THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS TO GREAT COOKING

Painted in Waterlogue

Cooks may not understand the depth of truth to the title of this article – unless they have experienced the pleasure and the pain of working for a restaurant without compromise. What some may believe is only relevant in fine dining operations can, and should, apply to any type of operation, any price range, and nearly any product. Do it right, or don’t do it at all is the mantra for a select few in any of these food genres.

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it’s too low and we reach it.”

-Michelangelo-

Some may disagree, but to those who have been shown the “right way” to apply cooking technique to certain foods, who have been part of a team with total commitment to the craft, who have been trained to never waiver from the search for excellence, I say –stay the course. Quality is both tangible and intangible. Quality is the experience of creating, the enjoyment of doing things well, and the satisfaction that guests have as a result of your work.

When a cook is totally immersed in what he or she is doing; when that person is committed to everything about a dish, then the result is as gratifying for the cook as it is for the guest. A contemporary process may circumvent the established method and produce a menu item that satisfies the palate of the guest, but fails to deal with the intangibles that allow a cook to relish what he or she has created and relay the history and nuances of flavor that can never be re-created otherwise.

This process begins with knowing the source of the ingredients and feeling comfortable with the integrity of the parts, including proper handling and storage of those ingredients, respecting each component as it is moved through the process of preparation, and appreciating long-established methods.

Through advanced techniques in manufacturing – cooks and chefs are able to purchase, as an example, flavorful and convenient products such as frozen concentrated stocks, frozen sheets of puff pastry, pre-made sauces, portioned meats and fish, and even pre-trimmed, washed and blanched vegetables. All of these items have addressed the issue of labor cost in restaurants and can, in many cases, be the difference between a profitable or unprofitable operation. No matter how much business sense lies in the use of these items, there is little doubt that making each item from scratch adds a dimension of art and skill to a kitchen and builds real pride in how the business approaches its calling.

The intangibles count, and I personally believe, as a result, the guest experience is enhanced as much as the employee’s. There is nothing quite like walking into a kitchen deep with the aroma of roasting bones and a stock in preparation. Watching a pastry chef go through the process of making a laminated dough using sheets of cold butter in-between book folds of dough to create those hundreds of layers of flaky puff or Danish pastry is an interesting combination of science and art. Busy prep cooks snapping beans, peeling carrots, blanching and peeling vine ripened tomatoes, and mincing eye burning onions and shallots helps to build on an appreciation for what it takes to be involved in real cooking. Disagree with me if you like, but this is the kitchen environment that I cherish, the kitchen environment that cooks learned to appreciate and relish in the quality of their work.

Many guests may not think too much about all that it takes (or doesn’t take) to create that menu item presented to them in a dining room full of activity, but some do. However, if asked, I believe that many people simply assume that what they are enjoying was made entirely by the crew behind the swinging doors. The concept of using convenience items in a professional kitchen and spending, in many cases, top dollar for their appetizer, entrée, or dessert would likely be the furthest thing from their mind. Yet, far too often, this is the case in modern restaurants. It is what it is and I get the reasoning, but feel sadness for the loss of the intangibles.

That demi-glace that began as marrow bones, mirepoix, and fresh herbs; went through hours of simmering until 50% of the volume evaporates; chilled in an ice bath and refrigerated overnight; skimmed in the morning and returned to the stove with a fresh mirepoix and maybe some wine for body as it reduces once again for many hours; is strained and reduced some more by line cooks with a touch of beurre manie, and seasoned and finished with monte beurre – has history and depth that can never be matched by a product that came from a cryovac bag in the freezer. This sauce has a story to tell.

Short cuts have everything to do with saving time or effort and to a large degree this is in conflict with doing things well. Whenever we circumvent a process under the guise of efficiency we should stop and ask what might be lost along the way. When we learn to be focused on quality it becomes very difficult to drift from the standard that we are accustomed to. The quality of that finished plate of food, the experience that the guest receives, the enjoyment of doing tasks in a proper manner, a cook’s reputation and that of the restaurant, are totally dependent on a consistent approach towards excellence. The minute we start to accept short cuts, we begin to lose sight of our potential.

“Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.” 
― Henry Ford

Whether a cook is working for Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill in pursuit of authenticity with Mexican Cuisine, Grant Achatz with the crew at Alinea as he pushes the envelope of taste and science, or Danny Meyer perfecting the classic hamburger at Shake Shack, “doing it right” becomes the way it is – always!

“Quality is not an act, it is a habit.”

-Aristotle-

Do it right the first time and every time. An environment of quality is what makes cooking enjoyable, encourages the few to make it a life-calling, separates the truly great restaurants with staying power from those whose future may be questionable, and drives those food experiences that will always be memorable.

Stay true – do it right.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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