Restaurant Quality Meals at Home

by Adam on July 3, 2013

I was eating out with a friend of mine the other night at a relatively new restaurant in San Francisco. There was a relatively limited menu of Southern-inspired foods, and we both opted for a mix of grits and fried chicken, which ended up being both an amazingly unhealthy and delicious choice. Offhandedly, my friend remarked on the amount of butter they must’ve used to get the kind of flavor out of both the chicken and the grits that they did. And indeed, once I took note and tried again, the butter played a palpable role as a central ingredient.

We’ve known for a long time what butter can do to make a meal. One only has to look to the age of Julia Child to know that butter has long been a companion to any home cook (although she was also known to liberally enlist cream in her culinary exploits when needed). But, with the focus on healthy eating and also an interest from consumers to begin taking back their home cooking, it’s surprising to me to realize that the world of restaurant hospitality is still largely veiled from the eyes of the public.

Sure, we’ve had advancements in some places. I can tell you that I don’t order mochas as often as I used to from Starbucks, knowing now that they are 280 calories a cup (I pegged them somewhere closer to 150 when I was a habitual drinker, but call me conservative). And, even flying on Virgin America, ordering off their touchscreen menu I can make decisions about what to eat based on fat, calorie, carb and protein contents that are displayed with each meal. But, to me, all of this isn’t enough, because I think if we truly knew what went into our food, especially the stuff that comes out of restaurant kitchens and tastes oh-so-good, we probably would stop and be more thoughtful about what we are putting into our bodies.

This trend in restaurant cooking has two main effects — the first, as I’ve noted above, is health-based. Using an entire stick of butter in a particular dish is not only unhealthy, but it trains the body’s taste receptors to become accustomed to increased levels of salt and fat, which is problematic as it relates to conditioning good eating habits. The second, and perhaps more unfortunate, result is that the idea of “creating restaurant quality at home” is all but impossible without substantial amounts of salt, butter, fat and oil, which I’m sure most cooks would be reluctant to add to their meals. Now, I’m not saying that every meal made at home has to be like dining out at Per Se, but in the face of obesity epidemics, major health problems and more, both in our adults and young children alike, we need to empower people to take control of their eating and help them understand what food should taste like.

Restaurant chefs have a strong role to play in this world, both through education and practice. A few theoretical guidelines that could go a long way towards helping with these issues:

  • Menus could offer a range of preparation options, with the opportunity for consumers to opt for lower fat/calorie preparations through steaming or poaching rather than sautéing.
  • Chefs can find alternative ingredients, herbs and spices to add to dishes in order to bring out new flavors and reduce their reliance on salt as a main flavoring agent.
  • Restaurants should offer information on cooking practice, ingredient sourcing and quality. Some new and up-and-coming restaurants are starting to do this, but it should be standard practice and should also offer transparency about what exactly is in your next meal.

 

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