Storytelling is an essential part of human nature. Stories can connect an audience to a storyteller on an emotional level. Storytelling is what makes word of mouth marketing, social sharing and social media powerful for restaurants.
For chefs, storytelling transforms a plate of ingredients into a memorable dish.
Telling diners a story about a dish, like where an ingredient is from or tapping into our shared cultural experiences, gives diners a mental hook of what to expect when the plate arrives.
For us at SECRETBURGER.com, we've noticed that the dishes that sell out the fastest are the ones that go above and beyond ingredient lists. Dishes with stories are more popular, memorable, and sell out faster.
Below are a few examples of SECRETBURGER chefs who have used storytelling to describe their #OffTheMenu creations:
Chef Vincent Rotolo from Good Pie
Dish: Porchetta with poached pears and polenta
Story: "This is the recipe I learned from my uncle. He learned this recipe from my grandmother. We made this every year during the holidays, and it brings back a sense of family and tradition for me. This version is a pork belly wrapped loin."
Chef Mike Minor from Border Grill Las Vegas
Dish: Smoked Prime Rib Tacos with Manchego Grits and Crispy Potatoes
Story: "We developed BBQ Mexicana, and we now have a full sized wood burning smoker and wanted to smoke Prime Ri. The Prime Rib is smoked to rare then chopped up and seared in a sauté pan with garlic and lime. We also make and grind our own polenta and add Manchego to them. Each taco is topped off with the grits and crispy shoestring potatoes."
Chef Khai Vu from District One
Dish: Mì Quang
Story: "Mì Quang, is a Vietnamese noodle dish that originated from Quang Nam Province in central Vietnam outside of Hue ancient city. In the region, it is one of the most popular and nationally recognized food items. There is a lot of history to it, and I happen to travel there and had the dish. I want to recreate it and give it a run."
Chef Brian Howard from Sparrow + Wolf
Dish: Duck Confit Cinnamon Roll, five spice crumble, duck fat frosting, roasted pear chutney
Story: "I'm a huge fan of anything sweet and savory and who doesn’t love duck confit, it only made sense to me to layer and lace the inside of one of my favorite guilty pleasure with it. I created this as a brunch dish during my tenure at Comme Ca it became wildly popular and requested upon over the years. This is the perfect opportunity to bring it back."
Chef Daniel Coughlin from Le Thai
Dish: ShortRib before ShortRib
Story: "Short Rib Fried Rice is by far our most popular dish. ShortRib before ShortRib is a chance to try our short rib before we make it into fried rice. We cover our bone-in short rib with our blend of Thai flavor. Slow cook it for 9.5 hours. Producing a flavorful melt in your mouth short rib! Trust us, the handful of employees and friends who have tried it all just shake their head in approval."
Here are a few tips to develop a story around a dish:
Take Diners on a Journey
Telling diners how you discovered a dish lets them join in your journey too. In Chef Khai Vu's description above, he mentions how he rediscovered Mì Quang on his trip to a rural part of central Vietnam and noticed how popular it is.
Not all journeys have to be across the world though. It could be a journey across town to an unfamiliar neighborhood or a trip back in time where you rediscover something you may have forgotten. These questions might help you bring diners along on your journey of discovery:
Where were you when you discovered the dish?
Was it a rediscovery?
How old were you?
Who were you with?
How did you find the dish?
Stories can give insight into the cooking process. Peel back the curtain and show diners what you thought might happen, how you went about creating the dish and how it all turned out.
In Chef Brian Howard's description above, he explains how sweet and savory work together which led him to believe that salty duck confit and a sweet cinnamon roll belong together. These questions might help diners understand the “why” behind your dish:
What did you do?
Why did you want to do it?
Why did you think it would work?
How did it turn out?
How would you describe the creation process to another chef?
What did other people think about it?
Share your Passion
Personal stories create the strongest emotional connection with diners. Stories about how you got started and what you've experienced show authenticity. Most chefs began cooking when they were young and someone created a positive experience.
Family members are a common inspiration, like in the case of Chef Vincent Rotolo's description above and how his relationship with his Uncle and his Grandma led him to make Porchetta for SECRETBURGER.com. For others, it might be a celebrity chef who inspired them or a summer job that became a lifelong career with mentoring from a chef. These questions might help:
Why did you start cooking?
When did you start cooking? Who was there?
Who influenced or encouraged you in your career? Do you remember the first time you met them?
What dish or ingredient reminds you of the past?
What inspires you?
What was your biggest challenge in the kitchen? How did you overcome it?
Speak for the Dish
Storytelling doesn't have to be personal, and often it's easier just to let the dish speak for itself. Highlighting special ingredients in dishes elevates the perception of a dish and is already commonly used by chefs. But there’s a higher level when there’s a story that tells how the ingredient is essential.
In Chef Daniel Coughlin's example above, he tells how people rave about the short rib from the short rib fried rice. When they get to try the short rib by itself, it gets a visible reaction. These questions might help you tell a story about a special ingredient in more detail:
Why does the special ingredient matter?
Does the ingredient transform the dish? How?
What makes the ingredient rare? Is it seasonal? Hard to produce? Expensive?
Who produces the ingredient? Why is that unique?
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