Friday, October 06, 2006

You Get What You Pay For - Food Thoughts

I ended up paying my massage therapist a visit yesterday (a Mrs. L Days treat), and during the massage I was conversing with her (it was at 10:00 am, and too early to sleep on the table). We were discussing my recent crappy restaurant visit, and shared our thoughts about fine dining versus eating cheap.

We decided we should boycott cheap chain restaurants.

The conclusion was drawn because we were talking about restaurant quality, food quality, chef skill, and food quantity versus cost. Consider, if you will, the difference between the expensive upscale restaurant in your town and your typical Red Robin's (or any other similar type of grubberie):

At the former, you get quality fresh gourmet food prepared by skilled, trained chefs who have been educated in the art of food design; they make most things from scratch, fresh every day. The kitchen environment is sterile and clean, and so is your food. You get reasonable portions that aren't excessive, but are actually properly portioned according to federal food guides. You enjoy eating the lovely fare in a clean and aesthetically-pleasing environment, and you go home feeling satisfied, without paying for it with your waistline in the morning.

At the latter, you get medium-grade food at best, prepared by line cooks who were hired through the local classified ads or the sign out in the window;
these folks have not attended culinary school, and some may not yet have finished high school. Your food is "prepared" in the kitchen, but really half of the sauce mixes come from a can and most of the food is in bags in the freezer; the process of preparation really amounts to little more than dumping stuff in the deep fryer or on the grill, and adding water and mixing. The kitchen is a place you'd rather not know about, because its cleanliness is questionable and if you complain about the food, there is always the chance that someone will spit in it and high-five their buddies in the back. What you lack in quality you make up for in quantity though - portions are huge, enough to add a few pounds to your frame or at the very least, make you incredibly sick if you eat the whole dang thing. You enjoy your grub in a slightly-tacky, loud environment that is questionable in terms of its cleanliness, and you go home feeling kind of gross for having eaten there.

Of course, you get what you pay for. The former will usually run you over $25 per entree, not including your wine or your appetizers or your dessert, all of which you will have because your portions will be satisfyingly small. The latter will cost you about $15 (including your non-stop pop and all-you-can-eat french fries), but of course you will be too full for "starters" or dessert after devouring that heap of deep-fried/grilled goodness.

So, as my RMT and I were hashing out our ideas, we figured that it makes sense to save up a little longer and go to the fancy upscale dining place (her man works at one of those), rather than eat more frequently at a lesser food place. Your wallet may love you, but not your waistline or your health! Besides, people go out to eat for the convenience and novelty of the experience, so the idea ought to be to go somewhere and eat something that you could not have made on your own. And when you think about it, anything deep fried you could probably do at home and do better than Red Robins anyway, non?

**(We decided, however, that ethnic restaurants do not apply to this theory, because quality ethnic food is oft prepared in less-than-stellar kitchen conditions).


D'Arcy from Winnipeg said...

Oh you poor poor're living in a Food Network Fantastyland I fear.

Working for ego-prone chefs at higher end places definately does not translate into cleanliness, freshness, or artistic merrit. There are many chain restaurants that have high standards for cleanliness (and some that don't) just like there are some high-end non chains that are quite dirty.

If you haven't, definately pick up Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and Heat by Bill Buford. They give excellent, true-life glimpses of what its like to work in non-chain kitchens, and what really goes on there (i.e. in Heat, Mario Botalli talks about a dish they do where its he leftover organs from a bird stuffed in pastry...the clients love it, and they don't realize how "cheap" it is to yes, its fresh...but profit is still the goal, not necessary artistic fullfillment).


Mrs. Loquacious said...

First of all, Darcy - I don't respect Mario Botalli (Iron Chef or not) and would *never* eat in his restaurant. I'm talking nice Rob Feenie-type upscale restaurants, and I'm pretty sure he is anal enough to keep his kitchen spotless.

Our fave restaurant in town, Lux, has as their corporate chef (former head chef) Paul Shufelt, who we've met and spoken with, and who is also pretty dang anal about his cuisine (and quite likely, his kitchen).

Finally, my RMT's guy is one of the chefs at Riverside Bistro, a nicer dining place in a hotel; I am assured that he, too, is very particular about making his food as artsy and fabulous as possible. He is also very much concerned about kitchen cleanliness.

For sure some of the pricier places have ego-prone chefs and less-than-sterile kitchens, but I would still sooner eat there than at some of these chain restaurants that hire students and non-culinary-art majors. I have known friends (business majors needing a job during university) who worked as cooks at Red Robin, and I kid you not they swear they will NEVER eat there again. That tells me a lot.

superstarjo said...

Totally disagree with you. Have you checked out the Journal's restaurant database, where you can search each restaurant by name, and see what their latest health inspection is like? Even the fancy restaurants, such as Manor Cafe, have had citations for bad food storage or improper sanitation. But if you check out, for example, McDonalds near my place, you'll find they have a clean bill of health on more than one occasion.

Many chain restaurants have a list of duties that MUST be completed each night. Pizza Hut for example, has a whole list of what needs to be done before each closing shift. It includes washing each dining room chair down in a vinegar solution, and then using a different rag to wash the table tops. That eliminated cross contamination. And every Sunday, they sterilize every single one of their cups/cutlery in a bleach solution, and they wash out every salt, pepper, parmesaen cheese shaker in the restaurant. I bet if you walked into a fancy restaurant and asked when the last time was that they sterilized their shakers, the answer would be, "not since I've worked here."

Ontario Emperor said...

If the sole criterion is cleanliness, then there are some places, both chain and non-chain, that will excel, and there are other places, both chain and non-chain, that will not. In addition to McDonalds, Disney comes to mind as a place with a clean reputation.

