It's nerve-racking enough figuring out what to serve for a Saturday night dinner party.
Imagine trying to write a menu for 200 nightly guests when their expectations are through the roof.
To chefs like Benjamin Meyer, though, it's second nature -- and fun.
So last week seemed like an opportune time to talk to him about how he creates new dishes and goes through the process of building a winning menu.
First, he cautioned, his methods aren't necessarily like anyone else's. But for him, inspiration for dishes can come from anywhere -- an ingredient, a memory, a moment.
He recalls one night watching bearnaise sauce run slowly down the side of a filet and pool on the plate. The sauce was "rich, smooth, velvet, silky" ... sensuous, really. He began thinking about sauces -- about how the five French "mother sauces" can be modified into other sauces. "What if we did a dish based off a mother sauce?" he wondered.
On the new menu is an appetizer called "Mother Sauce" -- hollandaise (the mother) with white asparagus, bearnaise with smoked salmon, and charon with Kobe beef. No one would guess how it began.
Sometimes, he looks for new ways to do old ideas. "We're a casino and we're Iridescence and we have things people love. I'm not going to take that away." But he can update.
The old filet mignon, the top seller, now is "Filet of Beef: A Tribute to the Cheeseburger" -- the grilled steak split horizontally for the "bun," toasted buttered brioche placed between them as meat and Sauce Mornay replacing cheese.
"People want something they know ... but they also want a wow factor," he says.
Writing a menu isn't as simple as listing some great-tasting dishes. They have to have the right balance as a group, and each one has to survive tough questions.
"Can I sell it at a price point that makes business sense?" Meyer asks. "I might have a great idea and want to use all these great ingredients, but if I have to sell it at 'X' amount, and the market won't bear 'X', then I can't do it."
And there must be demand. "There may be a product I'm excited about, but if no one will buy it ... there's no point putting it on the menu. ... We are a business first and foremost."
On the other hand, every dish doesn't have to be equally popular or profitable. It's about overall balance.
He may not sell many grilled baby octopus appetizers, but certain customers -- including foodies and some ethnic groups -- will love it, and sales of ever-popular dishes like shrimp cocktails and Caesar salads will help make up for it.
And you might think he wouldn't sell many $85 chateaubriands. But the 16-ounce filets of beef are designed to be shared, and with many customers dining compliments of the casino, "I sell a ton of them," Meyer says.
"The next few things I think about are who's eating the food -- and can I logistically put the food up?" he says.
"There's definitely a foodie market. They want to try everything. They watch all these TV shows and they're engaged in wine. ... But in Detroit, there's your older clientele who want steak and potatoes. They want it seasoned aggressively. They don't want it mid-rare; they want it mid-well or well done. ... So I'm trying to make dishes that appeal to both groups."
It's also very important to take into account guests' health concerns and lifestyles by offering gluten-free dishes, being aware of food allergies and always featuring an outstanding vegetarian entrée.
"The last point would be logistics," Meyer says. It may well be the most critical of all.
"I can create a dish and show you step by step how to make it and have it be beautiful. But can you do that same thing on a Saturday night for 200 people?" he says. It may be an incredible, perfect dish -- but if the staff can't give it the attention it needs when the line is busiest, it won't be on his menu.
As chef de cuisine, Meyer is in charge of the Iridescence kitchen but works closely with his boss, executive chef Don Yamauchi. The two worked together at the former Tribute when Yamauchi was its executive chef. More recently, Meyer was executive chef at Chen Chow Brasserie in Birmingham and helped open SaltWater and Bourbon Steak at the MGM Grand Detroit.
After years in some of metro Detroit's best kitchens, he's learned a lot about who we are, what we like to eat and what it takes to succeed here as a chef.
"You have to be willing as a chef to adapt in this market," he says. "(You have to be) cognizant of who's eating in your restaurant and be aware that different people have different tastes. ... And at the end of the day we have to take care of our guests and not our egos."
Iridescence is at 2901 Grand River, off the Lodge Freeway; 313-237-6732 and www.motorcitycasino.com
Contact Sylvia Rector: 313-222-5026 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SylviaRector