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.