Opinion: Marius Zürcher on seasonal cooking

Regular columnist Marius Zürcher believes it is time for the concept of seasonal cooking in restaurants to be redefined, as he argues the pros and cons for it

Although I consider myself a trendwatcher and believe that restaurants have to stay on top of developments in the market, I also always keep these immortal words of Public Enemy in the back of my mind: Don’t believe the hype. One hype that occasionally makes me roll my eyes is seasonality. Not because I don’t see the value in it, but because I believe it has become an empty term in many cases. Therefore, this month, I have decided to write about seasonal cooking in restaurants, to redefine what it really means, and what the pros and cons attached to it are.

Simply put, seasonal cooking means using ingredients that are being grown and produced during the season you’re in, ideally to prepare meals that also fit the season. The idea is therefore to use vegetables that (ideally local) farmers would have recently harvested and will not harvest again until they are in season again (as well as other seasonal products that are dependent on seasonal vegetables). In the case of many restaurants however, it simply refers to using ingredients that are associated with a season, regardless of where they come from and/or when they were harvested. An example would be using (more) tomatoes during tomato season, but those tomatoes come from the same year-round greenhouses that the tomatoes would come from if you’d use them outside of tomato season.

Don’t get me wrong: I do not object to doing this. I have no interest in only eating tomato salads during tomato season. There must be some advantages to living in the 21st century after all. I do however object to calling such practices seasonal cooking.

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s move on to why real seasonal cooking is a good idea.

Fresh, high-quality ingredients

A major reason is that, if done right, seasonal cooking means cooking fresh, high-quality ingredients that are at their peak of flavor and nutritional value. This, of course, means that the food tastes better and that customers feel better after eating it. This in turn increases customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Speaking of increasing customer loyalty: seasonal cooking can also help bring customers back in another way. Seasonal cooking leads to menus that evolve throughout the year, providing guests with a diverse dining experience. Many customers are more likely to return to a restaurant when they can expect fresh, exciting new options on each visit.

Seasonal cooking can also increase authenticity, because it incentivizes offering regional specialties, thereby celebrating local culinary traditions, and fostering a stronger connection with the community. If you have followed my writing for a while, you know that authenticity is king.

Furthermore, seasonal cooking is aligned with sustainable practices and promotes environmental responsibility. When restaurants prioritize seasonal ingredients, they reduce the reliance on long-haul transportation and excessive energy consumption required to grow and preserve out-of-season produce. By sourcing ingredients locally and seasonally, restaurants support local farmers, reduce carbon footprints, and contribute to a more sustainable food system. This in turn resonates with eco-conscious customers, especially Millennials and Gen Z. However, I should note that when it comes to sustainability, things aren’t always what they seem. You can be an unsustainable seasonal restaurant, and a very sustainable restaurant that has the same menu all year round. Seasonality is not a silver bullet in that regard. There are other, more effective ways.

So, no downsides? Well, not exactly.

A struggle for consistency

One of the challenges of seasonal cooking is the limited availability of popular ingredients during specific times of the year. Because of this, seasonal restaurants may struggle to maintain consistency and offer favorite dishes year-round. To avoid this issue, kitchen teams need to continually update their culinary skills and knowledge to make the most of seasonal ingredients.

Customer expectations can pose a challenge when introducing new seasonal menus, as some guests may prefer the comfort that they get from being able to order the same dishes whenever they visit. I too am a creature of habit that feels comforted by familiarity in the context of hospitality, and therefore tend to order the same thing over and over again. One way for way restaurants to tackle this is to combine seasonal dishes with a solid core of dishes that are available all year. Another way is to clearly communicate the advantages of seasonality to customers.

Seasonal cooking also comes with operational challenges and requires a lot of planning. This means extra work, which is a downside in today’s labor market. The upside however is that your kitchen staff might be less bored and prouder about the ingredients they get to use, which leads to more creativity and better dishes.

The concept of seasonal cooking in restaurants is a topic that evokes mixed feelings in my mind. While the idea of using ingredients that align with the current season holds potential value, the term itself has been diluted and misused. The true essence of seasonal cooking lies in sourcing fresh, locally grown produce that offers optimal flavor and nutritional benefits.

By embracing this approach, restaurants can cater to customers who appreciate the authenticity and variety that comes with evolving menus throughout the year. Moreover, the sustainability aspect of seasonal cooking resonates with environmentally conscious consumers. However, it is important to acknowledge the challenges that accompany this culinary practice, including limited ingredient availability, managing customer expectations, and the operational planning required.

Despite these hurdles, restaurants willing to embrace the nuances of seasonal cooking can find ways to navigate them successfully, thereby offering unique dining experiences. Ultimately, the decision to embrace seasonal cooking in all its complexity rests with each restaurant. You do not have to be a seasonal restaurants to be a good, even great restaurant. Just please, do not fake it, or at some point my eyes will get stuck at the back of my head.

Marius Zürcher

About the author:

The co-owner & founder of Millennial & Gen Z marketing and employer branding agency 1520 in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, Marius Zürcher was a participant at FCSI’s ‘Millennials’ focused roundtable at INTERGASTRA and a speaker at FCSI workshops about industry trends.

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