The Cost of Good Food and The Sysco Problem

You get what you pay for,  generally.

I’m fascinated by commenters on Steve Barnes’ Table Hopping blog that complain about the cost of food in some restaurants as compared to others. The complaining is clearly done by people who are comparing apples to oranges, or actually frozen salmon portions from Sysco to fresh Copper River salmon. Also from people who fail to see the difference between the work of an inexperienced kitchen worker and the effort and design of a well-trained and experienced chef. I ask myself why these people do not see the difference. I think I’ve figured it out, and it’s not the fault of low-end dining establishments. It’s the fault of Sysco-driven apparently high-end dining establishments.

Don’t get me wrong, using Sysco does not mean you’ll have a bad restaurant with cheap, poor quality food. In fact, there are some very good restaurants in the area that use them. Sysco has a full line of excellent products that any chef would be proud to use. While I do not use them at The Wine Bar I have used them at various restaurants I have worked for and can tell you that their produce is superior to all local produce companies. They do such high volume that things are always fresh. Their packaging options for produce are also very good.  They are also one of the only area vendors for Certified Angus beef, which accounts for only 8% of Angus beef raised in the US. I’ve purchased grade A lobes of Hudson Valley foie gras, truffles, excellent olive oils, and true San Marzano tomatoes from them.

Yes, they have many great high-end products to choose from, but the bulk of their offerings are low-end crap. That is where chefs get into trouble. The selection of convenience items is countless and can be an open invitation to laziness and cost-cutting.  Sure, French onion soup with freshly made beef stock is great, but most people are satisfied with soup made with beef base, full of salt and chemicals. It sure is a shitload easier than making stock the right way and sure is cheaper than paying someone to make it. So screw it, buy the base and you’ve got soup in a jiffy. Save a few bucks on cheese, use the bread from the tables that people don’t eat for croutons and there you have it, French onion soup for $8.00. Utter junk and over-priced, but most people can’t tell how it tastes because they’re too busy fighting the pound of stringy molten cheese searing their double chins.

So that’s the problem. Chefs, kitchen managers, and chinchy owners trying to save time and money only to feed people who don’t know the difference anyhow, the people complaining on Table Hopping about the price of a meal at an actually good restaurant that uses good quality products from good quality producers that they’ll never eat in.

Now I’m not talking about tavern and pub kinda places where I expect lower prices, and lower quality food. They can be quite satisfying with the right mind-set, and there are exceptions to the rule.  I’m taking issue with the places that pass themselves off as fine dining or higher quality restaurants but use Sysco or US Foods convenience items and pass their work off as top-notch cheffing.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of convenience items and cheaper versions of good Gruyère when making French onion soup and many other things. If you’re going to claim high standards, use vendors that show you are using great products, pay a little more, and deliver on your promise. Only until then can we start to educate the public on the difference between a previously frozen water-packed scallop and a fresh dry-packed scallop. Perhaps then we can raise the bar by allowing them to taste and learn the difference between powdered demi glacé and sauce bordelaise made with veal stock reduction, good-for-drinking red wine, quality tomato paste, and fresh thyme. If we keep allowing, and championing those who take quality-diminishing short cuts and fail to show that bad food is just that, then we deserve the comments on Table Hopping questioning the cost of food.

Afternoon Thoughts

Writing a menu in fancy script will not make the food better.

There’s nothing wrong from using some stuff off of a SYSCO truck. There is something wrong with using most stuff off of a SYSCO truck.

When I design a menu I do not think vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free. I think about food I want to make and food that tastes good. I simply don’t feel responsible for people’s voluntary dietary restrictions.

Aside from the pizzas and hamburger, the majority of my current menu is gluten-free.

Don’t buy pre-made food, powdered demi glace, powdered hollandaise, put sriracha in Hellman’s mayonnaise, and throw soup base in things and tell me you’re cooking.

We need more cooks and fewer chefs.

