NPF: SECRET RECIPE

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.

23 thoughts on “NPF: SECRET RECIPE”

  • I once knew someone from the south. she was going to make potatoe soup..

    some potatoes.. onions.. 1/2 lb of butter… stir.. add the second 1/2 lb to put it all int! a pot of potatoes with a lb of butter .. then she poured cream in it…

  • I live across the street from a Cheesecake Factory. Judging by the perpetual scrum of patrons waiting outside, I have to assume that everyone is tired of San Diego's fucking incredible fish tacos and juicy burger joints and that place that makes cocktails with ginger beer and doesn't look like a cheap hotel. Plus do those fish tacos have ads for real estate agents and jewelers in their menus? No they absolutely do not, and people love that shit, too. I guess.

  • 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.

    Dude, did you also just learn today that it wasn't the "tooth fairy" that was leaving those quarters under your pillow every time you lost a tooth?

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Ed, damn you get a PHD and there you go, doing your on web work. Congrats on quick conversion.

    Eat at home. Forget processed foods. Live better.

  • I always thought food at restaurants tasted better because typically I've had a beer or cocktail before hand, I am with company I enjoy and engaged in good conversation and I don't actually have to cook the meal and clean-up afterwards…

  • I just spent the better part of a day in an ER with chest pains. They couldn't find anything wrong, but I realize now that when they quizzed me about my bad habits–tobacco, no–alcohol, no–exercise, yes–diet, clean–they forgot to ask me if I watched 'Glee.' Now I know what's slowly killing me.

  • Frankly I feel like unhealthy food is the best vice and far less damaging than tobacco, alcohol, drugs, or watching "Glee"… Ahem. Really? Drunks are generally skinny (Anglo-Saxon countries may be outliers, as they drink so much beer), and many of them are excellent company in social contexts. Can't say that about too many morbidly fat, manifestly unhappy power-eaters. Between a drinker and a 'Cheesecake Factory' aficionado, I know whom I'd choose.

  • Home food is often better than restaurant food because I can take the time to cook slowly and tailor it to my tastes. Not that I don't monter au beurre at home.

    My great-grandma ate meat cooked in lard, white bread, and butter at every meal, but she worked like a mule from dawn to dusk, never touched booze or soda her whole life, and took a nap every day. She was in her mid-nineties when a deep splinter from the wood she was chopping caused a bone infection. Processed food, inactivity, and booze (my personal favorite) are killers.

    Also stress. She was a completely confident person of great faith and no stress whatsoever.

    Not me.

  • It's true, I actually believed that restaurant food tasted better because chefs have talents that I don't.

    That's true, of course, but they also use an ass-ton of butter.

  • I really can't stand the Cheesecake factory (or, frankly, most "chains").

    But it's not the health-nut in me…I LOVE SALT, and fat is delicious. I just find most places like that to not be about taste, but about taste enhancers. ("Deep Fried Mac 'n Cheese"? Really?!)

    Wait, maybe it's not the fat I like. Chipotle, Panera, and Red Robin (using a Boca patty) give me the salt without all of the fat. Maybe that's the key.

    In any case, the benefits of big-chain restaurants are:
    consistent product
    convenience
    speed

    It tastes far worse than what I cook at home. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go downstairs and start soaking the lentils…

  • Yea, I never got the chain snob types. This may be a newsflash to "I only eat at expensive non-chain restaraunts HU-RUMPH" but they also use a gobload of butter, heavy cream, and sugar. I will admit, though, that for some strange reason, those chefs have taken the high road on salt. My god if organic parsley and thyme isn't herb enough for you on your entree and you need to add salt, you have just insulted the head chef, his children, and six generations of his yet to come!

    So anyway, yea, cook at home lightly if you want to eat healthy. Or go to one of those specialty restaurants (my god some are chains – HEAVEN FORBID) that specialize in low-fat, low-salt, low-taste food.

  • Twisted_Colour says:

    We want to know what goes on behind the closed kitchen doors

    No you don't. Trust me, you really don't.

    As a chef (former, now studying the more gentle and stable area of international relations and governance) I was always baffled by the extreme (as I saw it) usage of butter and cream by some chefs. Cooking traditional French cuisine or cream sauces you do need the dairy, but for most other cuisines there are plenty of suitable, if not better, ingredients.

    Also salt, if you need to add the extra salt you're not cooking it right. At home my salt grinder is only used to season a steak, when I can afford it.

  • But we don't need to go behind closed doors, it's on the teevee! Just one episode of Paula Cream Cheese Deen's cooking show will make you marvel at the power of statins.

  • I worked in the restaurant business most of my life; now I am a food critic. Oh Ed, you have much right, but much is missing from your analysis as well.

    1. Are chefs and professional cooks in general more skilled than you? Yes. Yes they are. I know you did admit that there is skill involved, but it really is genuine. Is your accountant more skilled than you at doing your taxes? Of course! Are you better at teaching than I? I certainly hope so. Years of training and experience and talent if you have it all go into it and aren't without effect. So, it isn't just using more fats.

