One of the most challenging yet enjoyable things I do as a chef is designing a menu. Lots of things go into this task, and it may not be as simple as one would think.

I’ve always liked to host parties, and what I served often depended on the occasion. On “MasterChef,” there were many challenges (including the finale) where we as a team or I as an individual had to come up with a cohesive menu diners would enjoy. All this experience has taught me well how to plan a menu.

First and foremost, you have to think about your audience. Are you feeding kids? The average American? Asian-Americans? Vietnamese in Vietnam? Food critics? Swedish journalist and bloggers? All of the above? (Good luck with that.)

Then you have to consider your venue, kitchen space, and overall atmosphere. Is it a formal gala in a hotel ballroom? Is it a casual outdoor setting in the dead heat of summer? Will you be cooking out of a food truck? Is it a museum gallery with passed hors d’oeuvres and champagne? Is it an elementary school lunch during a winter month? What equipment will you have access to? How many people are you feeding?

These are perhaps the most important factors I think about when sitting down to orchestrate a menu. And it’s really an orchestration. The challenge lies in coming up with a cohesive menu where one dish flows well into the next, and then into the next, until what you have is one big harmonious gastronomical symphony. You have to think about flavors, texture, temperature, and season. Then you think about time and space and how much prep and cook will be involved. Then you have to think about how much help you’ll have available.

I’ve designed many menus in the last couple of years, but few have involved as much effort as the menu for my pop-up episode 1 and then the more recent one for Ikea Supper Club. That’s because these two events had me actually sweating my face off in the kitchen prepping and cooking myself.

In the case of the recent Ikea Supper Club in Stockholm, I was tasked with a three-course casual menu to be cooked in a home kitchen for twelve guests. Being the overachiever that I am, I came up with a five-course menu. At first, I was trying to think of some kind of Asian twist on a Swedish meatball. Then I kicked around the idea of some other Vietnamese dishes that could be served family style. But nothing excited me.

And then it came to me in the middle of the night. (Yes, this happens to me a lot. I wish I was soundly sleeping, but then a muse strikes me on the head.)

Something I learned the hard way on “MasterChef” was only cook what you yourself would want to eat. I love small plate offerings because I like to try a little bit of everything. If I have to eat the same thing for several bites, I get bored. So that’s how I came up with five small offerings instead of three regular-portioned ones. I knew that the Swedes would likely scoff at my rendition of a Swedish meatball with fish sauce (ha!), so I decided to think hard about what I’d want to eat myself, and it always comes down to simple street foods. I wanted to showcase my Vietnamese heritage mixed with my southern United States upbringing, and that’s how I came up with the menu I ended up serving at the Ikea Supper Club.

It was a lot of hard work, but I had a great team behind me to help me pull it off. ANd in the end, all the blood, sweat, and tears are always worth it when guests tell me the meal was one of the most memorable they’d ever had. And that’s exactly why I love food, cooking,and hosting. It’s about bringing people together, friends or strangers, and providing an environment that fosters new friendships and solidifies old ones through good conversation, great drinks, and fantastic food.

What were some of the most memorable meals you’d ever had? What made it so memorable, and what was on the menu? Do you host yourself? What are some strategies to menu planning? What are your tips for a good menu?

Stay tuned to learn more about my time in Stockholm, including how to make some of the dishes I’d served at the Supper Club, where I ate, and what I did.

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Discussion about this post

  1. Anne says:

    Christine, You are amazing!!
    greetings from a Swedish fan 🙂

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