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The Christmas menu evolves: seven tips for festive success

By: Reading Time: 5 Minutes

Alex Rushmer of Vanderlyle offers top seven tips for how he made his restaurant’s Christmas menu – and additional festive offerings – work in changing times

Christmas restaurant menus the world over traditionally focus on variations of roasted turkey, goose or duck and/or joints of beef and pork pimped up with a plethora of side dishes and indulgent seasonal entrees. A starry, calorific collision of rich meats and sugary treats imbued with Christmas spices.

Meat less festive Christmas menu

And while there are plenty of delicious festive touches on the menu at Vanderlyle restaurant in the historic city of Cambridge, UK, this year, chef-patron Alex Rushmer and his team’s plant-led approach means the traditional meat-fest associated with Christmas has been given an entirely new spin.

 

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Rushmer and chef partner Lawrence Butler have always worked closely with Vanderlyle’s suppliers since the restaurant opened in 2019, sourcing local, ethical, and regenerative produce driven by the seasons, but Christmas menus create a different sort of test. “Not using meat or fish has always been a bit of a challenge, but this year we found a way to get incredible black winter truffles and what tastes like foie gras, caviar and smoked salmon on the menu without using any animal protein, which is fantastic,” says Rushmer.

Tip 1: Christmas menus don’t have to mean meat

The plan this Christmas was very much to aim for “lux” on Vanderlyle Christmas tasting menu, “which is quite hard to do when you’re working with plants,” laughs Rushmer. “But I think we’ve achieved it. We finally have a signature dish, a cashew parfait, which is so similar to duck or chicken liver parfait. It is rich and it is delicious. I’m confident that in a blind taste, people would struggle to say that it was plant-based.”

Luxury ingredients such as truffles are of course, pricey, particularly in a cost-of-living crisis. “But it’s worth it,” says Rushmer. “It’s one of the first canopies that goes out, so a real line in the sand that says, ‘for two to three hours, you are going to enjoy yourselves. We’ll look after you’.”

The kitchen team is also using Cavi-Art Seaweed Caviar, which replicates the experience of caviar “with no sad sturgeons required”. The plant-based seaweed caviar is from Copenhagen. “We absolutely fell in love with it. For us to be able to use something that has the association of luxury and celebration like caviar but to be entirely plant-based is wonderful.”

Cavi-Art Seaweed Caviar Meatless christmas menu

Image: Vanderlyle

With margins being “squeezed from every angle, energy bills are just going crazy and food costs are going up” Rushmer recommends operators considering reducing – or losing entirely meat and fish from the menu. “Because we don’t have any meat or fish, we can afford to add those luxuries such as truffles, without hitting the bottom line too much. For anybody looking to maximize on trade I would consider focusing much more on vegetable-based cookery. It’s incredibly interesting, it’s very challenging, but it’s also a hell of a lot cheaper,” he says.

Tip 2: Mix it up a bit – and focus on produce and process

This year, while Vanderlyle has “doubled down” on some festive elements, Rushmer and Butler decided not to “throw cinnamon and spice and all things nice at the menu and instead focus a little bit more on showcasing produce and process, which is at the heart of what we do,” says Rushmer.

Festive Treat Box by Vanderlyle - meatless christmas menu

Image: Vanderlyle

“People tend to be a little bit bored of it by about 3rd December. They’ve had two months of pumpkin spice lattes, then they’re getting cinnamon, cloves and star anise thrown at everything.”

That said, the restaurant is still serving seasonal cocktails, including a Mince Pie Manhattan, says Rushmer. “It’s a good bourbon, infused with minced meat, then stirred in red vermouth. If people want those spicy embellishments, they can have them. I love those flavors but it can be easy to overdo it. They can be a little bit unforgiving. When you’re want the produce to sing, you don’t hide it under a layer of cinnamon.”