I cook far more vegetarian friendly in the Spring and Summer.

I’m starting to get some Spring menu items on paper.

Soft-shell crabs are on paper.

The Issues with SYSCO and The Cost of Food  hopefully will publish tonight.

I couldn’t imagine spending a weekend getting my picture taken.

There’s a fine line between art and business.

You can have several flaws in your food and still be rated above average.

We’re going to look at a house later tonight,  it’s in Schuylerville.

I suppose big portions are back in style.

Houses in Schuylerville are much cheaper than in Saratoga.

I’m thinking about bone marrow hollandaise. I’m obsessed with bone marrow.

Facebook is free.

Have you checked out http://www.fussylittleblog.com ?

After I retire I’ll tell you the dirtiest kitchen I’ve ever walked into. The owner didn’t care that it was filthy and the refrigeration was barely working.

Grappa 72 has an extremely clean kitchen.

I received zero violations on my most recent health inspection.

A Quick Short.

“I’m sorry, we are out of the cavatelli tonight. I do hear the other two selections are very good.”

Sometimes I leave work items (like menus) on the kitchen table and my 2 and 4 year-old kids scribble on them.

Actually, my 4 year-old knows better.

I listened to Smokey Robinson at work a lot recently. Not everyone noticed.

Have I mentioned that the current lamb dish at The Wine Bar is excellent?

Beer.

I like beagles named Sam. I’ve had several.

Sometimes the service in a restaurant makes the food seem better than it is.

I don’t think it matters what kind of shoes I wear.

Sometimes the food in a restaurant makes the service seem better than it is.

Stubborn dogs those beagles.

Combine 1 cup of peanut butter, 1 cup of sugar, and 1 egg.  Bake as for peanut butter cookies. You’ll be flabbergasted.

More beer.

Morbier.

I never see vim without vigor.

I am sometimes reminded of the children’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes when it comes to restaurants.

I do see vigor without vim.

The food service industry is one business that if you don’t really want to be in can be very difficult. Especially if you’re sensitive.

I don’t mind raising my own children. In fact, I enjoy it.

I’m just not into raising other people’s children, especially if they’re grown up.

I’m going to make something for Chowderfest that very few people make. Clam chowder.

As I prepare my staff for my 6-8 week recovery from my foot surgery, I also contemplate what sort of project I can tackle.

I enjoy this blog, so I think I’ll upgrade it from my free space on WordPress, and make it more attractive. I also need to upgrade my personal profile.

I had my first negative comment to this blog yesterday by an individual who doesn’t know me, doesn’t understand sarcasm, and didn’t read the post carefully. Yup, it’s a real blog now.

Meat cures veganism.

I’ve run up Mt. Marcy more that once, now I have a big belly. What in the name of Hell happened?

Beer.

More beer.

 

 

 

500 words, some explained, some not.

Initiative often needs to be mandated.

Joan is back.  My Wednesday helper Joan Dembinski is home from Italy. Her company on Wednesdays is priceless.

My mixer is back too.  We make dough for bread, pizza, crackers, and rye rolls. The mixer has been out for repair several weeks. Guess how we’ve been making dough. 

We don’t all have to do ramen. Do we?

Same people, same stuff, different year.

When I walk into a restaurant and I see the staff on their phones texting I get a good feeling. I’m led to believe since they have a lot of friends and are very sociable, I’ll get friendly and warm service.

Mehmet had a little lamb. I suspect he had more than Mary.

I say many things in a condescending way.

Servers should have sense, not scents.

Good food costs money. Good food well prepared by professionals costs even more money.

Capriccio Saratoga has a real wood-fired oven.  Sometimes places have gas ovens that look like wood fired ovens. Tossing a log into it does not make it a wood-fired oven, it makes it a gas-fired oven with a log in it.

Contrary to what many people believe, most restaurant owners are not “raking it in.”

