Every chef contends with the balancing act of producing the variety and quality of foods that their customers and bosses want with the reality of the capabilities of their staff, the size of their kitchens and their budget. In the perfect kitchen there would be just the right amount of culinarians possessing all the skills, expertise and experience needed to consistently knock out any gastronomic whim of the powers that be, without breaking a sweat or going into overtime.
In reality, of course, this is not typical, or even probable. In all likelihood, something’s got to give. It may be the number of menu items offered or the complexity of their preparation. More adverse to the operation’s success would be a lessening of the overall quality coming out of the kitchen, inconsistencies with the food, or meals taking forever to finally make it out to the dining room.
On one extreme are the very rare kitchens that prepare everything from scratch, and do it well. Chicken stock, brown veal stock, fish fumet; a dozen or more sauces; a beautiful variety of soups; a gorgeous selection of pâtisserie…How nice for them and their clientele. The customers demand the goods and are willing to pay for it, and the ownership and staff are up to the task of providing it. It’s a match made in heaven. Coming from a similar mindset, but at a different price point and level of fussiness, are some great mom and pop operations. Whether they are making their enchiladas, borracho beans and flan totally from scratch, or their fried chicken, cole slaw and peach cobbler from old family recipes, everyone is happy.
On the other extreme are establishments that are basically serving reheated TV dinners. From the popularity of some of these restaurants, they obviously have their market, too.
Most of us are somewhere in between
We have aspirations of offering better food than we are currently producing, but something is holding us back from actually doing it. It may be know-how, time, energy, money for more or better staff or a combination of all of the above. But for some reason or another our customers aren’t seeing on their plates what we picture in our minds. While there are many solutions to this dilemma, one of the easiest is the judicious use of quality pre-made and “speed scratch” items in our menu planning and prep. Let’s take a look at a few options.
Let’s start with what is probably the most basic item in most kitchens: stock. In many cuisines, stock is the basic building block of almost every savory item on the menu. When a liquid is required, why not add one that has flavor (stock) instead of one that just dilutes the other flavors in the mix (tap water.) If your cooking frequently relies on reductions to create flavors and textures, you probably have no choice but to make your own stocks. But if, for instance, your basic flavor profile depends on chiles, lime juice and garlic, you might very well be able to get away with a prepared stock product and leave all the bones, vegetables, cooking time, skimming, straining, chilling, cleanup and storage to one of your contemporaries working in another style of cuisine. To be clear, “home-made” is probably better; but in any particular situation, how much better? If no one can really tell the difference between a very good “convenience” product and your scratch product in a particular recipe, why not go with the easier, less expensive option? The keys are to be honest about the reality of the substitution, and then to take the time and effort to choose a good product.
Not all stock substitutes are created equal
Some soup bases are nothing more than salt, food color, MSG and a little more salt. Use your discernment and pick out a product that at the very least tastes better than tap water. Even though a very concentrated demi-glace product might be much more expensive than a particular base is by the pound, it might end up being cheaper and better tasting by the gallon if you dilute it more than suggested. Or, you might decide to go with canned broth. Use your discernment, not a sales pitch or the easiest availability, to make your decision.
As far as high quality pre-made items go, soups have made great strides in recent years. Several makers produce excellent soups of all kinds, frequently packaged in frozen plastic bags. Clear soups like chicken with noodles or vegetables, creamier soups such as cream of asparagus or potato-leek, and hearty fare like beef with barley or cheddar-broccoli and more are all available. Some brands rival many soups that are made from scratch, with no effort required beyond defrosting, heating and holding. Putting a little extra effort into garnishing them with croutons, chopped herbs or a streak of thinned-out sour cream will convince anyone that someone was up all night making them. But beware: try before you buy and make sure that the message a particular soup conveys to your customers isn’t, “I came out of a can!”
A good compromise between totally made from scratch and totally pre-made soups is also possible, using a few speed scratch items. For some operators this might be the best route. For instance, a very nice French onion soup can be made by browning onions purchased pre-chopped from your produce vendor, deglazing with white wine, adding good-quality canned broth and simmering for 45 minutes. Finish with brandy and cap off each bowl with a slice of toasted baguette topped with pre-shredded Swiss cheese browned under a salamander.
Since many kitchens lack much pastry experience, let alone an actual pastry chef, desserts are one of the best parts of many restaurants’ menus to make good use of pre-made components and complete, ready-to-eat items. The options for ready-made items range from real treats to real duds. Again, try before you buy and don’t be swayed by convenience exclusive of quality. A customer’s last memory of their experience in your restaurant will be their dessert, so don’t blow your chance at a repeat guest at the eleventh hour. Remember that dessert is always only an option, with each guest weighing the factors of time, cost, calories and pleasure. You have to make sure they are always happy in deciding to get a dessert and that, in the end, their decision to go for it was well worth it in their minds.