As Vanderlyle is not a huge restaurant, its Christmas menu can afford to be fleet footed. Rushmer and Butler began planning Vanderlyle’s Christmas menu on the second week of November. “We were pretty late this year, but because we’re a single site we can turn around menus in 2-3 weeks. The transition process was probably about 4-5 services between the November menu and the Christmas menu.”

Tip 3: Trust your suppliers

Vanderlyle is supplier-driven, “rather than trying to get the suppliers to dance to our beat,” says Rushmer.

“We get weekly updates from most of our suppliers, so the intention is often to build the menu around what is available rather than asking my suppliers to source things for us. It’s easy it is to be supplier driven without making too many compromises and changes to your own philosophies.”

Tip 4: Consider an early close and different covers – if you have a plan B

Another significant change Rushmer has implemented is to close his dining room early for Christmas. “We’re actually doing our last service of the year on the 17 December,” he says.

“I did the numbers on this. It seemed to make a lot more sense to rather than stay open and incur all the costs that occur. But particularly this time of year with energy being what it is and having to heat the building and staff costs and so on and so forth. We’ve squeezed in an extra two services in the first two weeks of December. So, we’ve gone up from four to five services.”

 

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Tip 5: Diversify to divide and conquer

This doesn’t mean an end to festive trade, of course – merely a diversification of the offering. Something necessitated by the ‘great pivot’ of the pandemic but proving to have real staying power. “We are once again, transforming the business. A restaurant doesn’t have to be the only business that operates within a space,” says Rushmer.

As well as Vanderlyle’s dining room, it ran high-end meal delivery service to patrons during the lockdown, graduating that towards a luxury hamper delivery service – now seasonally pivoted towards The Vanderlyle Festive Treat Box – a collection of vegetable-led seasonal delights, including Vanderlyle Cashew “Faux-Gras” Parfait, the Cavi-Art Seaweed Caviar and Pistachio & Cranberry Cantucci.

 

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Ein Beitrag geteilt von Vanderlyle (@vanderlylerestaurant)

Tip 6: Do your sums

“Pre-ordered hampers are available for collection at the restaurant, for people to pick up on 23 December. We know exactly how many hampers we must make. All the packaging has been ordered. All the contents have been finalized. And I’ve done a lot of research on what items carry VAT and what items don’t. We’re saving ourselves a massive cost by having nothing in the hamper that incurs any VAT.”

“We are reducing costs by not being open – although admittedly, there’s going to be a drop off in turnover because we’re not doing any covers – but that’s more than being compensated for and it’s covering the cost of the closure. Look at other revenue streams,” says Rushmer.

Vanderlyle Festive Treat Box - meatless christmas menu

Image: Vanderlyle

Tip 7: Look after your team at Christmas as well as your customers

Another reason for closing earlier this year is to both reward and protect the highly functioning employees at Vanderlyle, which proudly lists “safeguarding of our team’s wellbeing” on its website.

“People need time off over Christmas. Our incredibly hard-working team need a break. They want to have a Christmas as well. One thing we can do is allow the team completely switch off from the restaurant and not arrive at their own festive season absolutely exhausted,” says Rushmer who describes previously experienced early January closures as “the most stressful period” of his life, due to worrying about “those December bills” rolling through January.

“I will certainly be able to have a very stress-free Christmas, this year. Before, we couldn’t afford to take the risks of being closed and not making the tills ring somehow. We found a way to make it work.”

Rushmer has learned to trust his own instincts to make the Christmas menu and service work for Vanderlyle. “We try not to be influenced by what other businesses are doing too much. We’re just happy to stay in our lane. I spend a lot of time looking at other restaurants wanting to eat there, but I’m not looking to emulate what they do. One of the reasons we’ve been able to stay open and stay successful is because we haven’t compromised; we’ve set our own rules and our own agenda. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but there’s a lot of ways to approach this industry. I’m just proud that we’re doing it on our own terms, and it’s been met with such enthusiasm,” he says.

Merry Christmas to all KTCHNrebel readers, wherever you are in the world – and whatever your menu.

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