If You're Going to be a Cook...

There's been an issue nagging the edges of my consciousness since I started my column for the Watertown Daily Times about a year ago. Why are there so many mom and pop restaurants serving processed foods straight out of the freezer or off the distributors' trucks, rather than cooking from scratch?

I assume most restauranteurs don't open their establishments intending to serve a largely frozen, processed menu, but staffing issues and budget concerns must lead to this unfortunate circumstance. The most confusing aspect of this fact, for me, is why the people working in these kitchens want to be cooks and then not actually cook anything? Put another way, why pursue a career in food service to end up serving food that you don't prepare in-house? 

Especially in this era of paleo diets, gluten-free pundits, clean-eating Pinterest guides and WHO admonitions on processed meats, it's seems like a weird time for our local restaurants to copy their chain restaurant competitors and stop cooking. But time and time again in my dining adventures, I find frozen French fries, jarred gravy, pre-cooked chicken, frozen and fried appetizers, and pizza shells pre-made and topped in the kitchen. The fact that the last one happened at an actual Italian restaurant boggles my mind.

A working theory I have is that most family owned restaurants start out with the intention and the staffing to do I right. They're making heritage recipes and doing most of it from scratch, and then, they lose their chef or there's a major life event or something else, and it all changes. It happens a lot here in the Binghamton area when the patriarch of the Italian family retires - the recipes don't translate to whatever line cook gets the promotion or the new head chef has a different palate...and the menu changes and slowly starts to transform from the authentic Italian-American eatery beloved in the neighborhood to something resembling a shabbier Olive Garden. 

I think it's obvious by now that I'm an advocate for real food, begun from fresh ingredients, cooked with flair by people who care passionately about stepping into the kitchen each night and wowing their guests. If that's not the goal of both restauranteur and chef - what's the point? If that's not what you're  turning out from your kitchen, I might as well stay home. At home, I sometimes rely on convenience ingredients because I have a full time job and serving dinner is an extracurricular for me. But if your job is cooking, you better be going it yourself. 

But I'm most interested in what the masses think on this issue, and here's why: I realize that these places that are serving fryers full of frozen, breaded finger foods and everything else pre-prepared and straight off the truck are still busy. People eat at those restaurants even though there are better alternatives. I don't get it. Is it a disposable income thing? Are our collective palates that accustomed to salt and preservatives rather than vegetables, meats, herbs and cheeses? Please someone, enlighten me. Why aren't we demanding better?

I hope you all will weigh in on this train of thought, because this is an issue I think about a lot. Will we soon have only chain restaurants and processed food in our local joints because we didn't bother to show small business owners that they need to actually cook things? Will this new generation of foodie kids give way to food service workers who only microwave and fry, but don't chop or sauté? Help me figure this one out! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger! 

1 comment:

  1. When I'm served something obviously frozen or processed, I'm really pissed. I don't like to serve myself that at home, and I wouldn't serve it to guests at dinner. So I certainly don't want to pay for it.

    Sometimes you end up with it because you're in a hurry or there are no other options...but that's not the norm. It shouldn't be, anyway.