After seeing the final version of my latest Culinary Trends piece on "Complimentary Beginners," I can officially say that this article is my all-time favorite. Not surprisingly, it was also one of my more difficult pieces. Finding restaurants that offer interesting complimentary bites, and run the gamut in terms of cuisine and price was no easy task. But the final result speaks for itself!
Below is the full, unedited version. Enjoy!
Free Beginnings as a Means to an End
From casual eateries to Michelin-starred establishments, restaurants are realizing that the age of bread is coming to an end. Why? There are too many drawbacks to offering a bread basket at the beginning of the meal. First, if the bread is merely average, much of it goes to waste - a cost which can end up hurting a restaurant’s bottom line. Conversely, if a restaurant spends a lot of time ensuring that they serve the finest bread imaginable, many customers simply can’t control themselves in the face of such alluring carbohydrate. The last thing you want is for a diner to leave feeling unbearably full and uncomfortable. Finally, bread has become so commonplace that it is no longer a surprise for most diners, is not indicative of most menus, and doesn’t help prime a customer’s taste buds for what’s to come.
Although bread may be on the decline, the age of giving away a bite at the beginning of meals is far from over. Whether it’s olives, seasonal vegetables, or a composed miniature dish, a free taste to start a meal can convey a restaurant’s spirit of generosity, surprise a diner, or help satisfy a customer’s cravings as soon as they walk in the door. But what seems to be hidden by the thrill of this free gift is that a complimentary taste can also be a shrewd weapon of control. While most don’t see it in such severe terms, offering free bites can help manipulate a customer’s palate, more accurately pinpoint a diner’s specific tastes, control the pace of a meal, as well as influence how a restaurant is perceived by the customer. Who would’ve known something as small and seemingly innocent as sliced apple could have so much power?
Controlling the Customer’s Palate
One thing that all chefs agree on is that any free taste must serve a purpose, and its first purpose is to set a tone for the rest of the meal and spark a diner’s appetite. At Osteria Mozza in L.A., Chef Matt Molina greets every guest with a crostini of ricotta, olive tapenade, and a bit of basil. “We like to give them something to get their appetite going - we’re enticing them by getting their palate ready.” Even at a place as casual as Osteria Mozza’s pizzeria, this crostini is used to stimulate the palate, while at the same time leaving the diner hungry enough to enjoy a pizza – a feat that bread alone would not be able to achieve.
And although the Michelin two-star restaurant, Cyrus, may be in a different category of dining, Chef Douglas Keane uses those beginning bites in a similar fashion. “We design our canapés to highlight the five tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. For example, for salty the gougères stuffed with warm fondue tends to be a crowd favorite. Or, for bitter we’ve created a sphere out of Racer 5, a local IPA beer, and pair it with orange and honey. People who experience these tastes in the beginning know what they’re going to eat for the rest of the meal.” After the taste buds have been captivated, Cyrus follows these canapés by yet another freebie, an amuse-bouche meant to cleanse the palate as well as make the diner salivate.
On the other side of the dining scale, NOPA, a casual restaurant known for the seasonality of their cuisine, serves bite-sized tastes meant to highlight something that they’re doing. Chef Laurence Jossel has been serving a new “taste” at the beginning of a meal for almost 5 ½ years. “We make organic almond butter with a slice of apple. We use a bit of crostini with house-made farmer’s cheese and herbs. We make potato chips and put a dollop of crème fraiche on them. We do things as simple as “seasons best”, or a strawberry. The general idea is go a little high acid, stimulate salivation, and make the diner hungry.”
And it’s not just by enticing the taste buds that a chef can subtly control how the rest of the meal may be received. By serving something that compliments your food, you’re also discerning what a customer will and will not like on your menu, allowing you to influence a diner’s choices. At Street in L.A. Chef Kajsa Alger serves millet puffs, what she describes as being a cross between a rice crispy treat and Indian chaat. They reflect her eclectic cuisine but also help the kitchen identify which menu items a particular customer is more likely to enjoy. “We use these things as way of talking to the customer, a way to find out what people are interested in eating. If they don’t like that beginning taste, we can find out exactly what they did or didn’t like and use that as a way of guiding the meal and steering customers in the right direction.”
