In an effort to increase overall drink sales, operators and chefs are finding unique ways to incorporate wine, spirits and beer into their cooking.
“For thousands of years we have used some sort of alcohol in cooking: beer is the same mindset,” says Percy Whately, executive chef at The Ahwahnee Dining Room in Yosemite Park, California. Alcoholic beverages add, “distinct flavors and aromas to food.”
Chef Tory McPhail, of Commander’s Place in New Orleans, agrees. “We cook with beer, wine and liquor every day: it helps to add depth to our cooking.”
Guests seem to be responding by ordering specific drinks to pair with these distinct dishes. Though cooking with an alcoholic beverage can generally increase overall drinks sales, those cooking with beer found a distinct correlation between cooking with brews and an overall increase in beer sales.
“[Guests] love the idea that we are cooking with beer, so they buy more,” notes Gaston Alfaro, chef at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company in California.
The key to successfully cooking with beer is understanding the unique flavor profiles and how those will translate in the final dish. Chefs agree that here experimentation in the kitchen is vital.
“When cooking with beer you get a lot of maltiness, herbs— rosemary, thyme, sage—running through them. Some have a lot of citrus notes or exotic fruits and such. You can also get cloves, allspice and cinnamon,” says David Blonsky, chef at Twilight Traffic Control, which runs three restaurants in Chicago, including the beer-centric Public House.
Blonsky features seared Ahi Tuna with Violet Mustard Ale Sauce that is made with Hitachino Beer ($22) on the Public House menu. “It’s an Asian dish and the beer adds a wonderful light, crispy fruitiness to the mustard.”
At Half Moon Bay, Alfaro likens his experience to having a restaurant at a winery. “I have a lot of beer and I love to play with food and incorporate everything in what I make,” he says. “The brew master has different flavors on and off and we get to play with them. “If I’m looking for something like a nutty flavor, we use a brown ale and it goes really well with pork, sausage or salmon. The brewmaster helps a lot: he’s always around to help me pick the best choice for a dish.”
Meanwhile in Yosemite, Whatley’s signature dish is the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Fiscalini Cheddar Soup ($10) and has been a lunch staple for years. “We have increased sales of Sierra Nevada because of the soup,” he explains. “It’s a total lunch and a great pairing.” It also helps that it was featured on the Today Show a few years ago.
This spring, though, he’s featuring beer in a variety of new dishes: specifically highlighting how beer works with meats. “When beer is cooked down, you have a yeasty flavor profile that is left over and the hops give it a bitterness that is helpful with fatty cuts of meat,” Whatley notes.
For example, his menu will include a Beef Brisket Braised in Chicken Stock and the Alwahnee Amber Ale (which is made by Mammouth Brewing Company) and Pork Cheeks cooked with Old Chubb’s Oskar Blues Scotch Ale. “I use the Scotch Ale to give it more hoppiness,” he says.
Wine and Spirits
For Brother Jimmy’s executive chef Eva Pesantez, Bourbon is a go-to spirit in her cooking. “I always work with what I personally like to drink and attempt to determine which spirit will work best: there is definitely a level of experimentation involved with each dish,” she says.
For example, her barbecue sauce is “loaded” with Bourbon and is featured in dishes like the Press Brisket Sandwich, where it adds “a sweet and smoky flavor to the meat,” she says.
McPhail also experiments with spirits in his cooking. He features Hennessy Cognac in his Brown Butter-Seared Jumbo Sea Scallops ($34) and splashes absinthe in the Oysters and Absinthe “dome” appetizer ($12). He chooses what to use based on the actual dish. “If we are creating a French dish, then I usually choose a French spirit such as Cognac or Champagne. If it’s a Caribbean dish, then rum, etc.”
“You really need to either match flavors or contrast flavors to balance the combination,” he adds. “Everything comes down to flavor: if you say it’s Jack Daniel’s, you’d better be able to taste the Bourbon.”
Whately follows Pesantez’s general rule of thumb, “If you won’t drink it, don’t cook with it.” Though he rarely uses spirits in his cooking, but does, “Use wine constantly to fortify sauces, braising liquids and to deglaze our sautéed items.”
During the annual Vintner’s Holiday event in November, the focus on wine the cooking and on the menu is played up even more than usual. “We write the menu to a support, highlight and pair with a selection of wines.”
At the Table
The decision to include beer, wine or spirit as a key ingredient in menu descriptors varies by venue. But many chefs agree that the way to sell these dishes and an extra beverage to pair with them lies in the hands of the server.
At Half Moon Bay, Alfaro does make note of the specific beers used in the recipes on the menu. But, he notes that, “The waitstaff is trained explain that is it cooked with beer and what that adds to the dish. They talk to people to make sure they know what we are doing here.”
In a fun twist, Alfaro also features a Beeramisu on the menu that is made with Mavericks Paddle Out Stout beer. “I have a lot of beer and I love to play with food and incorporate everything in what I make.”
There is a great promotional aspect to cooking with beer, say chefs. “You give customers an opportunity to eat and drink with a specific pairing: it’s a good sales tool,” says Blonsky, noting that it definitely gets people to drink more. “You raise your average check and are making more money in the long run.”
For Pesantez, “It’s hard to gauge whether or not cooking with beer and Bourbon increases the sales of that spirit in cocktails —but I can tell you that beer and Bourbon drinks are some of our best sellers at Brother Jimmy’s. There could be a correlation. I believe that beer and Bourbon simply fuse well with BBQ in people’s minds.”
McPhair doesn’t necessarily pair the same beverage that was used in the cooking. “Pairings are always made from the overall flavor of the finished dish, not simply because there may be half of a particular spirit [or wine] present,” he says. “We don’t normally cook with a ‘drink.’ ”
For those looking to increase beverage sales for spirits and wine, Whately lends some advice. “Offer a taste of the beverage to whet the appetite for more. A one-ounce pour of the beverage will allow the guest to imagine it with the food, it can even be offered once the food is delivered as well. Then the guest can choose to purchase a full pour of the beverage to accompany the course. Either way, you will either pique the interest in the food, or the interest in the beverage, usually both.”