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On the Menu: Asian flavors marry natural bounty in Oregon

fivespice chef Jon Beeaker created a menu that gives Westerners a taste of other cultures

Seared scallops on a bed of Asian greens is a top seller. - fivespice
Joan M. Lang
August 01, 2005

Launching a sophisticated pan-Asian menu at fivespice in Portland, Ore., has been an education — for the customers, the staff and even the owners.

Executive Chef/partner Jon Beeaker was eager to introduce diners to the exotic and authentic food he’d fallen in love with on travels to Hong Kong, Macao, Thailand and Vietnam. Rather than creating a fusion menu, however, Beeaker wanted to marry these Asian  influences with the bounty of seasonal local ingredients from the Pacific Northwest. And that took some doing.

“Once you’ve traveled to Asia and seen the culture firsthand, and see how the food is really prepared, you come to realize how Westernized it is here,” says Beeaker, a native of Rochester, N.Y., who came to Portland to attend culinary school and never left. “Asians approach mealtimes in a completely different way. You really have to experience it to appreciate that.”

Even the structure of fivespice’s menu is different from the Western norm. Rather than starting off with appetizers, customers find a selection of “Street Hawker Fare” patterned on the popular street snacks that are an integral part of the hustle-bustle lifestyle of urban Asia. Items include chicken and beef satay, Vietnamese Grilled Calamari, dumplings and Grilled Shrimp and Grapefruit, foods that are dispensed from carts and in open-air markets all over the region.

At fivespice, these traditional snack items are intended to be shared and sampled as part of a larger meal that might also include soup, noodles, curries and such entrées as chicken, pork or seafood cooked in a clay pot, Lamb Shank Randang, Lacquered Salmon and various daily fish specials — all meant to be eaten family style, as they would be in Asia.

“We thought it would be cool to educate our customers about how other people eat and live,” explains Beeaker. “When Asians sit down to an actual meal, it’s much more relaxed than ours, a time to socialize and be with friends. Sharing food is part of that.

“We spent a lot of time discussing the way the menu would be structured,” he adds. “We considered arranging it by price only, so that customers would understand that a $3 item was sized as an appetizer, and the $18 would be a main course. In the end, however, we decided it would better to stick to a somewhat more traditional system.”

The menu still underwent some changes within a few months of its January 2005 opening. In his zeal to share information with patrons, Beeaker loaded up the menu with descriptions and detail about the ingredients, the cooking techniques, everything the customer was about to eat.

“It’s very important to me to tell people where their food is coming from, but I overdid it,” admits the chef.

With the spring/summer menu change, Beeaker cut back significantly on the descriptors, handing more of the education job to the serving staff instead. He also deleted some items that just weren’t selling, like Vietnamese-style shrimp wrapped around sugar cane.

“We were starting to get some repeat business and knew what was selling and what wasn’t,” he says. “The shrimp was one of our favorite items, but at some point you have to put your ego aside and ask yourself why you’re breaking your butt to prep all these things people aren’t even ordering.”

With a smaller, more streamlined menu, Beeaker had to prepare the waitstaff to help customers order. He conducted three intensive, six-hour sessions with servers to explain and sample all of the ingredients, then cooked the entire menu for them so they could taste everything.

“We now have a topnotch staff who have learned our menu, learned our food and got completely excited about it,” says Beeaker. “And that means they sell it better.”

But a menu driven by server training requires constant maintenance.

“Every night, I prepare the nightly specials and a few regular menu items for the preshift meeting, so [the waitstaff] are always working with the food,” Beeaker explains.

Seafood is hugely popular at fivespice, accounting for more than half of the sales mix, even though it represents only about 15 percent of the total menu real estate. Chalk that up to the fact that Beeaker buys only local, wild-caught product (the only farm-raised seafood is Mexican shrimp).

“Our slant is to focus on ‘conscious’ food — organic, natural, line-caught, sustainable,” he says. “It makes purchasing a little more challenging, but here in the Pacific Northwest, we have such a bounty of beautiful ingredients, and people really expect it.”

Seafood specials do particularly well, including halibut, black cod, Columbia River sturgeon and every possible variety of wild salmon in season.

A perennial favorite from the menu is the Seafood Hot Pot, prepared in the traditional clay pot called a canh, which is widely used in Vietnam to cook all kinds of stews. Shrimp, scallops, calamari, clams and fish are braised in a flavorful hot-and-sour broth seasoned with roasted chile paste, tamarind and galangal (similar to ginger), garnished with fresh cilantro, tomato and pineapple. When the waiter lifts the cover off the pot at the table, the wafting aromas tend to get everybody’s attention. Spectacular as it is, however, the item was created for reasons of utilization.

“We have all these fish trimmings and scrap, and it drives me absolutely crazy to waste them,” says Beeaker. So the kitchen uses whatever fish is available that night, as well as shrimp and scallops that are already used on the menu in other forms (seared scallops on a bed of Asian greens and fresh mushrooms with black bean sauce is one of fivespice’s top sellers), and Beeaker brings in local clams and calamari to bolster the presentation.

“In Vietnam, the hot pot is prepared at the table, with the live whole fish slipped into the simmering broth,” Beeaker notes.

He is planning another trip to Asia at the New Year.

“There are a lot of lessons to be learned doing this kind of food,” he says. “It takes constant education, balance, training. I educate myself first, then pass that along to my servers, and they pass it along to their customers. It’s an ongoing process.”

August 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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