Controlling the Flow of the Meal
What if a diner orders five meat-heavy dishes in a row and the crème brulée is up next? Or perhaps they’ve chosen three of the most cream-laden selections on the menu. Knowing that this is not the optimal flow of a meal, having an arsenal of complimentary bites can help combat these tricky situations and can infinitely improve a customer’s dining experience. At Michelin-starred restaurant Aziza in San Francisco, Chef Mourad Lahlou understands this hidden benefit and uses these freebies to his advantage. “Sometimes I’ll serve them to mellow out what people are eating, as a way to balance. For example, for a table that had a very meat-heavy meal, I shaved fennel over some ice and gave it to them before dessert to give their palates a break. It took a minute for them to eat it but it woke up their palates. That’s the agenda for me, to be able to control what people are eating.”
Chef Lahlou also realizes that complimentary tastes are not only a great way of controlling the flow of flavors, but also the pace of the meal. “It’s a great way, and unbelievably effective way to control the flow of the dinner. You can tease them, distract them - you can control the experience completely. It’s a decoy you can use when you’re in a jam. A customer will never be waiting 15-20 minutes for the next course.”
Controlling a Customer’s Perception
Finally, a free bite is an incredibly powerful way of controlling a diner’s perception of your restaurant. At NOPA, although the food comes from the best sources available, the names of the farms are not advertised. Dropping that taste on the table before the meal begins is an opportunity to educate the diner on where the food is coming from, and bring attention to that farm. In this way, the perception of this restaurant as a simple, casual eatery is elevated, and customers discover what this restaurant is really all about.
In Aziza’s case, starting with a savory soda made from ingredients currently in season not only sets the stage for the rest of the flavors of the meal, but as Chef Lahlou explains, “People like soda because it’s playful. It makes it less pretentious and says to the customer that we don’t’ take ourselves too seriously. We make them think we’re not too uptight.” Similarly, a jidori egg cooked sous-vide for an hour, until the yolk becomes a custard, is laid atop braised chicken legs and surrounded by a white, potato foam, envoking the idea of “putting the egg back into the chicken.” In this way, even a carefully planned, involved dish can keep a humor about itself, and a Michelin-starred restaurant can feel like home.
Similarly, Chef Keane’s recently opened Japanese steakhouse Shimo, shocks and awes by offering a simple, complimentary dessert – a clear departure from the heavy selections usually seen on a steakhouse menu. By ending on such a high, surprising note, something as simple as fresh strawberry is transformed into something that alters a diner’s perception of their entire meal. “It’s something I brought back from Japan. I love the feeling of having something small and light at the end of a meal at a steakhouse. And, their eyes light up when we say that they’re getting a complimentary dessert – it’s really unexpected.” He notes that there’s also a financial benefit to such a simple gift. “You don’t have to have a full pastry crew. At a normal restaurant there’s a menu of eight desserts. You have to prep them all, you don’t know how much you’re going to sell, and it’s optional. By doing something simple and changing it seasonally, you can affect the restaurant’s bottom line.”
Is a complimentary ending the new complimentary beginner? Chef Alger doesn’t think it’s the timing of the bite that matters. “I think that where you place it in the meal doesn’t matter as much as the customer feeling they’re having a unique dining experience. Whoever it is, we want them to feel like they’re coming out of their dinner experience feeling special, and not only special for coming here but special even in comparison to the table next to them.”
While there may be many hidden advantages to serving complimentary tastes throughout a meal, there is one obvious advantage that all chefs agree on: the conveyed sense of hospitality. As Chef Jossel eloquently states, “When you walk into a restaurant you’re a guest. You’re not a customer or a client or table 42, you’re a guest. What do you do when someone comes to your house? Of course you’re going to give them something! And, you’re not looking at your checkbook to see if you can afford it. At the end of the day, if you’re a guest, we’re going to treat you like one.”