When I’m cooking I (in my mind) refer to Jim Rua often. I also refer to Thomas Keller. They couldn’t be more different.

I’m working on a post about food cost, and the cost of food.  Wait and see.

I have some very good ideas, I just need help getting them off the ground.  We all need help with our ideas in one form or another.

The date of my foot surgery is February 18th. I will be back better than ever about six weeks after that.

I have absolutely no interest in soccer.

Ruby, one of my favorite servers at The Wine Bar has left for Oregon. I’m going to miss her. She understood my passion and put up with my shit.  Crystal understands too.

There’s a $26 hamburger in Saratoga.  There’s also a $1 burger in Saratoga.

Every once in a bit someone posts on Facebook that they’ve lost their phone. We never lost our phones when we kept them on a wire.

When the road you are on has people driving in the wrong direction, you’re on the wrong road. Find the road with people going the same way as you.  You’ll travel easier and get farther.

Ric Orlando and Jim Rua have been using kale since day one.

Now trending……………?

I remember having to special order “eating”  kale 12 years ago, or I’d get a box of hideous garnish.

Braised pheasant is not trending right now, but it is delicious and available at The Wine Bar

Be inspired by others, not influenced by others. Yes, there is a difference.

Asparagus, ramps, fava beans. I can’t wait.  Oh, the feeling of the warm Spring sun on my face and on my food.

If it’s not edible, leave it off the plate.

Back to Snippets, I Guess

It seems common to see “we use only the finest ingredients” on take-out pizza menus.

Oregon’s defensive line is porous.

Server comes into the kitchen Friday night. “Chef, I’ve got a vegetarian on 11 who wants to know what you can make her.”  Well, since she had to have a special dish made just for her, I told the server to have her treat the menu as a list of ingredients that I could put with some fresh pasta I had made. She did, I did and all seemed fine until she was eating a slice of the sausage and rapini pizza her dining companion had ordered.

I wish we had a bigger pizza oven, we can only do two at a time. We make very good pizza.

Cats.

The new menu is doing well, everything is selling to my satisfaction.

I thought Oregon had an explosive offense.

There’s a difference between memorizing something and knowing something.

I’m thinking about a Spring menu already.

Tacos are coming back for WTF? (Wed, Thu, Fri) Happy Hour. This week we’ll have duck confit with hoisin and kimchee, crispy monkfish with spicy slaw, and ancho pork with black beans and cremé fraiche.

I haven’t made ravioli in a while, perhaps I’ll have time this week.

Yoga pants.

I eat a tremendous amount of eggs.

I recently had the best Manhattan  that I’ve ever had out.

Hand made orecchiette will be one of the selections for this week’s (Wednesday) pasta night.

I recently had the worst Manhattan I’ve ever had.

I make great Manhattans at home.

No, I do not like “vegetarians” in general.

I likely drink too many Manhattans.

Upon Further Review

I read anything I can that has to do with the local restaurant scene including the almost-weekly reviews in the Times Union.

I’ve had no issues with the latest reviews by the newest TU reviewer, until yesterday. Until then, I had assumed that she was well qualified to publicly assess the area’s dining establishments, but after some missteps in the review of Three Vines Bistro here in Saratoga I’m skeptical.

Now, I have no ax to grind with this restaurant, and based on the what I’ve heard, they do a fairly nice job. Since I’ve not been to Three Vines, and I cannot and will not be able to comment directly on their food or service.

There were several clear technical errors by the reviewer that were glaring, at least to me. I cannot point them all out as I wish without calling the restaurant out on some obvious (to me) issues. It is policy on this blog, and for me in general not to discuss shortcomings of specific restaurants and chefs. We all have flaws, and I would rather focus on my own.

