Do you usually cook off of a menu that's used year-round or do you change the menu constantly to whatever foods are currently in season? An excellent chef once told me that we, as professional cooks, should cook the food how it wants to be cooked, NOT how we want to cook it. This may sound a little odd, but it makes perfect sense, for if the food's not in season, don't cook it, and if it's a food that dislikes a particular cooking method, don't cook it that way either. For example, a very flaky fish on a grill will fall apart, and would be much better suited to be seared, and then cooked in the oven. Cooking seasonally most importantly captures the highest possible quality out of each ingredient's flavor and texture, and also helps satisfy everybody's (particularly your customers') seasonal food desires in what they eat, making their dining experience all the better.
To go through a few examples, let's take, for instance, a cold, snowy, winter evening; don't you think most people would probably really like a heavy cream soup? On the other hand, if you tried selling that same soup on a blazing hot day in the middle of summer, there's a very good chance you wouldn't sell any of that soup at all. Most likely, people in the summer would rather have a cold soup - like Gazpacho, (recipe below) or maybe a fruit-yogurt soup. In the restaurant I work at in the countryside of Virginia, we have two soups: one is a staple, the other changes every day or two. We recently put Gazpacho on the menu as the main soup that everybody loves (including all the employees)! Our daily soup changes to whatever we feel like that day. So if it's an extremely hot summer day, as it has been quite often recently, we will have two cold soups on the menu. But if it's a cooler day, we might make a hot soup, like a Lobster Bisque. Making soup is one of the easiest aspects of cooking seasonally. ALL other areas of any menu are just as easily molded around each season as well. Basically, the rule is that in the summer, people want light, fruity foods, and only want heavier foods during the winter. During the summer, people usually prefer seafood; during the winter, foods like lamb and beef. It goes the same way with desserts. Lighter desserts are preferred in the summer, like ice creams and fruit tarts, and heavier and denser ones during the winter, like cheesecake and creme brulee. Many desserts can be switched over and made for other seasons as well. For example, instead of keeping the cappuccino cheesecake on the menu that you had all winter, you could change it to a California cheesecake (plain cheesecake decorated with fruit on top, such as thinly sliced kiwi, strawberries, and other fresh fruits).
Just as important as making the necessary seasonal changes to your menu is getting the freshest possible ingredients to work with. An excellent way to do this is to get locally grown products. At the bottom of this article, we've provided a link to a chart on our website that lists when ingredients are at their seasonal peaks during the year. This chart is good to use when planning menus, whether for home use or to be served to a banquet of 3,000 people. Keep in mind that wherever you live, there are probably some ingredients produced locally which are fresher, better and/or more economical than having ingredients shipped from all over the world to your purveyor. If you ask your purveyor for a chart similar to the one we've provided, they will almost always have a very current list (usually updated weekly) of the raw ingredients they can get you - great quality food at a great price. Even if you don't do any of the purchasing, ask your boss for a copy of this list so that you will be aware of the best quality ingredients that are going to be available for you to make the food with. As Alice Waters once said about utilizing fresh and local ingredients, "We used to get salmon from all over the place. Now we know that the local salmon is the best-tasting, and we just use local salmon when it's available. The season can run from the end of April through September, and we never serve it any other time of the year." As many of you probably know, she's one of today's very extreme chefs who concentrates mostly on local and fresh ingredients---but that's how she has attained her international recognition.
Many chefs, like Walters, also do a great deal of their menu planning at and around farmers' markets, buying only the "best of the best" quality ingredients available during that particular time of the year. Some even know exactly what they intend to use it for when they buy it. This is obviously a trait learned from a great deal of experience, but even when doing our everyday menu planning, it's something we should all keep in mind. God bless and have fun cooking!