#13: The menu
How a piece of paper becomes a peek into a chef's creative process
Where did this newsletter go? Summer got the best of me. Six weeks overseas followed by a week in California left me grateful yet less relaxed than I hoped. I then came back to a flurry of activity at Rice and have been trying to keep up ever since.
But this newsletter will be back to regularly scheduled programming - a new issue every two weeks - starting now. And in case you don't remember why you signed up, here's what to expect: this newsletter follows my journey in finding clarity on how to design and curate experiences, big and small.
A confession: I have a weird obsession with the design of restaurant menus.
Yes, restaurant menus. That piece of paper that gets casually handed to you as you’re seated at a table.
Restaurant menus are an overlooked opportunity to make an impression on a guest. Whether it’s the size and weight of the paper, the typography, the list of ingredients (or lack thereof), a menu can spark excitement and also hint at what lies ahead.
I love looking at unusual restaurant menus. While others are taking photos of dishes they enjoy, I take photos of menus that I find interesting. Not because I care about the ingredients or dishes, but because I want to use the design as inspiration.
You know what's even weirder than taking photos of restaurant menus? Making your syllabus for a university course you teach look like a restaurant menu.
I'll often revisit my menu photos and pick one to adapt. I'll mock up a syllabus using design software, buy stock paper, find the best printer in the school, and print away, as if I’m a Michelin star maitre’d about to impress a discerning restaurant critic with my fancy piece of paper.
Why do I do this? Sometimes, weird obsessions don't make sense.
Here’s a syllabus from 2015 adapted from a since long-forgotten restaurant in San Francisco:
Recently, I was hit by the menu obsession again. This summer in Amsterdam, I came across a menu I had to snap a photo of. And fortunately, I had a chance to have a conversation with the chef who designed it.
"The dessert is my playground."
I sat back, nodding, listening to the chef as he waxed poetic about his approach towards designing the menu.
We were 5 courses into an 8 fixed course meal at 101 Gowrie, a small restaurant in Amsterdam. Huddled around a table of four in the dimly lit restaurant, we had a few minutes with Alex Haupt, the chef, as he shuttled between the kitchen and the front of the house, often directly serving the guests dishes as soon as they came out of the kitchen.
"Our biggest strength is not being from here."
Born in Australia with German and Japanese heritage, Alex referred to the word gaijin, a negative term in Japan used to label a foreigner, as a way to describe the style of dishes he was serving at 101 Gowrie.
While others might view this negative term as limiting, Alex embraces being the outsider. A disregard for the rules and the way it's supposed to be is what makes Alex's dishes uniquely Alex. As my friend Dara puts it, not belonging to one group means that he is also not pigeonholed into one way of making.
And on this night, dish after dish came out with not a single disappointment. Even the miso bread and butter, which was a creative take on your standard bread dish.
A menu, with notes
But it wasn’t just the food that was impressive; it was also little touches like the menu, which was annotated with handwritten notes. On the top, overarching words set the tone:
thoughtful, balance, power, season
Throughout the menu, there were small notes next to each dish.
Monkfish and peas - fish n chip vibes
Sweetcorn, miso, vanilla - the movies
Green asparagus, clams, rose - peak season
When I asked Alex about the notes on the side of each dish, he replied that it was to give “insights to the guests”.
I felt like Alex was letting us peek behind the curtains. Like an artist giving us a chance to look into their studio or a writer who shares their journal, the notes on the menu gave us a view of Alex’s creative process. Asking about the menu opened up the conversation, and the words Alex shared when talking to us helped make the notes on his menu become real.
I snapped photos of the menu, promising myself to add brief handwritten notes on a design of my own one day. Why didn’t more people do this? Perhaps it was Alex’s unconventional approach towards everything that gave him permission to deviate from the norm.
And as I stepped out to the street after the meal, content and full, I realized I hadn’t taken any photos of the food itself. I couldn't stop thinking about that menu with Alex's notes, and how this small addition delighted at least one guest that evening.