Customers Crave Custom Condiments
If you make a habit of reading about emerging food trends, you may have noticed an oft-neglected part of the meal sneaking its way onto many prognosticators’ lists. Condiments have traditionally been an afterthought: Ketchup and mustard bought in bulk and dumped in dispensers or offered in tiny packets, mayonnaise smeared on a bun as part of standard burger assembly, or store-bought hot sauce offered in bottles for customers who need an extra kick. However, as consumers become more interested in knowing exactly what is going into their food and more adventurous with the flavors they are willing to try (thanks, sriracha), house-made condiments are on the rise. To get a feel for what house-made condiments can add to a meal and how to develop some for your own restaurant, we spoke with Nick Rodgers, executive chef at The Root Restaurant in White Lake, Mich.
What is a Condiment?
Most people have a fairly narrow view of what constitutes a condiment: ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, hot sauce. Maybe salad dressing at a stretch. As Rodgers would point out, the world of condiments is much wider than that.
“Everyone’s going to think ketchup. That’s the first one that’s on everyone’s mind,” says Rodgers about what he considers a condiment. “I would say a condiment is similar to an accompaniment. Pickles can even be a condiment. It’s something on the side you add to what you’re eating. That can be a sauce, kimchi, pickles, or jam.”
While some on the internet deign to offer official rules for deciding what constitutes a condiment, in reality it seems there are no real rules – if it accompanies a food as a sauce, spread, dip, dressing, spice, seasoning, pickle, or edible garnish, it can likely be considered a condiment.
“[When] you eat a dish, you should be feeling different textures and having different flavors. There should be salty, sweet … there should be crunchy, there should be vinegar, there should be freshness. If I’m creating a dish and I feel like some of these are lacking, that’s where I think condiments play an important role. It’s kind of like an accompaniment to fill out a dish’s flavor profile,” explains Rodgers.
House-made vs. Heinz
There’s no denying that buying condiments in bulk offers a convenience that can be hard to break away from, but if your restaurant uses local, seasonal food to reach your target demographic, making condiments in-house may be received well. Many modern customers are invested in knowing exactly what they are eating, in some cases right down to the mayonnaise on their burgers.
“At the heart of things, they want to literally know every ingredient that’s in anything you make. The public demands to know that information, so you have to be able to give it to them. If you’re just serving condiments off the shelf, you can’t verify everything that’s in it,” says Rodgers.
However, for some restaurants house-made condiments may not be right, regardless of what seems to be trending.
“Understand where your customer base is. Sometimes you’re just slinging fish and chips and burgers somewhere. They don’t want you to make anything; they just want you to open a [condiment] container. At the end of the day, it’s more about your customer base and what they really want. Pay attention to them, listen to them,” Rodgers advises.
Even for chefs who decide to make their own condiments, having a backup stash of store-bought favorites can’t hurt.
“We make a lot of our own mayonnaise here, but I also generally keep a secret jar of Hellmann’s because someone’s going to want it,” says Rodgers. “Ketchup is something I serve [off the shelf] because I really believe people are just emphatically disposed to Heinz ketchup. There’s just something about that super sweet, super smooth Heinz ketchup they like. It’s literally built into our DNA. I think I can make delicious ketchups, but at the end of the day I’m operating a business and it’s not always about what I want.”
Of course, there’s nothing that says you can’t experiment a bit with that American classic, a fact that has given rise to balsamic and spicy ketchups that require a one-step mixing process to create. Their popularity didn’t go unnoticed by the company itself, which started producing specialty variations, including, yes, a sriracha-infused version.
To start the process of adding house-made condiments to your restaurant’s menu, you must first look at your current and upcoming menu items to determine which ones would benefit from an additional flavor or texture.
“What I’m making it for has a lot to do with what the condiment’s going to be,” says Rodgers about his development process. “Just creating a condiment with nowhere to go, that doesn’t make sense to me.”
The development process for condiments is much like anything else in the kitchen, and involves a lot of trial and error.
“Lots of research. Even in 2017 now, I read a lot of cookbooks,” says Rodgers. “The internet’s a valuable source, but I read a lot of cookbooks. Don’t be afraid of trying things. It’s OK to fail.”
If you’re going to spend the time and effort to make in-house condiments, it makes sense to use the best ingredients available.
“We’re in Michigan, so we have the luck of having four full seasons. Michigan has the third highest variety of agriculture in the nation, so there’s a lot of options,” says Chef Rodgers. “I work with local farms. My purveyors are all local businesses, for the most part. I just work things through the seasons. All my vegetables are local, and where they’re not local, I go to the best seasonal.”
Chef Rodgers also encourages chefs to take advantage of the variety of flavors available from around the world as they develop their condiments.
“I have a great hummus dish with roasted mushrooms right now, so obviously I use Middle Eastern flavors in making that dish. I think that’s what American cuisine is. The melting pot of America is also the culture in our food, so you draw from Asia, you draw from Mexico, Latin America, the Middle East, Europe. I think that’s the demand of the people, everyone wants that. In America, we get pretty much whatever we want. We live in a country where that’s a possibility. If you go to Europe, it’s not like you can just get Mexican food, or get Asian food. We have everything, it’s amazing.”
To help you get started making your own condiments, Chef Rodgers passed along a recipe for tzatziki.
This tzatziki recipe is courtesy of Chef Nick Rodgers of The Root Restaurant.
“Tzatziki is a traditional accompaniment for grilled and roasted meats. It is Greek in Origin but has many applications in American food. I love it with roasted vegetables,” says Chef Rodgers.
- 2 qts. Whole milk Greek yogurt
- 2 Lemons, zested and juiced
- 4 Garlic cloves, microplaned
- 1 Tbsp. Parsley
- 1⁄2 cucumber, microplaned
- Salt, to taste
- Tabasco, to taste
- 1 c. French Feta, crumbled (optional)
Place all ingredients in a bowl and whisk well.