Five Questions for: Bill Laychur

Five Questions, Bill Laychur, Culinary demosStaging a successful culinary demonstration can have a big impact on an operation’s menuing abilities. A culinary demo should entertain and encourage your customer to try new things, says Bill Laychur, corporate executive chef at 43,900-student Pennsylvania State University in University Park. Laychur talked to FSD about the challenges involved with culinary demos.

What does it take to stage a successful culinary demo?

It’s got to be an interesting item. If you try to pull something off like a banana split—that may be interesting in some venues but it depends on your audience. If you’re going to have a diverse audience and they have a little bit of culinary knowledge, then you need to step it up a notch. If you’re going to be doing a demo for freshmen who haven’t been around the block yet, you can pretty much pick any subject and they’re going to be interested. To be successful, you have to present yourself in a professional way. You need to be in your chef’s uniform. You need to have your demo set up in an organized way, complete with mise en place. You can’t be running back and forth for everything.

What kind of dishes have you found to be more successful for demos?

You’re not going to have a whole kitchen so if you’re trying to do something where you’re roasting or braising, that doesn’t always bode well for demos. Sautéing is always a success, as is cold food preparation, salads and things like that—anything where you can use a food processor or a blender. A few years back I did a whole Cajun menu. At that time, Cajun was kind of popular because the hurricane had just hit down there so that region was in the news. So I did a five-course meal and ended it with a bananas Foster, which worked out really nice. I like to take things that are hot in the news or trends that haven’t hit our area yet. We’re a little behind the times here in terms of culinary trends. What’s hot in New York or L.A., may not be hot here yet, so it’s good to demo those items because when they do finally catch on here, it’s like, “Oh, I remembered that chef did that.”

Why do you think culinary demos are important to stage?

I don’t know about students elsewhere, but our students want to see them. Even in our areas in the dining halls where we have demo areas, you can’t put as many people through them because you’re making the food to order. But they like to see what’s going on. The hope is that they possibly will taste something that they may not pick from the menu. That is one of the most important things with demos—getting your customers to try new things. Put somebody that’s a little chatty Cathy like me and it will work better. You have to pick someone with the right personality, if they’re not going to explain what they’re doing or it’s kind of slow and it doesn’t look like it’s an item that the customer is going to try, the chef need to be a sales person and encourage them to try it.

What are some of the challenges involved in staging these demos?

The challenge is often what you think is going to be popular isn’t always what your customer thinks is going to be popular. I’ve done some demos that are flops. But if you don’t try, you’ll never figure that out. Many years ago we had a special dinner where it wasn’t a traditional culinary demo but they wanted to open the table up after everything was cooked. It was a New England steamed dinner where we had prepared clams, a piece of chicken, steamed potato and a piece of corn and put them all in a bag. The idea was to steam all these and then open them up and present it to the customer. I just thought that was the greatest idea and they would get all those great smells. Well they really didn’t want steamed clams and chicken smells blending together, so that didn’t work so well. It’s a good idea to survey your customer a little beforehand. You may not be in the same age group or demographic as your customer so you need to have someone from that generation to bounce ideas off of.

What advice would you give to other operators about staging a culinary demo?

Number one: Don’t set up an 8-foot banquet table and throw a couple butane burners on there and say, “here we go.” Think it out, get a process together and develop your process of what items your going to prepare. Set yourself up for success not failure. Make sure you have the right equipment to do the right job. Make sure you have somebody that has the personality to be out there to engage the customer.

For a tutorial on staging on culinary demonstrations, join us for our 2010 MenuDirections conference, “The Value of Flavor,” March 21-23, at The Doral Resort in Miami. For more information or to register visit Hurry, the early bird rate expires 1/22.