There are many encouraging signs. Things are beginning to change. Are we in the midst of a real paradigm shift in eating, both at home and in restaurants? Whenever I become encouraged, I run into far too many examples of mediocrity, yet then I see a glimmer of hope. This could be the time when consumers say – enough! All of the planets are beginning to line up: we are certainly aware that what we eat and how we eat has a significant impact on how we feel, act, and perform our daily tasks. There are enough restaurants, vendors, grocery stores, bread bakers, and farmers markets today that are making it somewhat easier for all of us to make the right decisions with food. Chefs and farmers are in the limelight, formal culinary apprenticeship programs are coming back in vogue and there are literally tens of thousands of graduates crossing the stage at more than 1,000 culinary schools across the country. This is, without a doubt, a time of real change with our food relationships.
So many days now are filled with encouragement. I read articles about people taking a stand for wholesome food, questioning some of the methods used to feed a nation without due consideration for long term safety and health, and short term flavor and nutrition. This collective voice of question is becoming louder, people are reading and studying, they are paying attention to ingredients and the integrity of food. Consumers are making the connection between good food and products that may be questionable to their health. Restaurant customers are looking for a change in what operators provide and when it doesn’t match their newfound awareness, they seek out alternatives. Some of the most prominent names in the quick service market are feeling the pinch. Those that have always been at the forefront are faced with decreasing sales, closing restaurants, and a questioning audience. Those who pay attention and take a stand for wholesomeness, fresh food, quality preparation and presentation are now enjoying exponential growth. It is a movement.
Yet, far too many are still not paying attention. As much as I am encouraged, those good feelings are crushed when I visit a restaurant stuck in the 70’s – the same menus, the same approach towards less than healthy preparations, the same reliance on convenience, and the same lackluster approach towards plated nutritional balance and enticing presentations. I find that the only effective way to select a restaurant experience that will inspire is to seek out recommendations from friends. Most restaurants rarely live up to the promise of advertising. It is all about the commitment that the chef and the owner have to quality and the integrity of the food he or she prepares.
I am encouraged when I see a well-run, professional kitchen filled with enthusiastic, serious cooks who view their job as an opportunity to express what they believe in and how fortunate they are to have the skills to “do it right”. There are many, and the number is growing…yet, then I run into an operation, or a series of many restaurants who seem to view what they do as strictly a process of moving product from one point to another.
I love restaurants and the restaurant business – it is a major part of my life and has been for more than four decades. I still plan my business and personal trips around the restaurants that I want to experience, but find the process of selecting a new one, much more of a gamble than I would like. Spending money for a great meal has never been an obstacle for me. Spending money, of any amount, on a mediocre experience truly infuriates me. I know what it takes to be good and even great as a cook. When that commitment doesn’t exist I feel that it is an insult to the industry I am a part of.
For many years, a grocery store experience was anything but extraordinary – then I visited a Wegman’s and a Whole Foods Market. Now I feel that there is no excuse for mediocrity in markets. It can be done – these chains and others like Publix and the most recent introduction of themed markets like Eataly, have shown everyone how it can be done. When I visit a market with uninspiring produce that is limp from a lack of care and misting, I feel let down. When a market offers “fresh” fish that is not displayed on ice, I sense a lack of knowledge and caring. Why would I spend money there? Fresh bread does not come from a box in the freezer; it is developed, formed, cared for, baked and properly displayed, as it should. Good bread is a gift that far too many people have not experienced. There is no excuse today! There are hundreds of exceptional bread bakers learning their craft and looking for an opportunity to offer the bread experience to anyone and everyone.
Farm to plate is not just a hippie movement from the 60’s anymore. It is a movement that emphasizes so many things beyond the somewhat politicized organic movement. Farm to plate is about supporting local businesses, it is about reducing the impact that we have on the environment, and it is truly about maximizing the quality of ingredients used based on their seasonal peak. Markets and restaurants that connect with farm to plate are truly concerned with the quality of the food presented. These businesses abhor mediocrity.
I applaud every business and every person who is connected to quality. I am enthused and encouraged by the growing number of businesses that “get it” and all of the chefs, cooks, bakers, pastry chefs, farmers, and vendors who view what they do as a privilege and an opportunity to do what is right.
If you’re a professional cook, chef, restaurant operator, grocery market manager, or vendor supporting these businesses I would encourage you to view your position as an opportunity to do it right. Mediocre does not inspire, mediocre is never a term that is a natural part of anyone’s personal plan. We all, in our hearts, want to be great, do great things, and be viewed by others as a master of our craft. This is as important to a successful business as the bottom line; in fact, when it is done right, the bottom line benefits greatly.
Let’s build on the movement to end mediocrity with food. Mother Nature produces some pretty fantastic ingredients when she is allowed to. The more that professional cooks hold this as a personal “stake in the ground”, the more the movement will continue to gain traction. Every food experience should be a positive one. Food is such an important and wonderful part of our lives and as such deserves to be honored with responsible handling and proper cooking. This is our craft, our responsibility, and our opportunity.
Let’s remove mediocre from our repertoire.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC