Home cooks, it’s time to stop sawing on that second fiddle

OK, so yeah, I’m a food professional by trade – I manage a very busy bakery café. A lot of folks assume that us commercial types lord it over home cooks in materials, techniques, processes, and everything else good – Hell, a decent chunk of what I do here involves trying to translate some of those things to y’all. Yet there’s a simple truth that doesn’t get written about often enough, and it needs to be, so here it is – There are a lot of dishes that are better prepared at home than in any restaurant – No, really, there are. So, in other words home cooks, it’s time to stop sawing on that second fiddle.

In the best place I cooked and learned to cook, the presiding Chef never really told me exactly what to do. He didn’t recite, hand over, or otherwise precisely impart a recipe, ever. Instead, he told me to pay attention, and to use all my senses to grasp what it was he was trying to teach me. I’m quite certain that he didn’t actually have any recipes written down anywhere, (and I think that’s true in a lot of great places to eat, both home and restaurant). He wanted me to see, smell, feel, and taste my way to cooking well. That lesson has served me well my whole culinary life.

Cooking in many a restaurant is kinda like seeing a rock band live that sings every song and plays every solo exactly like you heard it on the album – It may be good, hell it might even be great, but is that really why your go to see them play live? As a musician, I don’t ever play the same song the same way. How it comes out is determined by the place, time, and my mood, and cooking should be done the same way. I make legendary Mac and cheese, but it’s never, ever the same. The basics of the recipe and process, the ratios of the béchamel, and the handling of the roux? Yes, those are consistent – But the cheeses and pasta I use, and the seasoning, well, that depends on what I’ve got – what I see, smell, taste, and feel when I scope out pantry and fridge. What I end up with is consistently excellent stuff, but it never is, and more importantly, doesn’t want to be the same every time. Even great restaurants are constrained by their menus, (albeit the truly inspired ones change that up, even daily). Good or even mediocre ones do the exact same thing every time, because that’s what a lot of diners want – To each their own, and to the rest of us, the spoils – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Our herb and spice selection is, shall we say, robust.
Our herb and spice selection is, shall we say, robust.

So, did I mean that line? We can do better at home than most restaurants? Oh yes, yes indeed I did. I don’t know about y’all, but there’s a reason that we don’t eat out very often. What we can and do create at home on a regular basis far surpasses all but really good restaurants. Your kitchen can and should be absolutely no different. So why is that?

Even in really good restaurants, there are things working against spontaneous creativity. Anyone who’s ever worked in a serious restaurant knows firsthand about the division between prep and cooking for service. Prep in restaurant cooking is huge, paramount in fact – The folks who cook for service might be the rock stars, but they’d never even get on stage without some seriously kickass prep cooks making it possible. It might not occur to you when you sit down in a restaurant, but let me put it this way – You don’t really think that every piece of beef, chicken, fish, every vegetable and salad, every dessert is made from scratch, just for you, and that nothing had been started before you got there and ordered it, do you? Don’t get me wrong, to a decent degree it is true that what you order is made just for you, and in great restaurants, it is all made from scratch. That said, I will guarantee that proteins have been portioned, prepared ahead, and/or par cooked, as have all those vegetables, salads, and desserts.

In a restaurant that does a hundred or more covers for a dinner service, there’s no way on God’s green earth that they could make all that to order and be even close to keeping up with the time constraints required for great service. This is just the fact of cooking at that kind of volume. My bakery café is pretty simple – We bake bread and various sweets, and we sling sandwiches, soup, and salad. Even so, it takes a lot of time to get ready to serve lunch to a couple hundred people. We start at five in the morning, so that’s about 6 to 7 hours of work by a half dozen people, all dedicated to getting ready for lunch. All that happens long before you ever sit down to eat. And again, that’s for a relatively simple operation. Now, you get into fine dining, especially cutting edge stuff, and you’re talking a hell of a lot more work than that to make sure that your dinner is spectacular.

