Risotto Report

Rice and easy: how to boost your pub menu margins with risotto

By Nicholas Robinson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Prawn and chorizo risotto
Prawn and chorizo risotto

Related tags: Risotto, Rice

Risotto may not be at the top of chefs’ agendas but, when it is available on pub menus, there are many reasons for it to sell well, including its gluten-free and healthy qualities, and the potential for big profits. Nicholas Robinson reports

Risotto is a dish that ticks all of the current food trend boxes that need to be checked by busy pub chefs these days, such as vegetarian, vegan and free-from allergens, while also providing generous margins. So far, though, it appears to be a dish that’s under the radar for many in the trade.

Despite its ability to hit the magic words for customers, risotto sales in pubs have remained fairly flat in recent years, according to Peter Linden, senior analyst at the Publican’s Morning Advertiser’s sister brand MCA.

The great risotto myth:

Gallo UK managing director Jason Morrison says: “It really is a myth that it’s difficult to make. The key to a good risotto is good ingredients and timing.
“There are two ways to cook a risotto: the pilaf method and the par-boiled method. The most frequent method is the pilaf method, which consists of pre-cooking the rice in the morning and finishing the dish during service.
“The par-boiled method is using rice that’s steam-processed and is dried before it reaches the kitchen. It is then cooked in less time than non-processed rice.”

In pubs, he says, 1.6% of all lunch dishes were either risotto or pasta in the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2015, down from 2% for Q4 in 2014. On a more positive note, the number of risotto and pasta dishes eaten in pubs at dinner rose slightly for the same period to 3.4% in 2015, compared with 3.2% in 2014. Showing it is an option customers will try when it’s on the menu.

For the total eating-out market, risotto/pasta dishes accounted for 2.1% of meals ordered for lunch in Q4 of 2014 and 2.2% in 2015. For dinner, that dropped from 4.3% for the same period in 2014 to 3.9% last year — so a reverse in the trend when compared with pubs alone.

Risotto’s slight dinner-time growth in pubs may be as a result of its appearance on the menus of bigger chains, as Linden points out: “A number of leading pub brands offer risotto dishes positioned as healthier options. Pub restaurant chains Table Table and Browns serve asparagus risottos, while Chef & Brewer and Harvester offer lighter seafood and vegetarian risottos.”

Rice dishes as a whole are also appearing on more pub menus in one form or another, with leading operators including dishes such as jambalaya, he adds. The rise in rice dishes could be attributed to the increased popularity of gluten-free foods because the grain is naturally void of the nutrient.

Its versatility when it comes to meat and dairy-free options is also a plus. The latest figures from MCA’s Food-service New Menu Item Analysis claimed vegetarian dishes accounted for 31% of all new menu items in 2015, compared with just 18% in the previous year.

While rice dishes appear to be slowly becoming more of a feature on pub menus overall, recent research by Premier Foods shows 45% of the consumers it asked wanted to see more Italian or Mediterranean dishes on menus, making risotto a prime dish to fit with this demand and the rising interest in gluten and other free-from dishes, such as vegetarian and vegan.

A rise in customer interest and demand for Italian dishes on pub menus can be attributed to the current domination of the high street by Italian food chains, claims Patrick Hames, head chef at the Enterprise Inns lease the Farmhouse in Horley, Surrey.

Risotto on pub menus

As recently as five years ago, he says, a risotto on a pub menu may not have been considered with the same sincerity by pubgoers as it would be now, but the increased access to Italian food on the high street has made customers more open to trying dishes not traditionally associated with pubs.

“It’s pretty popular when it’s on the menu here,” explains Hames, who recently took over the Farmhouse’s kitchen. “It’s not for everybody, because some people still want to see the more traditional dishes, but I think the casual-dining trend has probably made it a lot more popular for pubs.

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Watch Italian Embassy head chef Danilo Cortellini make a quick and easy risotto in this exclusive video masterclass

“Pubs had lost a lot of their food trade to the likes of high-street chains such as Strada and Prezzo, but on the positive side, their popularity has put dishes like risotto more in the consciousness of customers.”

As well as it being a popular dish on the Farmhouse’s menu — whether it’s asparagus risotto or a prawn and chorizo one — it is also a quick, easy and tasty dish you can pull out to cater for customers who are more demanding, he claims.

“Chefs don’t always look to risotto when they need a dish that’s vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free. But it’s the ideal dish to meet those needs —maybe they’re put off because they think it’s harder to make than it is.”

