At the core of the slow food movement is the rejection of processed food as a standard. Slow food restaurants are all about locally grown ingredients, meat from locally raised and fairly treated livestock, and making as much of your menu from your restaurant’s own kitchen as possible.
Another way to incorporate the slow food vision into a restaurant is to take time for the food, using slow, time-honored methods of artisanal preservation to create something wonderful.
While there are many ways to bring in slow food processes into your restaurant (including cooking methods like stewing and braising), some popular artisanal preservation methods are:
- Curing – Curing uses salt (or nitrate/nitrite) to pull out liquid from a food and kill any bad bacteria in the process. A wide variety of fish, poultry, beef, pork, and other proteins are cured in a wide variety of cultures across the world. Sausage and bacon are two of the most well-known — and most often consumed — cured meats in the US. The dry salt process can also be called a corning (hence corned beef), but the general term curing can refer to any range of food preservation methods.
- Smoking – Smoking is the process of exposing foods to smoke using burning or smoldering wood chips (that have been soaked in water beforehand) on a very low heat. Cheese, spices, nuts, and even certain fruits can use this process, but most often smoking is used on meat and fish. If you’re interested in getting your restaurant into in-house BBQ, smoking is a must-learn process for your cooks. Smoking often goes hand-in-hand with curing and can help with the preservation process, but is largely done to enhance flavor.
- Pickling – Essentially a wet curing process, pickling uses a brine, usually made with vinegar as the main liquid and then incorporating other flavors, to preserve various kinds of produce or proteins (from cucumbers to pigs’ feet to ginger). Pickling is just one of the most popular menu trends for 2016 identified by the National Restaurant Association.
- Fermentation – For cooking purposes, fermentation is using bacteria or yeast to convert carbohydrates (particularly sugar), into alcohol, gases, or acids. Fermentation as an overall technique has a wide range of uses, from developing sourdough breads and alcoholic beverages to yogurts and cheeses to sauerkraut.
- Dry aging – Dry aging is done by hanging up large pieces of beef for days or weeks at a time in a very cold refrigerating unit in order to evaporate moisture from the muscle and break down the connective tissue enzymes. What results is more flavorful, more tender pieces of meat. Wet aging (vacuum-sealing meat in bags in order to retain its moisture) has replaced most dry aging, but you can still find it done in butcher shops and some meat-focused restaurants like steakhouses.
Giving Your Restaurant an Edge
These techniques are hundreds if not thousands of years old, and so mastering those techniques brings a special element to your menu. Many consumers want to indulge in artisan foods made in-house, whether that’s cheeses, pickles, or sausage and other charcuterie.
Knowing that the food they’re ordering took time and dedication, real investment on the chefs’ part, to create makes the dining experience that much more special to your customers (especially when pairing it with a “clean menu” approach).
Waste Not, Want Not
Sustainability has become an important element to the restaurant industry as a whole, but environmentalism isn’t the only end goal. These techniques also allow your chefs to utilize as much of the product as possible, especially when it comes to proteins.
There’s something special about bringing in a primal cut of meat into your kitchen and being able to use each part of the animal in the way that brings out the most flavor and tenderness to that particular cut. Cooking from nose to tail, as they say.
Because these slow food processes are all preservation techniques (or directly tied to preservation techniques), it means that the food you’ll make with them will last longer than your day-to-day food creations. It makes the time and effort needed to make these foods worth it when you know they’ll avoid spoiling quickly.
You’ll also be saving money simply by ordering your proteins in larger cuts and breaking them down to be used in different ways, compared to ordering just the cuts you would have used otherwise.
The First Steps
When starting to implement slow food techniques into your restaurant menu, it’s best to take small steps first. Sit down with your head chef and discuss what they would like to see incorporated and if they know any of these techniques already.
Look at your current menu and see where there is room for one or two preserved items – maybe several dishes have a type of cheese in that you usually order from your vendor that could be easily made in the kitchen.
Maybe you use pickles enough in your lunch dishes that you’d like to try making them in-house. Or maybe you want to cure your own bacon to go on your BLTs and salads. Pick one element, learn the ropes of how to make it using those techniques, and incorporate that process into the regular prep routine of your kitchen staff. Once your cooks get comfortable with that one element, you can expand into more.
Perfecting the Art
Incorporating these methods into your restaurant concept can be exciting, but it’s crucial to take the time to learn how to do these techniques correctly. Cured, smoked, pickled, fermented, and dry aged foods must all comply with your local and federal health standards. Reading up on these processes, finding a local artisan offering classes, and finding trustworthy online resources are all important to bringing in slow food methods to your business.
Let the People Know
In order to make these changes part of your restaurant’s reputation, you need to make sure your customers and potential customers know about what you’re doing. Whether it’s in print ads, online ads, social media, and especially in your own menus, make sure to use certain phrases like “artisanal cheese,” “cured in-house,” “slowly smoked,” “dry aged to perfection,” “our made-in-house pickles” to entice diners with your new slow food processes.
Add an LTO to your existing marketing, incorporating one of the artisanal preservation techniques into the featured dish. Once your team feels confident in showing off their skills you can even offer chef demos or classes on these techniques to get the word out about what makes your restaurant special.
Want more ideas for how to expand your processes? Clue into the latest menu trends with our fresh report for 2016: