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You never want to do a 100% redo of a menu when you take a place over unless everything is awful (in the eyes of the customer, not you). You have to respect what the customers want, and what is currently working. They are the ones providing the money to pay your salary. If you are wanting to redo the menu just so it's "yours", you're in it for you, not the customer, and that's a recipe for disaster.

Obviously, it's impossible to recreate dishes exactly without a recipe. If the owner doesn't know that, maybe they aren't cut out for the restaurant business and you're better off somewhere else. There have to be some employees there who can provide insight on how certain items that were popular were made though, unless you're the only cook, and if that's the case I wouldn't want to be you. Even in a place with only $300K/yr in sales, you need more than one cook.

Whether its your menu or someone else's, the first step in a menu change is to figure out what is working and what isn't. This gets you some leverage with the owner too. Have you ever seen the menu analysis worksheet developed at Cornell that helps you group menu items into "Stars", "Workhorses", "Projects" and "Dogs"? Its a great tool and it quantifies for you what needs to be kept the same, improved or cut. As a general rule, every menu is going to be about 25% of each of those categories so there is always going to be a need for change. The larger a menu is, the more items you'll find in the bottom two categories. Changing the menu 3 to 4 times a year to take advantage of seasonal ingredients and to make small price changes is a good idea regardless.

If I were wanting to convince an owner, I would do a menu analysis and show them on paper what needs to be changed. It's a lot better to go in with data to back up your argument instead of just your feelings.
 
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