September 22, 2009
At Alcatraz Brewing Company, an American-style brasserie in Orange, CA, the atmosphere evokes the cool, foggy San Francisco Bay. But in the kitchen, where Executive Chef Michael Miller keeps it cooking, things get much hotter. Located just miles from Disneyland, Angel Stadium and Honda Center, the restaurant and brewery sees ample traffic. Some days, we can do 250 covers at lunch, Miller says. On Friday and Saturday nights, it varies, but its usually about 600 covers.
Ive definitely built the menu around what we can do and cant do, Miller continues, and one dish his crew can do quite well is a small plate of dark-ale smoked ribs with house-made hoisin barbecue sauce. Its a tricky item, he says, because people know ribs. They know when theyre not getting the real deal.
We have a 24-hour marinade time, plus a four-hour cook time, plus a cool time, Miller says. We also have to have enough product on hand not to run out. Even with a staff member dedicated to its two-day prep, he adds, it is one of those menu items that we talk about every single day together in the kitchen. Do we need to get two cases marinating for tomorrow? One case? Do we need to get one in the smoker now? Thats definitely one of the challenges I have here.
Yet in keeping with his motto, Keep it simple and make it from scratch, Miller meets the challenge. Its hard, but thats my job.
Sometimes chefs could use a helping hand with certain menu itemsas long as any cost- and time-cutting measures dont compromise quality.
Chefs at the helm of major foodservice operations are a unique breed, tempering artistic passion with hardheaded business acumen. Everybodys pressured on costs, says William (Bill) Schoenleb, corporate executive chef, CF Chefs, Inc., Dallas. People are forced to make decisions on how critical a particular ingredient and its functionality are to the finished product: Can I get by with something cheaper? But at the same time, once you start to move these things around, then you have variability. Now the product starts to change.
A big factor, says Schoenleb, is the variability in raw ingredients coming in, and the ability to adapt to those. You need to standardize things or youre going to get different dining experiences from one location to another. Of course, consistency isnt without its drawbacks; while everybody wants the best product that they can get, he concedes, you give up certain things to have consistency.
Easy does it
Understanding a restaurants kitchen operation lets a manufacturer gauge how much execution to build into a product. Take the case of shell vs. liquid eggs. When your kitchen is a shell-egg kitchen, there is a fair amount of labor dollars spent on cracking eggs, says Thomas Fleming, corporate executive chef, Preferred Restaurant Services, Addison, TX, and a chef ambassador of the American Egg Board (AEB), Park Ridge, IL. It does become a little costly in banquet operations, especially in hotels. Sure, it might not take much to crack 3 eggs to make an omelet, but now crack 1,000. Thats why he always used pasteurized eggs for large volumes.
In quick-service restaurant (QSR) operations, value-added egg products play an extremely strong role, because they dont cook their eggs to order in that segment of the business, says Walter Zuromski, CEC, CCE, president and culinary director, Chef Services Group, Inc., Lincoln, RI, and an AEB chef ambassador. They pretty-much get them prepared in a frozen form, whether it be an omelet, a fried egg or whatever. From there, creating the English muffin or biscuit-and-egg sandwiches that drive QSR breakfast is a simple assembly process. Theyre re-therming the egg either in a microwave or in a heating and holding unit, and then melting the cheese, toasting the muffin, and putting the item together, he explains. Thats obviously a huge labor savings, and it eliminates equipment, which minimizes the amount of space that an operation needs to use.
Value-added products also erase some food-safety concern from the equation. Those eggs are coming in there pasteurized, Zuromski notes. "Theres that margin of error that you minimize: the more food handling, the higher the margin of error; the less the food has to be handled, the less chance there is that something can go wrong.
Anytime you shortcut a product by having something manufactured, youre taking a tremendous amount of liability and variability out of the product, says Schoenleb. Youre giving it to them in a different form, so all they have to do is open it and heat it vs. asking them to cut and clean it.