And then there is the food, the raw commodities, what we use to make lunch or dinner for you. We use really good ingredients, and I mean really good. The best restaurants use stuff that makes mine look pretty pedestrian. But in a lot of good or merely okay restaurants, you’d actually be surprised about how meh the quality of the ingredients are. That’s not an attempt to rip you off, mind you – it’s simple economics. When you have a big menu, you’re making educated guesses about some potentially very expensive things, so more often than not, you buy good enough, not great. Then there’s the prognostication required for economic success – How much of dish A, B, or C will people order? How many people are really going to come in to eat on this day? Even if you’re really good at forecasting, you have to be prudent and conservative about what and how much you buy.

In the old days, there was a built in safety valve for this, called Garde Manger – That took care of a lot of leftovers in most restaurants, and it still does in some – That’s where stuff that didn’t sell becomes family meals for the crew, or get transformed into something delightfully new to offer guests the next day. This is not an easy job – It’s as much art as it is technique and ability. Because of that, you don’t see it in as many places as you used to, which is a shame. I will however take a moment to boast – that garde manger concept is exactly what we impart here on a very regular basis – Cook something on day one, and make a week’s worth of great meals out of it – It’s economical, it’s tasty, and it teaches you to cook on the fly, all of which are very good things.

So, in many ways, restaurants are constrained by menus, time, and economy. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions – The very good Mexican place in my little town in Washington state makes pork shanks that they cook low and slow all day, every day, that are absolutely sublime – But as many diners in many Mexican joints know, that’s an exception to the general rule. I’ll say it again, I can and do cook better than 90% of the places I might think about going to, and frankly, the other 10% are probably too damn expensive for me to justify. Even places I like, with a proven track record more or less screw up on an all too regular basis. A dish I I’ve ordered many times might be overcooked, proportioned wrong, or just made without obvious love and care on any given day. We tried a breakfast place the other week that is new in town and has been getting rave reviews. What I ordered, while initially visually appealing, was frankly lousy. There was little or no seasoning, and virtually 50% of the potatoes (in a hash dish) were burned and heavily soaked in oil – And it wasn’t cheap – And these were folks who claim three generations of restaurant ownership and management. Get the picture? Fact is, in our own kitchens we can do better, with great ingredients, for far less than those meals cost out there. And we do it in the place we love most, for the people we love most. What could possibly be better than that?

A slow cooked pork roast is a thing of beauty
A slow cooked pork roast is a thing of beauty

Take that pork I mentioned back a spell – it’s a relative bargain in the stores these days. So a big ol’ pork roast, set on top of mire poix in a slow cooker and left to do its thing for 8 hours? Try and find that around town. Pair it the first night with roasted potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, a hunk of crusty bread and a nice glass of red wine, and you’ve got a million dollar meal. The next night, shred that stuff, cook some rice, chop up some onion, some chiles, some cilantro, and some nice fresh cheese, and make the best street tacos you’ll find anywhere. Night three? How about taking leftover rice, combined it with some chopped up pork, a little ginger, some scallions, a scrambled egg or two, and a nice Chinese inspired sauce, and make fried rice to die for. And if there’s any left over on night number four, dice up that pork, make a nice red sauce, (crushed tomatoes, chicken stock, olive oil, garlic, lemon, oregano, and fresh pepper. Serve it over angel hair pasta with a dusting of grated parmigiana, and go wild.

And let’s not forget those ingredients. How often do you go shopping every week? Do you really love to cook? Then answer me this; what’s keeping you from stopping by the store every couple of days, and doing just a little shopping? If you do that, and let your eyes and your nose, and your imagination rule the roost, you’re going to end up with beautiful food. Yes, the best restaurants get food deliveries every day, but I’ll guarantee you this – you will be much better at picking beautiful tomatoes then I can when I look over the 80 pounds that comes into my café every day. The same goes for virtually all other vegetables and fruit, cheese and proteins, bread and pasta – and the list goes on and on. When that beautiful stuff comes home with you, and you’ve had a fortifying sip or two of that great red wine you bought, and you focus your attention on those gorgeous, fresh green beans you just bought, sautéing them in butter, with slivered almonds, fresh lemon juice and zest, and a sprinkle of sea salt and ground pepper? They’re going to be better than anything you could be served out and about, guaranteed.

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