October 30, 2013

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

Home truths

Foodies are constantly on the prowl for inspiration, often from the Internet. I have a friend whose disorganized “food bookmarks” folder on her computer is at least a thousand entries long. To qualify for inclusion in the folder, a recipe needs little more than a stunning photograph attached, or even just a title that “sounds good.”

Chefs use the Internet for inspiration, but not exactly the same way a home cook would. A working chef might peruse the web for answers about sourcing product or conflicting methodologies. Restaurant cooks might surf to settle a bet about ingredient ratios or classic techniques.

What professionals are mostly not doing is looking at food porn sites (like Foodgawker or Tastespotting) for recipes. They might be inspired by a plating idea, or even a loose concept of the ingredient list in a dish they’ve never made, but they are probably not planning to use the actual recipe that yields six servings on some website. A chef can’t necessarily just multiply the recipe’s ingredients by however many servings he’d like to end up with. Especially in baked goods — the chemistry just doesn’t work that way. That’s why professionals use bakers’ percentages and other handy tricks when scaling recipes.

But to leave the vagaries of scaling aside for the moment, how do chefs and kitchen managers decide how much to prep of any given dish, anyway? One does not simply count the chairs in the dining room or look at tonight’s reservation book and then multiply that number by a fourth cup of dry rice and a half cup of water. That way lies madness. And a lot of leftover rice.

Professional production managers have to know the rhythms of their business. They have to know that, given the same number of guests, twice as many people will order an entrée salad at lunch on a Tuesday than at dinner on Friday. They’ve internalized that a six-top of women will eat 1.5 times as much bread as a comparable table of men, and they know during which parts of the dining week the ladies are most likely to be dining with their female friends. This is important knowledge and requires a certain skill and experience level.

Now, if a restaurant is brand new, managers can use past experience as a guideline, but truly, a lot of bets are off. Atmosphere, feng shui, traffic patterns, service levels, pre-opening buzz — all of these can and do contribute to consumption patterns, and sometimes a new establishment just has to ride the currents of opening madness until that typical rhythm is established. During opening cycles, there is often a lot of angst about how long that box of lettuce mix is going to last, or whether we’re going to run out of strawberries again tonight.

So when you see that gorgeous photo on the Internet of the plaid basket-weave handmade ravioli (Look, honey, you can use beet juice and parsley juice to color the pasta strips!) or the individual apple cobblers with the bouquets of shaved-apple rosettes on the top, don’t ask yourself why they don’t make them at your favorite spot. Some presentations are just too ethereal to be practical.

I’m sure we’d all rather have startlingly fresh romaine and amazingly crispy house-made croutons in our Caesar salad than a weirdly floppy chocolate tuille (which smells of the walk-in) stabbed into our ice cream.

Naturally, there will always be a handful of restaurants where you can get the frou-frou presentations maxed out, but you have to ask yourself how successful those presentations really are, up close. Beautiful scrollwork made with a house-made raspberry coulis might look good underneath your napoleon, but was it worth a 20-minute ticket time? Or did some commis chef do the raspberry scrollwork on the plate yesterday afternoon at 2, only to stack the dessert plates Lincoln Log style in the walk-in for easy access, and never mind the condensation? If so, that coulis is now a gummy nightmare with the consistency of Elmer’s Glue.

So, don’t be too disappointed when the ravioli isn’t plaid, or the sauces and garnishes on your plate can be counted on one hand instead of two hands and an open-toed pump. Chances are, the fewer things on your plate that have to be placed there by tweezers and ring molds, the better your food will taste.

That doesn’t mean you can’t try the plaid ravioli at home for Thanksgiving. I’ll be over around 12:30 p.m., and I’ll bring a caulking gun full of herbed goat cheese, just in case.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, and Café Lou Lou.

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