Certain desserts have been available in high-quality ready to eat form for so long that many, many operators have been using them for years. Things like cheesecakes, fruit pies that require baking and pound cakes, when of a very good quality, are hard to beat. The trouble is, since they are so ubiquitous, many customers have a hard time considering them rare or special enough to bother to order. It’s fine to have these products on your menu, but do something that differentiates yours from the ones down the street. It’s not that hard to serve your thawed-out cheesecake with fresh berries macerated with sugar and fresh mint. Plan the baking of your frozen pies so that they start coming out of the oven about the same time as the first dessert orders are coming in so that you can serve them warm, instead of baking them off five hours before the first guest even walks through your door. Even if you’re a little late with the first orders, most people won’t mind waiting a few minutes if they know that their apple pie is coming straight out of the oven. (Don’t forget, pies need a little time to rest before slicing.) Similarly, warm cookies offered at the end of a meal, even if you buy them as frozen pucks, will be considered a real treat by anyone. Even good pound cake is still just the same pound cake people can get anywhere. No will care (or know) that you buy yours frozen if you grill it and serve it with ice cream and honey.
With many pre-made desserts, creative garnishing can be the difference between guests perceiving them as something special, or something they could have thawed out at home for a lot less money. Little things like streaking a dessert plate with caramel, chocolate or fruit sauces (made fresh or purchased); dusting it with cocoa powder or powdered sugar through a strainer; including a little stack of raspberries and a mint sprig; or serving a slice of chocolate layer cake with a shot of ice-cold milk on the side, are all easy, inexpensive, and will show customers you care – while distracting them from the fact that you don’t have a separate pastry kitchen.
With desserts, too, there are many options that split the difference between items that are totally hand made and those that are simply defrosted. Fruit cobblers are about as easy as it gets when you use high-quality pie filling and biscuits from a good mix. The same biscuit “recipe,” obviously, would definitely up the ante at your breakfasts in the form of ham and egg sandwiches, biscuits and gravy, or the best bread basket on the block, especially if you time their baking so that they’re warm for the rush.
Defrosted frozen muffins are often good, but freshly baked muffins from purchased, neutral, batter can be better. You can doctor up the plain batter any way you’d like and offer blueberry muffins, poppy seed muffins, chocolate chip muffins, lemon muffins, pecan-date muffins, banana bread muffins, carrot cake muffins, etc.
Cold, Hard, Dough
There are also many frozen dough products to consider incorporating into your menu. Individual pastry tart shells make it relatively easy to produce plated, individual desserts in-house. Although making pâte brisée might be a stretch for some cooks, few will have a problem being shown how to make pastry cream or lemon curd. Using pre-made tart shells, making your own lemon tarts and fruit tarts will be a breeze. With a little bit of practice and frozen phyllo dough, homemade strudels could become one of your signature dishes.
Fresh waffles are great at breakfast, brunch and as desserts anytime. Very good waffle mixes are readily available. In many cases, if you go through enough mix, the vendor will loan you the waffle machines. Such a deal.
Two of the most difficult things for a typical restaurant kitchen to produce are also two of the most popular: great-quality, freshly baked breads and dinner rolls. With the time, commitment, expertise, space and equipment needed to successfully produce these items well and consistently, it is simply out of reach for most independent operators. One option for restaurateurs is to make use of the independent artisanal commercial bakers with wholesale operations that are springing up in more and more markets. In many ways, it’s the ultimate quality pre-made item: freshly made by local artisans using the best ingredients, frequently to custom specifications, by a business totally committed to doing only one thing as well as possible. The only downside may be the cost. For some operators, this option may prove to be too pricey. But if it’s within your budget, it is absolutely worth considering.
Another option that will be a good fit for many operations is using par-baked breads and rolls. They are available from various producers and distributors in most if not all markets. These are breads that are partially baked so that the insides are done, but the crusts have not yet browned. The cooking process is stopped at this point and the products are flash frozen. This is the state in which you buy them, to finish in your ovens, usually in 10-15 minutes. These products range from so-so to excellent, depending on the quality of the brand being considered.
Try Before you Commit
Again, try before you commit. Advantages of par-baked breads are that, since they arrive frozen, there should, theoretically, be no spoilage or waste (unless you bake too much, in which case you could always turn them into bread pudding.) Another advantage is that, with a little extra effort about when you put them into your oven, your guests can enjoy warm, freshly baked bread with their dinner.