Executive chef takes an upscale fish dish, tweaks the recipe and creates a hot seller
Once upon a time chef Robert Okura bit into a miso-marinated Chilean sea bass and started thinking.
That was the beginning of the story that tells how miso salmon landed on the menus of The Cheesecake Factory and quickly became one of the brand’s best-selling items.
“The reason we sell so much miso salmon is that it’s incredibly tasty, and our staff loves it,” says Peter D’Amelio, senior vice president of operations for the 51-unit upscale-casual chain. “It’s also a visually beautiful dish.”
Passionate about cooking, Okura, the chain's vice president of culinary development and corporate executive chef, says, “We change our menu here twice a year, adding six to eight new items and eliminating some to keep it at around 200.”
New ideas come from many sources, including cookbooks and other chefs as well as manufacturers. Recipes also come from tweaking dishes served by other restaurants, which is how miso salmon got its start at The Cheesecake Factory.
A few years ago Okura began noticing a trend toward miso-marinated Chilean sea bass at high-end restaurants in major cities. “It was really making a mark on the industry,” he says “I thought it was delicious but not for everybody. First, because miso is fermented soybean paste and, on its own, is an extremely strong flavor. You either love it or don’t want to be near it.”
The second factor was price. “Because Chilean sea bass and miso are both expensive, this dish was selling for $30 for a 3- to 4-ounce portion in these restaurants,” he explains.
Okura had concerns about the recipe, but the idea intrigued him. “We felt it was too good a concept to be limited to only those who could afford it or who could appreciate Chilean sea bass.”
To produce a similar effect, Okura and his team elected to try a recipe using salmon. “It’s been popular for years,” he noted, “and is more affordable.”
The challenge of using miso salmon to resemble Chilean sea bass is an example of the cooking dynamic that excites Okura, a 14-year veteran of The Cheesecake Factory.
He learned a lot from the late Warren Leruth, a renowned foodservice consultant and flavor specialist who was the first inductee into the MenuMasters Hall of Fame in 1998.
“I came to respect Warren tremendously for his insight,” Okura says. Other people who influenced Okura’s career through their cookbooks and television shows were Julia Child and Jacques Pépin, the 2000 MenuMasters Hall of Fame inductee.
At Cheesecake Factory’s headquarters in Calabasas Hills, Calif., Okura delights in using items on hand to make dishes that replicate fine-dining quality. “The absolute challenge,” he says, “is to make these in high volume at moderate prices.
“With miso salmon,” he explains, “we asked ourselves ‘Can we do with salmon what these other restaurants are doing with Chilean sea bass?’ Salmon tends to be a little more of a fatty fish with a distinct flavor, so it wasn’t just an across-the-board transfer of ingredients, using salmon instead of sea bass.”
It took hours of trial and error for Okura and his team of menu research and development specialists to blend ingredients that would offset the salmon flavor.
“Miso is a strongly flavored ingredient, and salmon is stronger than Chilean sea bass,” he continues. “We knew that if we could make it work with salmon, then we wouldn't have to charge an arm and a leg.”
Cheesecake Factory chairman, founder and chief executive David Overton gets very involved with the menu, Okura says. “He sees everything before it goes out. We worked over the miso salmon recipe dozens of times and presented it to David only when it was absolutely strong.”
Once the recipe was in place, Okura had to make it work in the restaurants.
“The best way to do this dish is to oven-finish it, but in our kitchens we don’t depend on oven work or steaming because of the timing involved,” he explains.
How to prepare the miso salmon then? New equipment was not the answer. “We already have 200 menu items,” Okura says, laughing. “They'd send a lynch mob after me if I brought in steamers just for this one dish.”
Mark Pratte, the chain’s senior vice president of kitchen operations, was involved intimately in making miso salmon work in the kitchens.
“We don't have a steamer, so basically we ended up doing a light poach on the fish with a little water to steam it through,” he says. “Then we glaze it on the salamander to give it that rich mahogany color."
The process was new to the cooks and chefs and took some finesse, Okura says. “If they turn their backs on it for less than a minute, it can burn.”
Practice makes perfect, Pratte adds. “It's true that you have to focus on this, but we practice and practice and practice to find the potential potholes. And we've had no problems.”