The Menu Whisperer


While Yelp may have emboldened the restaurant critic in all of us, few people are lucky enough to have a job picking apart a menu and offering advice to the chef on how to make it better. Restaurant consultant Kathi Riley Smith is one of those people.

Having done tours of duty at paragons such as Chez Panisse and Zuni Cafe earlier in her career, Smith knows how a successful kitchen operates and what goes into creating a memorable dish. Her sage advice helped get the laudable Maranello restaurant in Fair Oaks off the ground. And she is credited with bringing rising-star chef Pajo Bruich (of the now-shuttered Lounge ON20) to Enotria Restaurant & Wine Bar—a move that has won the restaurant high praise among serious foodies.

Smith leaves the business planning, kitchen build-out and frontof- the-house training to others. Instead, tinkering with menus and recipes is her specialty. “I have a really good handle on combining ingredients, what makes sense, what doesn’t make sense, what style works for what kind of restaurant, how complex the recipes can be,” she explains.

Smith contends there is no reason for a mediocre dish to waste space on a menu. “Everything on a menu really should hit a home run,” she explains. “There shouldn’t be any strengths and weaknesses. Every menu item should stand on its own.”

So what makes a dish a winner? For Smith, it’s about broad appeal. “It’s important that it not be targeted toward the sophisticated eater only,” she says. As a test, she’ll sometimes bring in friends from outside the food world to taste and offer feedback on a dish.

Occasionally, Smith might like a particular menu item but want to improve upon the recipe or upgrade the ingredients. “Sometimes it’s a matter of simplifying a recipe,” Smith says. “You can find a way to take even the most chancy dish and step it down a little bit so that it appeals to a broader group of people without losing the integrity of the dish.”

There are exceptions to the less-is-more approach, of course. Take Bruich’s menu at Enotria, which includes multistep, complex dishes showcasing novel ingredient combinations and cooking methods. “Pajo’s capacity to put more things on the plate and tie them all together is very unique,” she notes.

For someone whose job it is to taste, test and tinker with recipes, Smith admits it’s sometimes difficult to turn off her consultant’s brain when dining out for pleasure. “My husband always gives me this look when we go out to a restaurant and I start to pick apart menu items,” she says, laughing.

On the job, however, she delivers her critiques thoughtfully. “I think a gift of mine is being able to communicate difficult information to people in a way that they can accept it,” says Smith. “It’s a balancing act to be able to take a recipe apart and help people understand that it’s not about me; it’s not about ego. It’s just that I happen to have a lot of experience in designing things like this. I’ve been really lucky to work with chefs who are way open-minded.”