October 23, 2004
Writing Menus - lesson 1

Recently, a friend asked me to give her some tips on creating menus for restaurants (though how she knew that this is something I’ve done I don’t quite know). I wrote up a few short e-mail lessons that I thought I’d present to you. You never know when you’re going to be called on to write a menu!

You already know that all menus are divided into sections: appetisers/starters, salad/soup/sides, main dishes (sometimes divided by type of meat used or whether its pasta/rice/meat), desserts and drinks. I’m sure that’s not something you need any instruction on.

Something that I probably can’t help you with too much is food knowledge. A good knowledge of food is important to be able to write menus. What’s the difference between a flan, a pudding and a custard? How is a soup different from a stew?

The best menus have two points for each dish - a name for the dish and a description. In “Writing menus - lesson 1” we’ll focus on the name of the dish.

3 Points to Keep in Mind

  1. The name should clearly say what the dish is: Lamb with Lemon Sauce; Cajun-style Chicken; Fried Fish with Tartar Sauce. Unless the diner wants to know more, he can skim the names and figure out what to eat. If the dish as a classic or regional name, use it: Fettucini al Fredo; Eggs Florentine, Salad Niscoise; Cobb Salad. Then use the description to explain what it is (see lesson 2)

  2. Cute names are a bad idea. What is “Happy Chicken” or “Uncle Joe’s Breakfast” or a “Friday Relaxer”? Meaningless. Diners have to read too much to find out. And they feel silly ordering them, too.

  3. Try to make each name easily shortened without any overlap with other dishes. “I’ll have the lamb.” “I’d like the chicken” “I’d like the fried fish, please.” If there are two dishes with the same meat or main ingredient, be sure you identify each one by cooking method or flavor: grilled beef and stewed beef, for example.

How to Create a Good Name

You can’t go wrong if you put the elements of the dish in this order:

Region + Cooking Method + Flavor + Main Ingredient + Cut + Accompaniment

You don’t have to use all of them at once, though you’d be remiss not to include the main ingredient. Stick with the minimum needed to describe the dish clearly. For example:

New York Style Baked Cheesecake with Blueberry Sauce
(region, method, main, accompaniment)

Steamed Raspberry Pudding
(method, flavor, main)

White Chocolate Cake with Carmel Topping
(flavor, main, accompaniment)

Louisiana Barbecue Pork Ribs
(region, method, main, cut)

Chinese-style Pork Tenderloin
(region, main, cut)

Baked Chicken Breast with Chipotle Pepper Pasta
(method, main, cut, accompaniment)

Broiled Flounder crusted with Black Pepper
(method, main, accompaniment)

Stir Fried Shrimp and Asparagus over Angel Hair Spaghetti
(method, main, accompaniment)

Grilled Rosemary Lamb Chops with Garlic Mashed Potatoes
(method, flavor, main, cut, accompaniment)

Garlic Bread topped with Cheese
(flavor, main, accompaniment)

Vegetable Lasagne
(flavor, main)

Accompaniment can go in the description unless it’s a major element of the dish, like “over angel hair spaghetti” or “topped with cheese” in the examples above. Include topping that adds to the flavor, like “blueberry sauce”, “crusted with black pepper” or “carmel topping” above. No need to mention the parsley!

Distinguish the Ingredients

Be as specific as possible with the main. Not just “fish” but what kind of fish? What shape is the pasta - linguine, farfalle, penne, spaghetti? If it’s a rice dish, what sort of rice is it - arborrio, basmati, wild rice? In Japan, you can leave off “Japanese” when writing about rice, because that’s what everyone expects. But outside Japan there are lots of different rices.

The cut of meat is also important. Chicken legs and chicken breast taste different. I’d happily eat a grilled T-bone steak, but not a grilled rump roast.

Specialty Names and Descriptions

Here’s a list of some of the classic descriptions. You can use these as shortcuts in your menu names, but be sure to explain what the dish is without the fancy name when you write the description. Below are some French terms and different cuisines all have their own specialised vocabulary!

xx Florentine (cooked with spinach)
xx Nicoise (with tomato, garlic, olive oil and, black olives)
XX Provencal (with garlic and olive oil)
xx a la mode (topped with ice cream)

And there are dozens of classic dishes that many diners will be familiar with, even though the names don’t describe the dish explicitly. It would be strange to describe them using the method above. For example, lasagne. You could write it as Italian Pasta Casserole, but doesn’t that sound wrong?

Lasagne, Ravioli, Pierogies, Naan, Palak Paneer, Waldorf Salad, BLT, Coq au Vin, Tacos, Burritos, Huevos Rancheros, Gazpacho…

There are many more descriptions and dish names, I’ve only listed some off the top of my head. There’s an excellent dictionary of food terms here: http://www.cafecreosote.com/dictionary.php3

In the next lesson, I’ll go over writing the descriptions to match the names.

Posted by kuri at October 23, 2004 10:22 AM


The director, Gene Ellis, is still talking about the prop menu you created for “Lucky Stiff”. He still has one. You used some fanciful descriptions in that one!

Posted by: Fran on October 23, 2004 06:51 PM

though it might be a private question, what’s your job????creater? chef? You are so mysterious.

Posted by: Mieko on October 23, 2004 08:23 PM

Peanut Butter Vodka Balls

Smashed Smarties

Hershey Bar Melted Over Lightbulb

Posted by: Jenny on October 24, 2004 12:24 AM

Sorry. Even though I’ve learned to cook and enjoy it, I still don’t take food very seriously. The simple dishes still speak to my tongue the most - a summer tomato on wiggle bread, or sharp cheddar on Ritz crackers.

Posted by: Jenny on October 24, 2004 12:26 AM

Mieko: She’s an exotic dancer.

Posted by: UltraBob on October 27, 2004 12:06 PM
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