Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
Catering 101 - Creating Innovative & Adaptive Menus
The Food Dudes have been recognized globally for creative menus comprised of the freshest local ingredients. Describe your process for developing a new menu and the elements that go into the makings of each one in terms of ingredients and flavors.
For me, it always goes back to travelling. When I set out 10 years ago to create globally-inspired menus, it was because I had been a lot of places, seen a lot of things, tried a lot of foods. When you're a chef cooking at a high level and you're aware of how to combine flavors and textures, all that is really left is your ability to create and innovate. You then come up with new flavor combinations that you probably wouldn't think of having together.
On the other hand, you're not always sticking to just one region on a plate. For me, a globally-inspired dish is taking flavors from around the world and making them sing together on a plate.
One example would be our Harissa Chicken Supreme with Middle-Eastern slices and small potatoes cooked in chicken fat, like in a Greek or Jewish style. These are fried so they become crispy with really nice chicken flavor.
Where do you draw inspiration from for a new catering menu?
Last winter, my wife and I went to Mexico and what I loved most about it, was the movement they're doing where restaurant menus are vegetable forward. They're working with plantain flour for pancakes and fresh jicama for salads in a way that that doesn’t require soy.
Instead, they're using grains and fruits by drying them using different techniques. This preparation process opened my eyes to a whole new holistic approach to vegan cuisine. I left with an abundance of inspiration to create vegan dishes. Next thing I know, I’m back to work creating quotes for the world’s best DJ’s vegan wedding. In fact, out of 160 weddings this year, 5 of them were fully vegan.
How do you continue to find inspiration and evolve your menus to coincide with popular food trends, while making them stand out amongst the crowd?
In terms of my food cycle, we have a restaurant called Rasa where we're constantly changing the menu and creating new ideas and techniques. I try not to follow generic trends taking place as they have more of a home on my catering menus.
Take poke, for example. When it became popular, I added it to my menu because guests were requesting poke stations at events. This goes for the taco trend which went viral 10 years ago and the burger trend before that.
There are always going to be trends but at Rasa, we try to break it down one step further. Instead of following any trend, we deal with all proteins and vegetables and treat them in a different way that not only have we not done before but we've never seen before.
For example, we'll ferment ingredients like okra and tomatoes and then the idea stems from there. When we’re then asked by a client to follow a trend, it's much easier because we have so many unique options in our arsenal that we can create while still being original.
So, while we do follow some trends in our catering, I think restaurants need to stay true to their own cycle, development and creations. For me, that's why we have the restaurant too, we're blessed to make dishes, be creative and try new things if we want to see if certain flavors work together or not.
You cater a vast array of events from weddings and corporate functions to BBQ’s. What are the biggest flavor challenges you face when developing menus for each style of event?
I think it can be hard to exceed our guests' expectations. Our main business right now is weddings and corporate functions. So, when you're doing catering on-site, you can be almost blind-sided with what you have to work with. It's not like you're in a restaurant where you have everything you need right there, ready to create what the guests have asked you to achieve for them.
For example, we've been in situations where we'll work for a Persian groom who's marrying an Italian bride and they want falafels cooked to-order for them plus hummus prepared table-side. At the end of the day, we're trying to fulfill these peoples' dreams and want to do everything we can to make them happy.
It's important to realize that from doing this for so many years, we know what foods and timelines work at events while wanting to give you something that's different than anything you've ever had at a wedding before. So, when you have to add in fusing a Persian-Italian wedding and do things live in front of them, we're willing to accept any challenge but we also have to allow room for human error in tackling them.
Explain how you are able to adapt your menus for such a range of events without jeopardizing flavor, ingredients and ultimately the final product? Any tricks of the trade you can share with fellow catering chefs?
It all goes back to cooking 101 and knowing how to balance flavors (sweet, spicy, salty), textures (crunchy, cooked protein, smooth purees), acidity and temperature contrast. By understanding those elements, it really doesn't matter if you give me ingredients like liver, tofu and pistachios, I can create something from them that you would enjoy.
For our team, we have to adapt, specifically in catering, to our clients' needs but that's part of the fun of the job. In terms of jeopardizing flavor and the final product, what's great about catering is that we have the opportunity to prep ourselves ahead of time, try it and make it work.
What is one piece of advice that you would share with chefs looking to enter the world of catering?
Slow down. In this day and age, everyone feels entitled to things because of social media but enjoy the process and, ultimately, the journey. If you're going to commit to this craft and being a chef, commit to food. All I did was commit to food and making it tasty. Eventually, The Food Dudes took off, growing into this massive company.
This growth didn't happen overnight. It happened over the last 10 years because I didn't stop committing myself to learning, getting better, being shut down, standing back up and making better food.
Try to keep pushing, moving forward and allowing yourself to go through the journey and good things will come from that.