One error I can mention is when talking about the fish special, baked haddock oreganata, the reviewer made reference to juicy diced bruschetta. Am I to assume there was wet toast on the fish? Bruschetta refers to grilled or toasted bread. It comes from the Italian verb bruscare, meaning to to char over hot coals. It is sometimes topped with tomatoes and basil but can be topped with anything. Again, it refers to the toast, or the little burnt ones as the etta (suffix for small or little) creates. I don’t expect a reviewer in Albany, NY to know the origin of the word, but I do expect her to know the meaning. This state of being misinformed leads to dishes called Tuscan Chicken Bruschetta at Olive Garden.

Perhaps I can chalk up this week’s inaccuracies to a bad week.  We all have off days and we’re not up to our usual level of performance. I do however feel like the public and published criticism of restaurants is important, and needs to be done by a sharp-eyed professional. I will withhold final judgement of this reviewer until a clear pattern is established.

Short Stuff

I respect someone’s personal choice to be a vegan, but I do not respect them when they show up to a packed dining room on New Year’s Eve at 7:30 and want to know what I can do for them. Since there are some vegan items on the menu, and since I know nothing about them and what they might like, I find it very difficult to prepare a special menu when I’m elbow deep in other tables. In the future, call ahead, let me know you’re coming in for dinner and we can have a conversation and be able to put something  together that we’ll both be happy with.

When I present a new menu, and give the servers a detailed menu guide several days prior to the launch, and make myself available for further questions, I get very irritated when one comes into the kitchen during service two days after the launch to ask which of the three desserts we offer are gluten-free.

The highlight of this quiet Friday night was cooking for a couple that came in late, after the kitchen was cleaned up, and a minute or two into my shift beer. They had just driven three hours from NYC and were looking for a meal. As I stood at the stove cooking their much-needed dinner I said to myself “this is what I do.” They said everything was perfect. It was for both of us.

I still want a dog.

The new lamb dish is spectacular.

Chowderfest is coming up. There’s one thing I dislike more than Restaurant Week and it’s Chowderfest. I have no interest in winning as I’m more interested in the day-to-day operation of the restaurant. Chowderfest is a waste of my energy, and my time is better spent doing things to improve my kitchen.

I’m gonna make a taco feast at home on Sunday. I’ll likely eat eight tacos.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m going to have foot surgery soon. I need both feet done but cannot have them both done at one time so I’ve been trying to determine which one hurts worse. It switches from day-to-day. Today the left food was pretty bad.

I am thankful for the support from other bloggers. I have received useful advice, encouragement, and exposure.

I am a tremendously competitive. Except in obligatory food festivals.

I sometimes think about opening up a high-end dining counter so I can cook and serve.  This would eliminate the need for servers.

Great, I’m doing a snippets bit. Completely unintentional.  I intend to find my way in this blogging thing.

I find there are chefs and restaurants doing some work with smoke and mirrors. Keep it real. More in 15 years.

Maybe 12.

As I think about the career I’ve had, I’m not satisfied. I spent too much time fucking around. I’ve been working hard on righting that ship. 2015 is gonna be big for me as I’m taking a real run at something great.

2014, New Menu, 2015

2014 was an interesting year to say the least. At the end of January, I left The Wine Bar for Thirsty Owl only to find it was a mistake, and I was lucky enough to be able to return a short time later (this story is in line for another post).

The Spring and Summer were pretty uneventful except that Jenny and I got a new car. Another Volkswagen. Diesel, of course.

We took a family vacation in September to the Massachusetts coast and stayed in a yurt for a week.196 One of the days we took the kids [2 year old Tate and 4 year old Stella (named after the beer)] to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game. They lasted 7 innings, the Sox starter lasted 4.256

Stella’s birthday was October 7th, and we took her and Tate to Phila Fusion for sushi, and to the Children’s Museum. She seemed a bit off that day. That night she woke up vomiting and was sick for the next month, including 5 days at Albany Med. For a period of at least 3 weeks she slept for 18-20 hours daily. All good now.

Christmas was fun, the kids were very excited.

