"Fiddlehead ferns," Joe Hoveland answers without hesitation. "Now that's something people don't understand. And polenta. If I put polenta with a dish, for some reason that's the kiss of death." Hoveland is executive chef at Cardwell's restaurant in Clayton. I recently asked him and two other prominent local chefs what considerations go into planning seasonal menus, especially the spring menus that are debuting this time of year.
"People have to be able to identify with the food," Hoveland explains, "and the servers have to understand it, too. I have to keep it simple, not too wordy. If it has 47 ingredients, forget about it." Rob Uyemura, executive chef at Eau, agrees that diners can be skittish about venturing onto unexplored culinary ground, and he plots his menu accordingly. "I can be more risky with the appetizers, because they're less expensive. Entrées have to be more straightforward, because people don't want to drop a lot of money on something they're not sure they're going to like." An experimental first course on Uyemura's latest menu, for example, is Thai basil tuna tartare with lemongrass and chile-lime vinaigrette. But a shirtsleeve entrée of hickory-grilled ribeye with mashed potatoes is kept on the menu year-round, even though Eau is primarily a seafood restaurant.
In the springtime, Uyemura is inspired by the dynamic, nuanced cuisine of Northern California. In fact, he'll visit San Francisco this month, just before unveiling his new menu. "In the spring, I like to cook lighter things -- emulsions, vinaigrettes, spring vegetables," he says. But chef David Guempel, of Zinnia, dismisses the imperative to cook seasonally. "The anticipation of fresh seasonal items has so much been eliminated," he contends, noting that chefs and home cooks can now buy sweet corn and asparagus during the bleakest months of winter. In conceiving bright, inspiriting dishes for his restaurant's menu, Guempel continues, "It's not so much a seasonal thing as it is the availability and desirability of the product." The only truly seasonal foods, he insists, are local produce, such as homegrown tomatoes and rhubarb, and regional delicacies, such as soft-shell crab from the Eastern shore.
Guempel says the blustery days we've endured in late March are a reminder that the weather doesn't always cooperate when a chef is ready to launch a spring menu. "Who wants to eat a big, light salad when you could be chowing down on roasted duck, choucroute and spaetzle?" he asks sardonically. Even Hoveland and Uyemura, no doubt, would cotton to that notion.