I understand the inherent appeal of things like Food Network's behind-the-scenes shows or Anthony Bourdain's best-selling Kitchen Confidential. Restaurant food is a black box for the average diner. We sit down and place an order. A server disappears behind the proverbial curtain with our request and returns 20 minutes later with food prepared with skills greater than our own. We want to know what goes on behind the closed kitchen doors. Most of all, we want to know Why I Can't Make ______ Taste Like This At Home. What is the restaurant industry secret? How do they convince us to pay for things we could theoretically make for ourselves? Hmm.
Recently some prominent food writers were in a huff over a positive review NPR's Kelly Alexander gave to The Cheesecake Factory – exactly the kind of generic, megalithic outlet of processed, pre-cooked slop that Serious Food People love to hate. Heresy! Alexander might as well have written a praise piece on Hamburger Helper for Bon Apetit. But acid-tongued Michael Ruhlman accepted a bet from Alexander to try the restaurant with an open mind. He admitted that his meal involving several Cheesecake Factory entrees was in fact quite tasty.
The point is not that food snobs should be more accepting of gargantuan chain operations with a loyal clientele of tourists, business travelers, and rubes. The point is that there is absolutely no reason food from The Cheesecake Factory shouldn't taste good. Ezra Klein pointed out the painfully obvious – the food is disgustingly unhealthy. It's loaded to the gunwales with the things humans are genetically hard wired to binge eat: salt, fat, dairy, sugar, and lots of other things that fuel our obesity epidemic. It's not hard to make something tasty after it has been battered in starch, deep fried crispy, salted like mad, and served in a dairy-heavy sauce or gravy to the tune of 3000 calories. It won't make you feel good, but it's goddamn well going to taste good. It has been engineered – often quite literally in a laboratory – to taste good. And it's not hard to make good cheesecake at 1000 calories per slice.
Not all restaurants embrace The Cheesecake Factory's strategy of an overwhelming menu and Flintstones-sized portions. But living with a cooking professional has blown the lid off of the big restaurant secret for me: they just put way more salt, heavy cream, and butter in everything than you would do at home. Yes, cooking skill adds something to the finished product as well. The biggest reason you can't make it taste like that at home, though, is that you have restraint. Restaurant professionals get over that quickly. When you are baking something at home, there comes a point at which you say "OK, I'm not putting any more butter in this." You start picturing yourself getting fat or having a heart attack and you pull back. If you work in a restaurant, you are putting more butter in that motherfucker. When you make pasta sauce or a basic soup at home it would never cross your mind to dump in a quart of heavy cream. In a restaurant that is likely the first and last step in cooking either. Watching your calories at home? Good, because nobody cooking in restaurants is watching them. Their goal is simple. They want to make you a return customer by serving mysteriously tasty food that you just can't seem to replicate in your kitchen.
I'm not making a value judgment here. It isn't good or bad. It just is. Frankly I feel like unhealthy food is the best vice and far less damaging than tobacco, alcohol, drugs, or watching Glee. I see no point in approaching it with any air of mystery, though. It tastes so good because people in restaurants are better cooks, use better ingredients…and make sure that everything on your plate is liberally jacked with all the delicious things that are antithetical to your waistline and cardiovascular health.