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Brunch is Back

Chef's Creative Cuisine is Rising -- and Shining

Susannah Chen

Move over, dinner! There’s a new mealtime that’s front and center. It’s brunch, and it can be just as creative, dynamic and lucrative as evening service.

Although supper has been long considered the principal meal on the dining scene, restaurants have recently turned to those oft-overlooked morning hours to keep tables turning, as well as profits maximized. Professional kitchens aren’t just throwing eggs in a pan; chefs are giving mornings more street cred by pushing the envelope with creative preparations. The result is beneficial for both kitchens and their diners.

Steak and squash hash: It’s what’s for breakfast

Breakfast for dinner? These days, it’s the other way around. Bacon-and-egg platters have given way to the likes of lavender-infused French toast, a mainstay at San Francisco’s Mission Beach Cafe. “People come back for the breakfast here, which is classic America, but with a twist of seasonality and freshness,” explains Ron Silverberg, executive chef at the restaurant.

Despite their recent rock-star status, both bacon and eggs are still wildly popular brunch ingredients –  now they’re just being featured in cutting-edge ways. At Trés at the SLS, Executive Chef Jorge Chicas offers a Cuban-inspired fried egg dish of quail eggs prepared sunny side up, served with crisped rice, banana purée and a classic sofrito.

Chalk it up to the pioneering ways of the West. “My experience with the East Coast was with basic brunches,” Chicas recalls. “But in doing a bit of research on the West Coast, our approach has always been trying to be different, unique, to give our guests an experience, not just a meal.”

For Laurent Katgely, Chef and Owner of Chez Spencer, the twist on morning meals arose out of his longing for quintessential French egg dishes, many of which weren’t available on local menus. Katgely, who offers a classic omelette aux fines herbs on his menu, wasn’t thrilled with the existing offerings. “For me, the omelets here [in America] are way overcooked; they’re not folded properly,” he remarks.

A fresh start

Breakfast and brunch have long been associated with diners and greasy spoons, not to mention a market oversaturated with French toast, eggs over-easy and sub-par mimosas. This roster of standard morning fare certainly wasn’t whetting most food-discerning appetites, that is until chefs began taking breakfast and brunch offerings to a new level with sophisticated preparations and high-quality ingredients.

“I had no desire to do pancakes or scrambled eggs,” Russell Moore, Chef and Owner of Camino, admits. “It’s just not interesting to me, and at our restaurant, we only cook stuff that we like.” During midday Saturdays and Sundays at the Oakland restaurant, this includes wood-baked oven eggs with herbs and cream and stone-ground oats with brown butter, walnuts and maple syrup.

For Cavallo Point’s Executive Chef Joseph Humphrey, the brunch offerings at his restaurant Murray Circle such as “sopchoppy” grits and eggs, bring back nostalgic memories. “Brunch has been the one meal period we do where I’ve brought out my Southern heritage. It started as my memories of weekends when I was a kid, and the things that my mom would make. Mornings and early afternoons remind me of that time, so I started putting our take on some of those dishes,” he says.

Spencer Lomax of Snooze, a Denver-based morning eatery expanding to San Diego, emphasizes that his creativity stems from the desire to savor that moment’s peak tastes. “Seasonal flavors help to inspire menus as we strive to reinvent what can be served for breakfast,” he says. Exhibit A: the restaurant’s Spring Garden Benny, with a ragout of asparagus, greens, wild mushrooms, and leeks, served atop toasted ciabatta spread with a thin layer of truffled white bean pureé, then topped with poached Niman Ranch cage-free eggs and a cream cheese hollandaise.

According to Matthew Dolan, Executive Chef at Twenty Five Lusk, the key is to have items that are “just identifiable enough,” like his take on a seafood benedict with lobster and prosciutto standing in for the more commonplace crab.

Chicas maintains that brunch can indeed be an unexpected outlet. “There’s a lot of creativity in a brunch menu, just try to be different and unique,” he says. Silverberg agrees, the challenge is utilizing restraint to make the most of popular brunch ingredients. “Chefs stuck into a dinner service lose the whole perspective on other meals. Two out of three meals a day are going without mention. It’s an opportunity for chefs to get creative in different senses; you don’t necessarily have to use the craziest and most expensive products to make an enjoyable brunch. Think inside rather than outside the box. Hold yourself in a little bit, stay in the comfort zone, but explode the flavors you have available and use what you have to make it taste good.”

