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Food by VICE

The Best Dish Is the One You Didn't Order

Set menus aren't a cost-cutting gimmick, says chef James Lowe. Rather, they're a way of serving the best produce at the cheapest price. It's okay for everyone not to love everything, too.

by James Lowe
Aug 27 2014, 4:59pm

Foto: Sarah_Ackerman | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Choosing to do set menus at my restaurant Lyle's came from the days when I was at St. John Bread and Wine and had friends coming to eat at the restaurant who would say, "send me some dishes", and I would say, "OK, choose something and I'll send you the rest." They'd order a couple and I'd send a couple, and I always really liked the idea that someone's favourite dish might be something they didn't order or expect.

I started thinking, God wouldn't it be amazing if you could always feed people like this? How wonderful it would be to feed people something they weren't expecting and give them an amazing experience. That's why I started doing supper clubs like The Loft Project a few years ago, to give the same kind of experience at Bread and Wine, where I just sent food to people and they'd get to taste what I thought was a good idea.

The element of discovery in food is something that's really close to my heart, because when I started cooking I used to go to restaurants like St. John all the time to learn about food and taste things I'd never tried before, especially during game season. I started reading about all the different game birds you can get and I'd check St. John menus to find out when they had a certain dish on.

I remember when I first heard about the game bird snipe—I phoned the restaurant, found out when it was on, and went in as soon as they had it on the menu. I really liked that I could use St. John as a place for discovering and learning more about food.

Choosing to have a set menu is not about preaching or forcing people to have things. Ultimately, we're trying to send really nice food. But I know that when people go to restaurants they order certain dishes and tend to play it safe with ordering because they're spending money and no one wants to make a bad choice in a restaurant. Everyone sits down and gets food envy. If you think, Oh that sounds interesting, I'll try that, and it's not any good, you then think, Brilliant, I've just wasted 20 quid.

All the food we serve is good. Sometimes it can be challenging and sometimes dishes will divide people. We served monkfish liver a couple of weeks ago because you don't often find it on menus and I think it's got such an amazing flavour. When I used to do it at St. John Bread and Wine we didn't sell many, but the people we did sell it to absolutely loved it. So, I thought it was worthwhile putting it on the menu at Lyle's. We did 50 people for dinner that night and, while ten people didn't finish it, everyone tried it.

You don't have to love everything that you eat and I think that's a really important thing. There were about 20 people who ate the liver that night, finished it, and thought it was interesting. Nearly 15 ate it and were amazed. Unfortunately, that does mean you might get a small amount of people that didn't like it—one of whom was a national restaurant critic, who then slated us.

I believe it's worth doing for the (larger amount of) people who had their whole experienced heightened because they weren't expecting it, might have been nervous when it hit the table, but ended up absolutely loving it. We've served a fair few things at Lyle's that you wouldn't normally order—lamb heart, suckling kid liver, and ox heart—not to freak people out or provoke, but because they're fantastic and really worth people eating.

One of the things the set menu really allows us to do, too, is cut down on wastage. You never have anything in the fridge that sits there for a few days because no one is ordering it.

It also allows us to do things like buy fabulous day boat fish from an incredible company—the best fish supplier I've ever worked with—who use day boats but have a minimum order, so you have to buy at least 10 kilos of fish. A lot of people can't use that company often because they can't sell 10 kilos of fish, and they're scared they're going to waste it.

Someone like me with a set menu, however, can buy 10 kilos of stunning mackerel and put it on the menu because I know I will sell it all in one night. These fish come in with rigor mortis—it's truly the best fish I've ever seen in a London restaurant and I love being able to sell that kind of produce to people.

It's often thought that chefs serving set menus are trying to pull some kind of trick to improve margins. What it actually means is that you can cut your costs. Of course, some people will increase their profit margins, but I do it so I can charge less. We were serving turbot on the £39 ($65) set menu here—some restaurants would charge £39 ($65) for a main course of turbot just by itself. I don't understand why people would think that's a bad thing.

Lots of people say it's so nice to come in and not have to choose what to eat, and, ultimately, we want to look after them. People put their trust in us to us to serve what we think is fantastic food and produce at a price that other London restaurants can't compete with because of how they structure their menus. Chefs really like it because we're more likely to trust our friends, other chefs, to serve us good food. In the industry it happens quite a lot that chefs will eat at each others restaurants and just say, "Send me something", because you know they know what their best produce is.

When you've just got one set menu, everything you send out to people is the best you've got in the kitchen.

As told to Rosie Birkett

St. John
Fergus Henderson
food critics
James Lowe
The Loft Project
set menus