&D chef will then train the kitchen team to show them how it is made. Then the front-of-house staff listen to the chef’s description of the dish and will talk among themselves about how to pitch it to customers.

But like everything in life, not every new dish introduced on a menu will be met with rave reviews. Sometimes a dish that the chefs and everyone else loves to death doesn’t seem to cut the mustard with diners. And often, this can be seen through the sales figures.

“For me, I always capture feedback from what people don’t see – the numbers speak for itself, so sometimes when you see something being a little bit low, then it’s time to change. But first you need to give it some time, because sometimes it takes time for something to build – some are fast and some are slow,” says Lai.

Low meanwhile says that he is very aware that pushing out new meals is also an exercise in balance. There will be meals that are sure-fire crowd favourites and others that are being made purely because they represent more aspirational ideas and motivations.

“When it comes to specials, it is always important to straddle pushing out stuff that people want – basically pasta or anything fried – with something a little different like mackerel crudo, which people may not be as familiar with but does introduce technique and refinement,” he says.

Tan meanwhile says he has discovered that the best way to discover if a new dish is going to make it for the long haul is to put it on the menu as a special of the week or month. If it is a huge hit, the question of long-term viability has been answered.

“Taste is very subjective from person to person, so three people in the kitchen might think a dish is great but then we might discover that the majority of customers don’t think it is great. So certain things we try to do as specials to try it out first – if it works well, we will try to put it as a regular item on our menu.

“We also get family and friends to taste all these things first and sometimes if the staff are cooking a particular thing for a staff meal, we will just give out complimentary portions to customers. It costs us very little, it keeps customers happy and more importantly, we are able to get feedback from diners on the spot,” says Tan.

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