Setting a new morning standard

Of course, the rise of the alternative brunch menu comes from demand too. On the West Coast, early meal-seekers are looking for something new and exciting, and they won’t settle for anything less. “I’ve got to constantly invent new things,” adds Alan Carter, Executive Pastry Chef and Co-Owner of Mission Beach Café. “Now people have seen so much, they want to take a risk. They say, ‘I’ve never had that before. I want to try it.’”

As for Trés’s kooky Cuban-style fried quail eggs, Chicas says, “when we started, we were probably selling one a day. A lot of people said, ‘You should take that off the menu. Twelve quail eggs just doesn’t sound right.’ But it became one of our most popular dishes.”

Ethnic foods have also found their voice on new American brunch menus. At Mesa Grill Las Vegas, Executive Chef Bobby Flay features his own twist on Mexican chilaquiles  with white cheddar cheese and tomatillo sauce, as well as a Southwestern-inflected crispy bacon and hash brown quesadilla.

Moore agrees that eclectic dishes draw the attention of his diners. “The more out-there dishes that we do, the more people like them,” he says. “A lot of people who come for dinner would be very upset with us if we started watering down the brunch menu.”

The sunny up-side

There are plenty of benefits to serving brunch, like increased revenue from an additional meal service. “You have a restaurant that you’re already paying the rent on, and you’re creating an additional profit for it,” Silverberg says.

A lower price point is the first draw. “For guests, brunch is a lower-cost way for them to enjoy what we do,” says Humphrey.  

Daytime hours also help to expand appeal, by tapping into a different part of the restaurant market. “We never intended to be a really fancy restaurant, but somehow people had that impression,” says Moore. He adds: “I thought, if we have a more inexpensive meal at brunch, it might bring new people in.” And even though Camino has to artificially depress its prices for brunch, it’s worth it: “Most of the people who come for the brunch come back for dinner down the road,” he adds.

Morning and early afternoon hours may also liven up the restaurant’s demeanor: At Mission Beach Café, the ambiance feels different during brunch in comparison to how it comes across at dinner. “We have a very casual and open, intimate atmosphere for brunch. Our servers like to get friendly and enjoy the time spent with guests,” Silverberg says. Then there’s the service aspect for the nearby community. He adds: “The best way to succeed is...being able to serve the community food throughout the day. We’re a local neighborhood restaurant where people can come in at 7:30 a.m., 12 noon, or 8:30 at night.”

The business of brunch

Still, it’s important to understand the mealtime and its competitive landscape. First and foremost, this means understanding the clientele.

One thing to keep in mind: brunch is predictably unpredictable. “Most people are used to making a reservation for dinner,” Humphrey says, “but 75 percent of our brunch is walk-in business. It’s difficult to plan for, and there’s less control over seating or pacing. You have to be smart about it.” For his staff, this means taking care of certain details, like splitting biscuits, in advance.

Although a leaner team may work for some, others may need to beef up the back of the house. Humphrey adds, “We’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, to staff properly. I’ve got two more cooks for Sunday brunch than I do for Sunday dinner, to accommodate the volume of business and keep the quality levels where we want them to be.”

With tables turning over quicker, brevity’s a concern, too. “When you’re trying to feed 300 people in a 40-seat restaurant over six hours, you have to think about what dishes are going to work, and how efficient you can make them,” Silverberg explains. “It’d be nice to do a whole fish at brunch, but it would never work in this setting.”

Matthew Dolan’s advice? Put your heart into it. “Only do it if you’re fully committed and believe in it,” he says. “Don’t be complacent and feel like you need to play it safe. Brunch is still a dining experience.”

As for Moore, he hopes his daring daytime menu will inspire other chefs to follow suit: “Approach it like this. When you go out, what happy, unexpected thing would you want to see on the menu? It doesn’t have to be the meal everyone expects.”

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