As winter sets in it is the season for thick soups and rich stews, so we will look into the resurgence of the seasonal menu.

Chefs were serving seasonally inspired menus long before eating with the seasons was aspirational and "seasonal" became a catchphrase for the hipster movement.  It began as an imperative - produce in season was all that was available.  Then cam flavour - seasonal ingredients were the best quality.

However, as imported or frozen produce became increasingly accessible, and what we eat drastically diversified, some chefs and many diners lost touch with what's in season.  In a bid to reclaim the flavour of fresh produce (remember a homegrown tomato in summer?) and concerns about the environmental sustainability (should oranges really clock up thousands of miles on a boat from America?), the seasonal menu has reasserted itself.  Now, it's the focus of top restaurants around the country and diners are flocking to them.

As autumn draws to a close and winter clicks into gear, we round up a bounty of cold-season produce and how to make the most of it, plus what makes a cracking seasonal menu at any time of the year - just in case you've lost your sense of the seasons, too.

Keep a calendar

What's all the fuss about seasonal? Well, there's the flavour that only comes with just-picked food that we mentioned earlier.  Often, however, what's in season also reflects what we need at that time of year, too.  Take classic winter vegetables, such as potato and pumpkin (or any root vegetable for that matter); their body and weight make them perfect fodder for winter when our bodies crave heartier fare to help protect us from the chilly weather.

Seasonal produce, in turn, inspires season-appropriate dishes.  Potatoes are boiled, mashed and enriched with cream and butter to make a luscious and filling side, or pumpkin is drizzled with olive oil, roasted until golden and served with quinoa and fennel or radicchio, other winter ingredients, for satisfying warm winter salad.  Root vegetables also hold up well when cooked for hours on end, lending themselves to slow-cooked meats and rich stews.

If you need another reason to embrace seasonal produce, think food costs.  So, while you can get asparagus from Chile during winter, you'll pay a pretty penny for it.  Seasonal produce, on the other hand, is often half the price or less.  In fact, when it's in peak season, there's usually a glut making it dirt-cheap.  This period only lasts a few weeks, depending on the fruit or vegetable, but if you plan properly, or keep your eyes out, you can make the most of prime produce at rock-bottom prices.  Good for you customers, great for your profit margins.

A good relationship with your clubs supplier is important, as they will be able to keep you up to date with seasonal produce, as well as what's coming up.  Planning is also paramount, you should be conceiving and practicing menus four to six weeks in advance, always checking availability with your supplier.

The availability of some ingredients all year round can make it hard to stick to seasonal produce only - it's tempting for many chefs - but the key is to use seasonally available produce as much as possible. 

Change it up

While many restaurants change their menu for summer, winter, autumn and spring (if not more to reflect mid-season changes), most clubs opt for a more realistic twice a year - once in summer and again in winter.  And while each club takes a slightly different tack for starting times, generally speaking, summer menus kick off in December and winter menus begin in June.

Things to consider when opting for a seasonal menu are the size of the venue, planning and practicing time, staff training and management sign off.  While many clubs aren't in a position to change their whole menu as regularly as they might like, club chefs often use specials boards to showcase spring and autumn dishes, or produce that is around for a short period of time.

Specials play a key role - they're a sounding board for what's hot with customers.  In the months leading up to a menu overhaul, the chef can use specials boards to trial dishes and select what has been popular for permanent placement on the seasonal menu.

Winter Classics

People are creatures of habit, meaning come summer or winter, there are key dishes that are perennially popular.  In the colder months, any slow-cooked meat is sure to be a hit.  Think lamb shanks, beef cheeks and pork belly.  This is great news for chefs as stews and braises mean cheaper secondary cuts of meat, which helps keep food costs down.  Pies, with their warm, gravied fillings and buttery pastry, are also popular, as are tick soups or cooked lentils and grains.  And who can go past roast meat and vegetables?

These dishes represent comfort food and the most successful winter menus incorporate this classic fare.  This is particularly true in club land, where many punters are old-timers or regulars, who like their food tried and tested.

At clubs, people want the classics, like chicken schnitz or lamb shanks, but it is possible to take this dishes, put a spin on them and turn them into something truly special and unique.  For example, try a lamb backstrap with roasted potato and quinoa for a Sunday roast.  Or Spanish-inspired seafood stew with tomato broth, white wine, fish, squid and chorizo, served with crusty bread.

In addition to modern flavours, club chefs should be looking to seasonal produce and local producers to mix things up.  In New Zealand we are spoilt for choice when it comes to beautiful produce so your use of it should not be limited only to mains, think starters, sides and desserts too.

As a chef you should always be on the look out for new ways to keep things fresh.  When you dine out, take note of the different ways to prepare dishes, scour cookbooks for ideas and inspiration.

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As club dining continues to evolve more chefs are getting adventurous with what they're serving - and diners are jumping on board. 

It is important that when making a change to the menu that you study previous years to see what has been good revenue generators.  Chefs must also keep their eyes on the industry, keep your popular items and develop new ones from your trend analysis to go on the menu.

Over the months, different greens make an appearance as they come into season and go, from silverbeet and cabbage to broccolini, that's the seasonal part.

Seasonal menus can be as simple or novel as suits your club and its clientele.  Just start with seasonal produce, then take inspiration from the weather and the rest will fall into place.

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(SOURCE: Yasmin Newman, ClubLIFE May 2015)