Variable cooking times for ingredients in a dish can also complicate matters. Were blending five or six different grains that all have different cooking times, and were cooking each individual grain type to its optimal doneness," says Dianna Fricke, CRC, CWPC, executive chef, research and development, J.R. Simplot Co., Boise, ID. "Then were fully seasoning them with IQF herbs and different spices, and were blending them with vegetables that have been roasted. So theres a whole other process thats taken out of the back of the house: putting the oil on, putting the herbs on, seasoning it. Weve taken all that labor out, and I think the biggest thing is that we give them a consistent product.
The biggest thing you can do for a chef at any kind of operation is to batch things to the size they need for the quantities that theyre using, Schoenleb says.
Charlie Baggs, president and executive chef, Charlie Baggs, Inc., Chicago, agrees, but cautions that writing clear specifications and working with your clients are critical. Namely, settle on realistic variance ranges. Sometimes Ill work on a project and the client will say, I want a 6-oz. osso bucco cooked in a red-wine demi-glace, and I only want a ¼-oz. variance in weight, he says. Well, were talking about a natural product, and theres going to be more variance than that.
Point out to clients that unreasonable specs may end up costing them more, too. The manufacturer might get in a shipment and only eight of the products meet the specifications, Baggs says. So they have to find out what to do with the rest of the product, and it ultimately increases costs.
A fully cooked and frozen polenta product, notes Fricke, comes in either 3- to 4-oz. individual rounds or quarter-sheets. The single-serve rounds leave no question about the portion on that product, she says. With the quarter-sheets, you can cut it into whatever size or shape you want. So, depending on the operation, some like the product to be portioned and ready to go, but then you dont want to get a product out there that looks too manufactured.
Keeping it real
Chefs consistently bemoan shortcuts that betray their manufactured origins. In some products, its critical to have really tight specifications, Baggs says. On the other hand, if things look like theyre so manufactured, they look too processed. This can leave operators in a Catch-22, he notes. Some of the chains want the customer to think that the product was whipped up in the back of the house and, therefore, want a little variance so the product looks natural and not so contrived. On the other hand, you dont want to send out a 4-oz. chicken breast to one person and a 6-oz. one to the next. Again, the lesson for manufacturers is to confer with the client and come to an agreement before taking action.
Sometimes it helps to leave a little room for individuality. Culinary people at unit levels want to make the decision of what components they can take out of their own hands and have processed, Schoenleb says. Give me the base and then let me take care of the things that drive that product and are critical to make from scratch.
Factor in regional tastes, too. The marinara sauce the clientele likes in the Northeast isnt the same as what they like in the Midwest, says Zuromski. You have to make relevant changes to meet the flavor expectations of the client that youre dealing with.
Finally, youll earn fans by taking the pain out of procurement. Would you rather manage 100 SKUs, asks Zuromski, or would you rather manage 50?
A manufacturers purchasing power proves especially handy in sourcing obscure or emerging ingredients. At a recent tasting with a large pasta company, Baggs evaluated three different versions of the Middle Eastern spice blend zaatar, and all three were quite a bit different in flavor, he says. It gets challenging to source things like thatdo you just call up your spice house and take whatever they give you? I dont think this is impossible to deal with, but it takes more knowledge and probably more research. While some chefs have the time and resources for the effort, a manufacturers economies of scale and dedicated R&D and purchasing arms can lend a hand.
Products to be proud of
Plenty of shortcuts already put these theories into practicewith impressive results. Preparing sauces, bases and marinades is a big challenge for chefs, because the seasonings are often complex, with many ingredients that need to be in proper balance, says Debbie Carpenter, senior marketing manager, foodservice & industrial, Kikkoman USA, Inc., San Francisco. Consistency can be a problem when recipes are executed by staff thats not fully trained. Sourcing the many ingredients for even one sauce also takes time, and extra storage space is needed for these ingredients, as well.