As time goes on, I'm becoming more and more convinced that if you buy cheap, you get what you pay for, and if you pay more, you don't always get what you pay for. Case in point - I've always veered toward Sony in electronics to make sure I got high quality instead of schlock, but after my TV failed just after warranty expired, I'm not so sure about that choice.

Mrs. Loquacious said...

Evidently my post has hit a few nerves! ;)

Obviously I speak in generalizations about cleanliness, quality, and atmosphere, and certainly there are exceptions to every rule. However, my experience is that you definitely get what you pay for when you go to the lower-end chain places; I am sure there are stellar exceptions but as a general rule, you cannot afford to have high expectations for standards of excellence there, because that isn't what you are paying for.

If you find a bug in your salad or a hair in your pasta, don't complain too loudly because you only paid a whopping $7.99 for that "entree."

Which was my point all along.

Catherine_Jane said...

I worked at Pizza Hut back in the day and nobody put much pride in their jobs nor did they adhere to the corporate list of "closing duties." The kitchen people were mostly scary and most of the servers weren't much better. Having seen the food prep and menu ingredients - I am deathly afraid to ever eat there again... even after almost 10 years.

Mrs. Loquacious said...

Good point, CJ! I am actually not a big fan of Pizza Hut either, but that's mostly because their crusts literally *drip* with grease and I don't think that's very good for my heart.

But I am sure you've probably seen so many kitchen horrors that you have since repressed most of them in the dark corners of your memory, so I won't ask you to drag them out and give me the gory gross details ;)

D'Arcy from Winnipeg said...

"If you find a bug or a hair in your pasta, don't complain too loudly because you only paid a whopping 7.99 for that 'entree'"

Dis-A-Gree. Any establishment selling food should be held to the same standards whether they're a McDonalds, Pizza Hut, or that fruity Rob Feenie guy.

A $7.99 entree with undercooked chicken has the potential to do just as much harm as the $15.99 chicken. Food safety is food safety, and finding a bug or hair is unacceptable no matter where you eat.

Now if we're talking food quality, absolutely: A McDonald's burger isn't the same as a burger from Moxie's or Earl's. So in that context, you do get what you pay for.

Keep in mind that no matter what type of restaurant they are, they have the same motive: buy food, dress it up, and sell for profit. The fact that they can add "artistic flair" is a bonus of the profession.

Also, to your comment about kitchens hiring off the street anybodys as opposed to experienced cooks or culinary-arts students: The difference between many cooks and a culinary art student is that the culinary art student paid huge sums of money to learn what teh off-the-street guy got paid to learn. Chain restaurants can't be judged based on culinary merit; they aren't designed to. Chain restaurants need to be judged by the staff they hire and the training programs they provide, since most chains have so much equipment to automate cooking that you don't need to know "true" cooking skills. you can tell, I love talking about the restaurant biz. I've always said that if I could make the same money and work the same hours in a restaurant as I can in IT, I'd do it in a heartbeat.


Mrs. Loquacious said...

Food safety *is* crucial, but how likely is it that your food will be gratis and the manager will come personally to your table to apologize profusely (as opposed to kitchen staff who then spit on your second dish of the order) when you complain at the greasy spoon? Again, the horror stories from Red Robin in particular, abound.

As for a different measure of standards between the chains and non-chains, that is a valid point. However, the staff hired and programs implemented are also done by people who were more than likely not trained in the culinary arts (or even in management), so where would the quality be coming from? Most shift leaders I know got their position from being a server for a long time, and getting promoted (like one of the guys who I used to work with at Earls).

Glad you love the restaurant biz so much, Darcy. You and Donald should consider opening one up one day!

Justice~! said...

Wow, what a heated debate, and I see the Olive Garden's head chef has also chimed in! ;)

I actually don't think it's so much an issue of food safety for me as much as it is food quality. I think part of this was brought into sharp focus because of the seeming string of "sit down fast food" places Helen and I have been to this week including Boston Pizza and Montana's, both of which were pretty lame both service wise and food wise. Well, actually, our server was pretty exuberant at Montana's, but you know the deal.

That being said, there are cheaper places that will give you supreme quality as well (Chicken 4 Lunch in Scotia Place, the Indian place that I don't know the name of in Center High) but I think you really have to work to spot those diamonds in the rough. =)

Catherine_Jane said...

I'm going to weigh in again because I tend to think there is a huge balance/imbalance between sketchy places/corporations/high end/ethnic... I've surfed the food industry, as in worked in and amongst it for ...mmm ... 10 years. I have my own quirks as to what in my mind makes a good server - aside from being a bubbly retard who loves crack from planet 18... I won't get into that until asked but man do I have a lot to say!.... Anyways - Pizza Hut = NO - pizza pans were inundated with a layer of oil that equaled Justice's application of hair goop to make himself not just... sexy... .... ultra sexy... so that's a lot of oil ?

So feel free to field - restaurant/hosp[itality questions my way but... as to Justice and his "man products" that aren't sunflower oil, I can't help...

D'Arcy from Winnipeg said...

OMG, could you imagine Donald and I opening up a restaurant?! I've got the perfect concept for it:

We'll call it "Keggers" (referring to how Donald and I both sport a "keg" instead of a six pack) and we'll only hire slightly overweight men and for uniforms they'll have to wear wife-beaters and blue jeans that are 2 sizes too small!

Then for the menu, we'll put together some really fancy salads and stuff, plus some low calorie dishes and such.

And we'll open up right next to a Hooters and put them out of business...its BRILLIANT!


Mrs. Loquacious said...
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