Chef Karen O’Connor turns tradition on its head. Renowned for her deluxe dishes, the executive sous chef with one of Toronto’s top off-premise caterers, Daniel et Daniel, knows that today’s foodies demand an unexpected twist and extra layer of flavour on their plates.
By Jack Kohane
“Even something mundane can be upscaled,” she insists.
Among the mini beef Wellingtons and baked Brie with poached pears served up at her 4,000-sq. ft. gourmet food store and catering operation are such signature items as seafood-stuffed pot pies, bison burgers on an egg bun with a berry ketchup, while her mac ‘n cheese bar sports crab claws and double smoked bacon. Her Oreo beignets are crushed Oreo cookies mixed with cream cheese, formed into balls, dipped in batter and deep fried. Served warm and dusted with icing sugar, they’re hugely popular with her clients.
“Our food shop has a very busy lunch and dinner clientele, people who come in and grab a sandwich on the run, or take-home packaged meals to go,” she notes.
Tying her menu into the premiumization and indulgence trends rising among consumers, Chef Karen, who has worked at some of Toronto’s finest restaurants, points out, “Guests still crave comfort foods like mac ‘n cheese, but they want it taken to another level with a different presentation.”
Premiumization has picked up increasing traction over the past few years and developed into a reliable marketing tactic to convince cost-conscious consumers to treat themselves.
Jerseys, a sports-themed family restaurant in Uxbridge, north of Toronto, has jumped into premiumization in a big way with a growing spectrum of upscale seafood entrées is the busy 100-seat restaurant, 55-seat patio, 20-staff operation.
Owner Shaun Israelstam is presenting seafood choices in more of his stirfries, quesadillas and salads, as their way of adding a healthier premium option to his menu. “Our chef uses supplier products and incorporates old traditional recipes which are unique and profitable,” he says.
Big, bold flavourings and spices can quickly upmarket almost any menu item. Daniel et Daniel’s Chef Karen uses prepared condiments, including Bull’s-Eye Bold Original Barbecue Sauce, that she blends with bourbon to add swank to her meat and short rib recipes. “It works to finish dishes with an extra flourish of flavour,” she says. Flavour which diners are bound to taste and crave.
5 Top tips for winning menus
- Consider using props to serve your premium items, including wooden boards, skillets, granite stones, canning jars, banana leaves, etc.
- Try moving away from “permanent” menus and towards a one-page simple menu structure that can be changed as needed to allow for seasonal options.
- Don’t be everything to everyone. Try to keep your menu to under 25 items and focus on doing each item well.
- Incorporate cooking methods that enhance flavour or provide a slightly different flavour experience – e.g. use roasted grape tomatoes in a salad or sandwich instead of raw tomatoes.
- Build a story with your premium items. Call out unique points of difference on your ingredients/preparation, such as ‘house-made’, ‘double-smoked’. Look for ingredients with a certain provenance you can call out.