Specialty sauces like teriyaki, ponzu, oyster, hoisin, plum, Indian tikka masala, Thai-style chili sauce, and red and yellow curries, notes Carpenter, all make achieving Asian flavor easierin a curry chicken-salad sandwich or a teriyaki chicken pizza, for instance. And well-designed shortcuts shouldn't limit a chef to one international cuisine. The versatility of such sauces extends beyond Asian cuisines, she says. Chefs use them to add a flavor twist to barbecues, marinades, dressings, and braise sauces, glazes, and dipping sauces, not to mention mainstream noodles, pizzas, stir-fries, sandwiches, soups and wraps.
Preseasoned, cut or prepared potato products are all great resources for operations looking for turnkey solutions that still offer that craveability that makes potatoes such a favorite on U.S. menus, says Meredith Myers, public relations manager, United States Potato Board, Denver. Potato processors are introducing innovative products, from fries with every type of seasoningsour cream and chive, Buffalo, savoryless fat, faster prep times, and longer holding times, to baby bakers and roasted potatoes, to a wide variety of fingerlings. She also suggests potatoes and fries in scoopable shapes and stuffed spuds in flavors like chipotle and southwestern Cheddar.
Chefs working with fresh vegetables often struggle with the inconsistency in the quality of vegetables, says Sean Craig, senior executive chef, Gilroy Foods & Flavors, Gilroy, CA. Controlled-moisture vegetables, he says, offer consistent quality, because we freeze them in season, when theyre at their peak of freshness. Proprietary technology removes much of the water prior to freezing, improving performance vis-à-vis IQF, and a new spinach addition arrives on the line pre-washed, precooked, clump-free and ready to portion. The products are ready to eat straight from the package, bringing peace of mind to operators concerned with food safety, he says.
Preseasoned and flavored varieties deliver grilled, sautéed, fire-roasted or caramelized profiles without the work, and chefs can choose from single vegetables or blends. The fire-roasted grilled pepper and onion blend, for example, is versatile enough to add delicious flavor to a morning egg dish, a panini or a pizza, Craig says. Some ingredients shouldnt look too cookie-cutter, so the company makes peppers and onions that vary in length for a hand-cut look, and they can be customized with seasonings, roasted or served just plain, depending on the chefs needs, he says.
When I cooked, we did everything from scratch, Zuromski says. Thats because the quality wasnt there, he says. But with todays foodservice shortcuts, theres no question: Now Im a convert, he admits.
Kimberly J. Decker, a California-based technical writer, has a B.S. in consumer food science with a minor in English from the University of California, Davis. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys eating and writing about food. You can reach her at [email protected].
Snacks, Breakfast Provide Glimmers of Hope
According to an Aug. 25 press release from The NPD Group, Port Washington, NY, foodservice activity declined overall during the first quarter of 2009 in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, United Kingdom, and the United States. The breakfast daypart was either flat or saw a bit of growth in the United States and Germany. Also, the evening snack segment saw some growth in three countries.
Deceptively Simple Menu Items
As kitchens strain to reduce their head count, says Dianna Fricke, CRC, CWPC, executive chef, research and development, J.R. Simplot Co., Boise, ID, theyre also seeing a reduction in skill levels of people in the kitchen. Operators find themselves asking whether staff can implement the items on their menus.
If you make a french fry in the back of the house, Fricke says, there are so many different things to think about. You get the potato, then you have to store the potato. You have to fresh-cut the potato, then you have to par-fry it, then you have to cool it down, then you have to finish-fry it again. Youre dealing with oil. Then you have the whole inconsistency of seasonally purchasing the potato, where youre buying it at one part of the year, and its been stored for six months and its full of sugars. Or youre buying it fresh off the field, and its not full of those starches and sugars. And thats just a french fry, she says, which is one of your more-basic items.
Mashed spuds are no easier. In fact, Fricke cites them as one of the most-difficult dishes to make. You may get in a waxy potato; you may get in a starchy potato like a Russet, she says. One person may put in a little too much milk; the other person didnt put in enough. This person salted it; that person didnt. While you think of mashed potatoes as being one of the simplest products to have, its actually easily messed up in the back of the house.
It boils down to consistency, Fricke says. I really hit on that with potential clients, she says. I challenge you to let me come in your restaurant three different weeks in a row and see that your mashed potatoes are the same.
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