    2. Do restaurants use more butter/heavycream/fats? Depends on the restaurant. (Not if it's Asian, for instance!!) For most "American" food, at most Chains, yes, they use a ton of fat, usually for deep frying. At Chef-owned fancy places, it's true there is no obsessing about calories going on, but the amount used is similar to what one might use at home. In a fancy restaurant, a cream sauce WILL be made with cream. In a chain, it will often be made with Crisco, and a lot more likely to result in eventual health problems. That is one reason food critics tend to hate chains: Chains ALWAYS use the cheapest possible ingredients, with added chemicals to mask the dreadful flavors that result from using overheated fats and canned sauces and canned vegetables. SOME chains prepackage meals at factories to be microwaved in plastic bags when the food is ordered, to completely eliminate waste. Do I have to tell you what a cancer sandwich that is? It isn't just some kind of weird snobbery to NOT recommend eating at chains. If you could be a fly on the wall at their corporate meetings or in their kitchens, you would advise others to stay away too!

    3. What do chefs do that makes it taste so much better? Well when I was a chef, I had two "secrets": LOTS of onions and garlic, and taking the time to cook things properly. Allums are beneficial to health; most Americans however are AVERSE to taking the time to cook things properly, and I seriously wonder what is WRONG with most/many Americans, particularly grown men, in that they are so very unable to Read a Fucking Cookbook and Follow the DIrections, at least until they grasp the concept of the dish and the chemical reactions that result in the end product. There is a LOT of chemistry to cooking. That is why, when you Don't follow the directions, many dishes FAIL.

    4. Deep-fried foods are bad for you. Oil that has been heated for more than a few minutes begins to break down in to cancer-causing compounds. If you gotta have fried chicken/fish/fries, make them at home and throw the oil away afterward.

    5. The best tasting food is the freshest food made form the best ingredients. You are ALWAYS going to do better at home, especially if you have your own garden and buy from local producers. There are restaurants that take these concepts to heart, and you can have GREAT, nutritious meals at them. They COST a lot though!

    Because (DUH) THE BEST TASTING FRESHEST INGREDIENTS COST MORE THAN THE BARELY FIT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION GARBAGE MOST RESTAURANTS USE. If the food you eat out is cheaper than what it would cost you to eat the same thing at home, that is the reason. I mean think about it! If a hamburger you eat out costs less than what it would cost you to make a hamburger at home, then they are using much much cheaper ingredients. Much much much cheaper.

    In China, for example, small farmers often have a water pool, in which they breed shrimp. Suspended above the pool, are chickens in cages. The chickens poop into the shrimp's water. The shrimp live entirely on poop. THose shrimp are CHHEEEAAAPPPP!!!!

  • Overlady,

    Good ingredients, fresh ingredients, whether putting a chop under a grill (fast) or simmering to get all the flavor from ox cheek (slow): ain't no other way. Amen.

    I'm a very good cook and almost never use either butter (lots of top quality olive oil, though) or cream.

    Everyone should be able to grow some tomatoes and herbs in vases: that's a start.

  • Cooking with restraint is indeed the reason why home cooking can be so ridiculously bland. It's also why I started cooking with butter or with heavy cream when indicated. I don't use much of it–two people here go through a pint of heavy cream every three weeks or so–but it really does make a world of difference.

  • Also salt, if you need to add the extra salt you’re not cooking it right.

    Or, I should point out, if you want it to taste salty – it does still keep a few of our taste buds busy. I'll also put in a good word for the tastes creamy and buttery – one of life's great pleasures. My personal mystery is why anything needs a cup of sugar in it.

    I'd also like to add that one thing that makes good restaurants really good is making a decent stock. Have at it home cooks.

  • I completely agree with all save your last point about unhealthy food being less damaging that alcohol and drugs. According to reports by the CDC, obesity is tackling tobacco as the leading cause of preventable death in the US.

    citation: Ali H. Mokdad, PhD; James S. Marks, MD, MPH; Donna F. Stroup, PhD, MSc; Julie L. Gerberding, MD, MPH. Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000. JAMA. 2004;291:1238-1245

    Yes, I know this report is old, but the obesity epidemic has only gotten worse since then. It will someday soon probably be the leading cause of preventable death in the US, worse than everything you mentioned including Glee.

  • As a self-admitted "foodie" as well as a Southerner by birth, I must come to the defense of the caricaturing of Southern cuisine as so unhealthy. Lard is not unhealthy, in and of itself. Heavy cream, butter, sugar, even in liberal doses, are not, in and of themselves, unhealthy. That goes double for bacon (or any other cut of pork) or beef or cheese or eggs. I currently eat all of those things and more, and on a daily basis, without any negative effects. Indeed, I'm healthier (according to my doctor) than I was in college, when I was a college athlete.

    One of the main points many modern commentators miss is that most people simply do not maintain the level of activity that even out parents maintained. Aside from the sheer destruction we as a society have waged upon our food supply, making it ever more commercialized and industrialized, our activity level (or lack thereof) is the single most important factor regarding our health and obesity epidemic. I grew up on a working farm. We raised red and black Angus cattle (pasture-raised and completely organic before we even knew what the hell that meant), had our own garden (again, completely organic), and had a few horses (which we did not eat, in case you're wondering). The bottom line is, I was significantly more active living and working on a farm than I am now, a graduate student and father of two. I remember often coming in from doing my chores and scarfing down 700-800 calories worth of food per meal, not to mention several hundred more for a couple of snacks throughout the day, never gaining so much as a pound as a result. All of this food was made using real local ingredients, and little care was given to whether something had too many calories or whether our portions were too large You ate because you were hungry. You were hungry because you worked your ass off doing heavily physical labor.

    While I, like many of you, am disgusted completely with chains like The Cheesecake Factory, it is simply the lack of activity that makes such portions so grossly inappropriate.

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