Menu creation, repetition and repetitiveness

One of the challenges I always face when coming up with a menu for dinner parties like the one I had recently is avoiding too much repetition. This is especially true because I’m working with other people’s recipes, and I try to adhere to them as closely as I can, substituting ingredients only when I can’t acquire what they call for.

The first time I became aware of the concept of repetitiveness between dishes in a menu was in reading about Thomas Keller. I can’t find the exact source anymore, but it was probably in Michael Ruhlman’s book The Soul of a Chef, to this day one of my favourite pieces of food writing. (It’s also mentioned in Pheobe Damrosch’s entertaining Service Included.) From what I understand, when the tasting menu is being designed at The French Laundry and Per Se, if one course features a given ingredient, it won’t appear in any other courses – unless it’s a prestige ingredient like foie gras, truffles or caviar.

Although I try and make this a guiding principle when planning a multicourse dinner party, sometimes my desire to make certain dishes trumps my desire to avoid repetition. In my most recent party, for example, there were two courses – back to back, no less – that both involved a sabayon: the “21st Century Tortilla” and the “Oysters and Pearls.” Similarly, grapefruit featured in both the pork main course and the panna cotta dessert.

I justify the repetition by telling myself that guidelines are just that: guides, not carved-in-stone rules. I have so relatively few opportunities to cook from some of the cookbooks that I use for these parties that I’m not willing to let an arbitrary rule dictate my choice of dishes, though it will continue to inform that choice. Besides, I think there may just be a difference between elegant repetition, the echoing of grapefruit between the savoury pork dish and the sweet panna cotta, and mere repetitiveness, like having a menu with apples in every dish just because it’s October.

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2 Responses to “Menu creation, repetition and repetitiveness”

  1. I think echoing a flavor somewhere else in the meal is perfectly fine. Maybe it’s a star ingredient in an amuse that appears as a background player in a main or, as in your case, plays sweet against savory variations on a flavor. I think done well it can serve to tie things together in a subtle way. Not that I would have the audacity to claim I know more about menu design than Thomas Keller, I just tend to lean more towards your way of thinking on this one.

  2. Two thoughts, Larry: First, I think that “featured” is an important keyword here. Using a flavour that’s prominent in one course as a background element in another doesn’t strike me as a problem (I doubt even Keller bans carrots from his meat stocks when he’s serving “Peas and Carrots” as a dish, as an extreme example). But I do think it often makes sense to avoid having a given ingredient or preparation as a central element in multiple dishes. Second, I think Keller’s approach is just one way of looking at a menu, and very much in keeping with his “Law of Diminishing Returns” philosophy. It works well with his style of cooking, but is far from universal.