Ernst van Zyl, chef and co-owner of the Kerridge-based pub the Lord Clyde, in Cheshire, understands why some chefs view the dish with apprehension, but says they shouldn’t because it’s a simple dish to make.

The menu at the Lord Clyde, which came in as a new entry at number 50 on the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list this year, changes weekly, he explains. Risotto, in its simplest form — a bianco, which is just onion, garlic, celery, stock, rice, butter and cheese — can take on an unlimited amount of flavours, which makes it the perfect dish, he explains.

“One day it could be as simple as wild garlic, which is in season now, or pancetta or serrano ham. But, if you cook your risotto well then whatever other ingredients you use, it will work.”

His biggest tips are: ensure all of your preparation is done before you start cooking the risotto and to use really good stock, which should always be kept hot while the dish is being cooked.

“It’s an easy and worthwhile dish to put on in a pub. You can pre-cook your rice in the stock to about 70% done and then cool it really quickly. Then just finish the dish in the pan when the check comes on.

“Depending on the ingredients you use to flavour the risotto, your GP will be good too. One box of rice can feed about 10 to 12 people, so it does go quite far.”

GP from risotto dishes

GP, at the end of the day, can be the make or break of a dish making the menu, points out Jason Morrison, managing director of Italian rice specialist Gallo UK. “The margin that chefs could make from each dish depends mainly on the cost of ingredients, which also comes down to the quality the pub chef wants to achieve,” he explains.

Top Italian rices:

  • Arborio: ​The most popular risotto rice, with large plump, full-bodies grains. Arborio has a high-starch content that that gives it the perfect balance of creaminess and bite for a very traditional risotto.
  • Carnaroli:​ Premium risotto rice that is known for its ability to absorb flavours and retain a perfectly-cooked al dente texture.
  • Venere:​ A natural black which originally comes from China, but is grown in the Po Valley, Italy. Venere cooks in just 18 minutes and has a distinctively nutty aroma and can be eaten hot or cold.

“Usually, we consider a portion of risotto to be 80g-90g, so buying 1kg of rice could obtain 12 portions. In commercial terms, the cost of a portion of rice is based on the maximum 100g raw weight and would be 25p, therefore a vegetarian risotto would cost under £1 to make and, with protein, about £1.50 a portion.

This supports the point that high margins are to be had — probably the highest on a gastropub’s main-course menu.”

Importantly, says Italian Embassy head chef Danilo Cortellini, the dish is actually easier than most think. “It’s not that ‘cheffy’, really,” he explains. “It’s a pretty straightforward process. If you learn to do it properly then everybody can do it.”

Ingredient quality is the biggest challenge, he warns. The rice has to be the best and it has to be a risotto rice (see boxout) and not something like a long-grain basmati rice, because that won’t give you a risotto. Grains such as arborio or carnaroli release the starches needed to achieve a creamy risotto. They also maintain their shape during cooking.

The quality of the grain is important, he affirms. The grains have to be unbroken so the right amount of starch can be released and so it stays whole and ends up on the plate al dente.

Yet, risotto rice is also diverse in its use beyond offering a tasty free-from and high-GP option, points out Felicia Troia, owner of the foodservice supplier the Sicilian Kitchen. The firm specialises in arancini — small balls of risotto rice breaded and fried — that are ideal bar snacks, starters or even a main-course option.

“They can be a fantastic extra in-come stream and also quite an unusual addition to a bar snack menu, especially for those who might not want to eat the likes of a Scotch egg or pork pie,” Troia says. “You could make 100% gross profit from ours, which come frozen and vacuum-packed. You just have to reheat them and, to add value to them, you could serve them with a simple sauce.”

They can quite easily be a vegetarian bar snack option that’s not boring, she adds. “If you use vegetable stock and no meat in the rest of the recipe then they’re ideal for vegetarians and they can be vegan if you don’t add cheese. Rice is naturally gluten-free, so they’ve got that going for them too.”

So, with that in mind, risotto’s flexibility could see the dish, understandably, become more of a star on pub menus as chefs become ever more reactive to the rise in demand for free-from options. Plus, its potential to offer kitchens a high GP for relatively little input is a real bonus.

The risotto report series was sponsored by Italian rice experts Riso Gallo. The series includes a feature report, 10 things you need to know​ about risotto, a recipe gallery​ and a video masterclass

Related topics: Menu Ideas, News

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