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Signature dish is terminology that is commonly used in connection with dining out. The term refers to a food item that is linked to a specific restaurant or chef. In some cases, it is also used to refer to the homemade specialty of a novice.
The menu at a restaurant is usually a product that involves a lot of planning. In some cases, restaurants hire professionals to do this for them. In the case of chain restaurants, they often request that one or more signature dishes be developed in the process.
These specialties can serve several purposes. A signature dish can help to give the restaurant a certain identity; it also can convert people into loyal customers. No matter how far each branch is from the next, the signature dishes are usually the same. Some people will go to that chain restaurant no matter where they are and always order the same signature dish. For this reason, signature dishes at a chain restaurant generally need to be appealing to a diverse market.
Chefs create signature dishes for many of the same reasons. Doing so can help them to create a name for themselves. When they are looking to expand their careers along paths such as selling cookbooks or hosting cooking shows, their signature dishes are often what spur their popularity. A chef, however, may not be as concerned with making his signature dish have mass appeal. Chefs are often more concerned with creativity and niche markets.
A signature dish is not always a product of planning. Often a restaurant or chef is informed what their specialty is by customer feedback or sales. A restaurant or chef can become widely known for a dish, only to realize it later.
Although a signature dish can have its benefits, it also can have its drawbacks. When a consumer base is built around an item, that base often will resist change. This means that when a chef or restaurant considers changing a menu, they may lose a portion of their loyal customers. At the same time, pacifying these individuals may prevent market growth.
Some novices also have signature dishes. This is common with people who are social and who engage in a great deal of in-home meal entertainment. A hostess, for example, may be known for a specialty. It may be expected that she make it or bring it to any type of gathering that calls for her to cook.
I always try to have the signature dish when I can. I think it really showcases the talent of the chef to try the thing that they think is the best they have to offer.
But, I would also look at reviews and make sure that that really is the best they have to offer. I think sometimes chefs don't take the advice of the public and try to be unique and exotic, when really they should become more simple and more in touch with basic recipes.
If the signature dish has a string of flavors after it in the menu, it could be fabulous, but it could also be a sign that someone is trying too hard.
Looking at a lot of reviews of the place beforehand can be a safer bet than trusting the opinion of the chef.
I think it works best when a signature dish recipe is allowed to incorporate seasonal produce.
For example, tomato soup might be the signature dish of a particular chef or restaurant but during the right season it might be tomato and pumpkin, or in a different season it becomes tomato and white bean.
To me, one of the marks of a good chef is inventiveness so even if they are making the same meal, they can use what comes to hand.
And this also brings in the idea that the freshest produce tastes the best, so you can be sure they are serving you vegetables and meats that they bought fresh from the market that morning.