That takes us to the present. I launched a new menu on New Year’s Eve. I was told I was crazy for doing that on such a busy night, but I just said “what the fuck” and did it anyway. New year, new menu I thought.

We nailed it. A great effort by the entire Wine Bar team. Here it is.

Starters

Warm Nut Medley – sweet and salty almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans  7

Mushroom Soup – cauliflower crema, walnut oil  8

Kale Salad – feta, pomegranate, grapes, lemon vinaigrette  9

Roasted Beets – whipped chevre, tarragon and orange, grapefruit, pistachios  8

Parisian Gnocchi – ragout of duck confit, mushrooms, Parmesan  11

Sweetbreads – Spinach, raisins, pine nuts, whole-grain mustard and sherry gastrique  12

Mediterranean Sampler –  Hummus   Warm Olives   Caponata   6 each, all for 15

 

Cheese and Charcuterie

8 each, three for 22

Gorgonzola Picante/Italy/Cow   Camembert/Hudson Valley/Sheep   Garrotxa/Spain/Goat   Morbier/France/Cow

Country Pâté   Sopressata   Speck   Duck Liver Pâté with Truffle

Pizzas

Four Cheeses – San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella, Asiago, Gorgonzola, smoked provolone  10

Rapini and Sausage – rapini, house-made hot fennel sausage, San Marzano tomatoes  12

Entrees

Monkfish Cassoulet – roasted monkfish, seafood sausage, cannellini beans, red cabbage  14/27

Red Snapper Casuella – snapper fillet, tomato-orange and coriander broth, fennel, potatoes, olives  13/25

Tangerine Duck – crispy breast, tangerine, brandy, and green peppercorn sauce, Lyonnaise sweet potatoes  14/27

Turkish Lamb Duo –  seared loin, spiced lamb cigar, cumin scented jus, spicy pilaf, grilled eggplant, yogurt  17/33

Pheasant alla Cacciatora – slow simmered legs, mushrooms, mirepoix, faro polenta, rapini  15/29

Porcini Crusted Beef Tenderloin – Pan roasted mignon, truffle buttered potatoes, bordelaise, braised leeks  16/31

Desserts

Dark Chocolate Pâté – Toasted Almonds, brandied cherries, cherry compote  9

Cardamom Panna Cotta – Figs and honey  9

Brioche Bread Pudding – Bananas, walnuts, bourbon caramel  9

934

Yes, I’m still doing the burger. Short rib, chuck, and brisket blend, pastrami cured bacon, Swiss cheese, Dijon aioli, fresh baked rye roll, duck fat fries, house-made catsup, and our own pickles.

We had an old friend staying with us for the holidays. Jim Beam. I think he’s leaving tonight.

2015. I feel something big on the way, not quite sure what, but I’m gonna narrow it down.

My main goals, cookin’ related are the following:

Work with more precision, use more intelligent garnishes, and increase the honesty of my food.  Working with more precision is self-explanatory, at least to me. I want to develop more consistency and cleaner plating, with everything on the plate making sense. No microgreens and no radish slices. I want to think outside the box more, with Mediterranean flavors as a guide. I’ve played it safe for a long time. And finally, the honesty of the food. Better ingredients, no crap.

One last thing. I’m scheduling foot surgery within the month, I’ll be out 6-8 weeks. I have severe bunions and heel spurs that are causing me a great deal of constant pain. I have a very able kitchen staff that can execute the current menu, and I’ll be back better than ever for a very exciting Spring menu. I am more motivated than ever, and promise my best work is ahead of me. As some of you know, I was a competitive long-distance runner for about 15 years, running an average of 70 miles weekly, with many weeks of 100 or more miles. Not joggin’ miles. Hard miles.

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Add 18 years of restaurant work, and well, I’m sore. The doc will fix me up, and I’ll have some “on my back” time to plan, then y’all will benefit from my time off. guaranteed. 2015 will be big, It’s my year.