Heat And The Home

by the other theo

Alton Brown linked to an article on the F*x News web site on the Blue and White social network today:

restaurant_food

I know that this article was shared with Mr. Brown on his Wall yesterday because he was called out and paraphrased in it.   Perhaps he likes it.  As a culinary school graduate and food show producer, perhaps he agrees with it.

Now, I have zero personal experience in a restaurant kitchen and haven’t been to culinary school.  I watch a lot and I read a fair amount.  I’m a fan of food science.   So what I’m about to say is probably armchair quarterbacking of the highest magnitude:

This article scores kind of high on the “bovine scatology (BS)” meter.

Speaking as someone who is trained as an engineer and a scientist and who loves to cook, I believe focuses too much on ingredients and presentation.  The use of salt, fat, and shallots to increase flavor only applies to home cooks who actively eschew such ingredients.  The implication is that somehow we could all churn out restaurant quality food if we just had better recipes and a little more time.

I think that Bill Buford’s book “Heat” does a much better job of discussing why restaurant food tastes different (or at least a more appealing one, to my mind.)   Mr. Buford’s thesis is that the differences are more driven by the process of commercial cooking.   Simply put, restaurants cook at a larger scale than home cooks ever will, and that has secondary effects.  There is more opportunity for flavorful fond to develop on pans that cook several batches of meat or bones.  Pasta water accumulates starch and lends flavor as the night goes on.   Meat is dry aged in the walk-in.   Sauces (or their components) and other ingredients are made ahead and allowed to age before final assembly.   Restaurants are able to buy better ingredients (USDA prime vs. choice) in different portions (whole steaks or roasts) with greater freshness than home cooks get at the supermarket.  Finally, restaurant cookbooks are at best an approximation that transforms recipes that are notes by professional cooks on a commercial process to feed dozens into a list of ingredients and procedure that feeds 6-8 people.

The use of hot ovens and homemade stocks gets closer to what Buford talks about, but it is not the whole picture.   The overall thrust is not even close.

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