Night at the Improv

By on Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Most nights of the week, Tim Wiechmann is just like any other chef, responding to his patrons’ whims. Then there’s Wednesday, when at 8:30 in the evening, the tables turn – both literally and figuratively – and menus become obsolete.

Wednesday night is “Kitchen Improv” night at T.W. Food, the tiny, European-style restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., that Wiechmann co-owns with his wife, Bronwyn.

This is Wiechmann’s moment to spontaneously create dishes for his guests, thereby allowing himself a welcome break from routine. It is also a rare occasion for restaurant-goers to yield a measure of control – not an easy task for many of today’s rather persnickety diners. But judging from the success of “Kitchen Improv” so far (sold out every week since its debut last September), there are plenty of adventurous palates out there, happily spending money to be surprised.

Of course, it helps inspire confidence to have someone like Wiechmann at the stove. Zagat restaurant guide refers to him as “easily the most creative and inventive chef in the area.” He boasts an impressive background, including cooking at Aujourd’hui at The Four Seasons Boston and training in France with Michelin-starred chefs Alain Passard, Alain Soliveres, and Joel Robuchon, all of whose cuisine he says he “admires tremendously and incorporates into his own style.”

“Tonight’s Ingredients Are…”

This Wonderland evening kicks off not with the presentation of a traditional menu but instead with a list of about 15 featured seasonal ingredients. On a recent Wednesday, those ingredients included local swordfish, Duxbury oysters, wild monkfish, sea scallops, Muscovy duck, Vermont Suckling Pig, Liberty apples, local Bolete mushrooms and native purple potatoes.

Diners are asked about any objections or dietary restrictions, or if they might rather see a vegetarian or even “pescatarian” list. Then the impromptu parade of five courses – with optional wine pairings – begins.

Wiechmann is the first to admit that the $39 price tag has helped Kitchen Improv sell out week after week. The additional $22 for three paired wines is also hard to beat. “It’s a great value,” says Wiechmann. But even with all the expensive ingredients Wiechmann cooks with, the weekly event is still profitable for T.W. Food because it creates a second seating that would otherwise not happen.

Pressure’s Off

Surprisingly, he feels more relaxed on Kitchen Improv nights than during the rest of the week when he must plan ahead and his diners order from a strictly structured menu.

“Improv is liberating because I can break my own rules, and be free of my own constraints, ” he says, explaining that typically a chef must pre-order special foods — a pig, for instance — two weeks ahead, prep 30 orders of an appetizer, or serve a pasta dish just the same way for every customer. “I can use whatever I have on hand and present my homemade tagliatelle in many different ways, and it’s all still fine and good.”

Also adding to his comfort level is the fact that many people who show up for Kitchen Improv are already fans of Wiechmann’s and, according to Bronwyn, “they are people who are up for trying new things and letting go of control.”

Ready, Set, Improvise

The chef doesn’t even think about Kitchen Improv nights until Tuesday nights when the list of ingredients “gets put into motion,” he says. Then on Wednesday afternoon, his kitchen staff gets to work, conceiving dishes — a variety of proteins, vegetable dishes, desserts, and sauces — and then each cook “goes into a corner” to create them. “Our approach is more in the moment and one step beyond simply coming up with dishes that are local and seasonal.”

Wiechmann likens his on-the-spot cooking to how a home cook might create a family supper – using the resources and ingredients one has on hand, being willing to experiment by tweaking old recipes and coming up with new ones, and not fretting too much about the final result.

Such spontaneity also sets his format apart even from today’s trendy “pop-up” restaurants or supper clubs, which typically require chefs to plot out meals several days ahead.

Wiechmann likens his on-the-spot cooking to how a home cook might create a family supper – using the resources and ingredients one has on hand, being willing to experiment by tweaking old recipes and coming up with new ones, and not fretting too much about the final result.

Wednesday Winners

Kitchen Improv nights are just as efficient, he says, in helping to avoid food waste as any other evening. “Not wasting food is just part of being a good chef,” he says matter-of-factly. “Wednesdays are no different.”

Many of the recipes he’s created during Kitchen Improv – shallot crème brulee, for instance – have been so well received that they have clinched a spot on T.W. Food’s regular menu.

It’s Just for Fun

But trying out new dishes for other nights is not really the goal.

More than anything, Wiechmann says, Kitchen Improv is meant to be a lighthearted evening. “It’s a cool concept, a good value, and an opportunity for people to try something new, “ he says. “It’s just fun and interesting, and not some tour de force where anyone will have a culinary epiphany.”

Written by Jennifer Wolcott

Jennifer Wolcott is a freelance food and travel writer in the Boston area. For many years, she has written about innovative chefs, talented home cooks, and, long before it became a household term, seasonal "farm-to-table" cooking.

2 Comments

  1. New approach to restaurant menu development: DON'T. Improv night at T.W. Food-post on Toque http://tinyurl.com/2blno4q

  2. Cathy Lovell says:

    Nice article makes me wish iI was still in Cambridge so I could try T.W. out sounds like fun

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