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To allow for bigger, more elaborate presentations, many of the dishes are served family
style: suckling pig, racks of venison, and large bowls of bouillabaisse bursting with fish,
prawns and shaved fennel, poured tableside, with housemade croutons.
Santoro’s table always reflects a seasonal and local philosophy, highlighting produce
and proteins from New York state farms and local New York purveyors. A theme common
among improvisational cuisine connoisseurs is dishes starring the best seasonal ingredients.
passion for pleasing palates
With improvisational cuisine, you’re no longer selling a meal, you’re selling an
adventure, an experience, and exposure to new and exotic ingredients. And people
who are passionate about food are buying. The going rate for these unique culinary
journeys is $65-$250 per person (wine pairings optional).
“It’s not a lot different from golf or skiing,” says Hebert. “If you’re a golfer, you
spend $2,000 on equipment and then $200-$300 per week playing and practicing.
It’s the same thing with food.”
Ultimately, the key to offering this type of cuisine is pushing the envelope with your
guests. So while a guest might claim that he or she doesn’t eat fish, improvisational chefs
see it as an opportunity to change that diner’s mind.
“I always want to ask people, ‘When was the last time you ate—insert dislike
here,’” says Hebert. “In my mind, I see a 6-year-old who accidentally ate a walnut in
an oatmeal cookie and has never had another nut, or someone who doesn’t eat fish
because they grew up on fish sticks.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of offering this type of cuisine is expanding on
guests’ sense of adventure, even revealing that a food they previously shunned is some-
thing that delights. They discover how ingredients, flavors and textures can come together
in a dish. Hebert, for example, offers pork tongue on occasion. Diners may cross it off their
list, but they rave about his pork terrine, which boasts pork shoulder and pork tongue.
In the end, improvisational cuisine is all about pleasing your guests and learning
about your cooking prowess in the process. Perhaps that’s why Rebolledo occasionally
serves french fries. His modus operandi: Guests can have anything they want if it’s
available. For Santoro, that means family style desserts such as big bowls of ice cream,
large apple pies and donuts with dipping sauces.
“You have to be patient and you have to be passionate about your customers,” says
Hebert. “You’ll learn a lot of interesting things about peoples’ relationship with food.”
As a chef, his goal is to learn from it and deliver a jaw-dropping performance that
leaves diners speechless.
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