Steamboat Springs Kate Rench, head chef at Cafe Diva, likes to use squash in the fall. One of her favorite dishes for the season, a spaghetti squash cake Napoleon with farmer's market ratatouille, holds closely to what foods taste the best while the leaves are turning.
In the same season, Brian Vaughn, a co-chef/co-owner at bistro c.v., ended up with a shipment of not-quite-ripe tomatoes from one of his small produce suppliers. So, for a few nights, his restaurant served different dishes using fried green tomatoes.
Being able to change their menus on the fly, accounting for product availability and seasonal foods, is key for Rench and Vaughn as they work to establish and maintain a restaurant's reputation.
"It's harder to keep as high a quality of product when your menu doesn't change as often," Vaughn said. So, bistro c.v. changes its menu in some small way almost daily, swapping out full dishes two or three times a week.
"We have a couple of signature dishes, but 95 percent of the menu changes on a weekly or monthly basis," Vaughn said.
Menu writing - the ability to change a restaurant's offerings on a regular basis without putting mango salsa or garlic butter on everything - is widely considered an art.
For Rench and Vaughn, menu writing is more of a daily necessity, the part of their business that keeps the staff happy and the customers coming back.
"It keeps the staff excited about the product, and it keeps us on our toes in the kitchen. And, the guests can come back on a weekly basis and never have the same thing," Vaughn said.
"If you're serving the same thing every day of the year, you're not excited about yourself - you're bored with seeing the same stuff go out every day," Rench said.
"We're in a small town, and people get bored. People don't want to know what they're going to eat before they actually go out," she said.
From a practical standpoint, basing menu items on what foods are in season and are readily available from small suppliers is crucial to maintaining the quality many restaurants are billed on.
"When I'm designing my menu, I just want to have a good combination of ingredients. It needs to be well-balanced between sweet and savory and include things that complement each other's flavors. If you have something on the saltier side, you want something on the sweeter side," Rench said.
So, a sweet scallop might be paired with salty bacon or chanterelle mushrooms. Winter can be a challenge to finding fresh produce combinations - five feet of snow in one week will do that to you - but Rench said she concentrates on root vegetables and heartier dishes, occasionally lightening things up with citrus flavors.
Both Cafe Diva and bistro c.v. keep menu choices limited to ensure new tastes and fresh ingredients.
"It's hard enough as it is to keep those few items changed up. If it was a larger menu, the quality would go down," Vaughn said.