I face the same challenges as most chefs: serving foods that are of the highest quality, “yummy tasting” (as our executive sous chef puts it), interesting, and have high customer demand while producing a profit.
I am also a consumer and frequent restaurants just like anyone else. I recently wrote negatively about cruise ships and Vegas buffets, so why not restaurants and hotels? For a number of reasons, I am usually disappointed with most freestanding and hotel restaurants. People who know me would be shocked if I didn’t find some level of discontent when dining out. My biggest complaints are that foods are often not hot, menu descriptions are inaccurate, and service is inconsistent. The reliance on and abuse of soup bases, dry herbs, low quality frozen seafood and vegetables, and packaged convenience foods is widespread. I realize that to execute consistently amidst the challenges of our industry, some speed scratch options are often necessary. I take advantage of one or two myself, but only if it’s top quality and will not disappoint even the most discriminating diner. Let’s face it: the proof is at the end of the fork. If the food doesn’t taste yummy, look appealing, have good mouth feel, and entice you with its aroma, you have failed.
Even good chefs have bad days, but too many chefs have not reached an acceptable level of proficiency. They have no one to blame but themselves. Cooking is a journey; great chefs and cooks never stop searching for knowledge and answers for how to reach the next level. If you don’t truly love cooking, I am sure you can find an easier way to make a living. If you are passionate about cooking or searching for ways to improve, here are a few suggestions.
- Make stocks. Have you ever wondered why your food isn’t as good as the restaurant down the street or why your soups and sauces are just okay? Properly prepared stocks are the foundation of everything else you will do and are worth the effort. Save beef, chicken, and vegetable trimmings, lobster bodies, and fish bones to aid in flavor enhancement; a good Chef can suck the flavor out of anything.
- Make reduction sauces. Take your time and let the process happen; lots of aromatics, a good wine, and the proper sachet will help ensure success. Bring the reduction to the flavor profile you desire and use a little cornstarch slurry for consistency adjustment if necessary. Don’t forget to skim and strain through a chinoise or cheesecloth several times during the reduction process.
- Use herbs and spices properly. This may sound a little basic, but I have seen massive abuse and the misuse of herbs and spices. Using herbs dry or fresh that complement the flavor profiles you are trying to achieve takes some thought. Don’t get weird; stick to the classics until you know the outcome. Even too much of a good thing can go south. The basic rule of thumb is dry for long cooking preparations and fresh for quick sautés or in the last few minutes of cooking.
- Keep it fresh. Fresh almost always wins out. In addition to seafood, produce, bread, and meats, we use a chicken purveyor. Fresh, unadulterated chicken is juicy, holds well, and is relatively cheap. Guests frequently comment on how good our chicken is and eat quite a bit as a result. I will sell chicken all day long; it’s a big money maker.
- Purchase quality meats. Let the chains and fast food world use select meats. If you can’t afford choice or better, cut your portion sizes. Most diners would derive greater satisfaction from a high-quality reasonable portion verses the larger poor-quality version.
- Keep hot food hot and cold food cold. This is one of the first things we learn as cooks but is without question the biggest problem I see. Keep plates under refrigeration, under a heat lamp, or in a low oven. Simmer soups before serving.
- Study, study, study. Devote time to self-improvement, eat at real restaurants, compete in culinary competitions, network with other chefs through professional organizations such as the American Culinary Federation, and read as much as you can. Most importantly, hold yourself responsible for your own success.