(I’ll put the disclaimer up front: I am not a food industry expert. The expressions contained herein represent my opinion, no more, no less. Any inferences to the contrary will be met with indifference.)
These days the word “Chef” has taken on a hyperinflated connotation. Television leads us to believe that a Chef is someone who is an acclaimed culinary guru, a wizard who has mastered creativity, technique, taste, and presentation. The Chefs are lofty professionals who prepare absolutely every dish from scratch, using their own exclusive recipe that has never, ever been duplicated elsewhere. Chefs are the Iron Chefs, the hosts of their own programs, the authors of expensive cookbooks, the proprietors of five-star restaurants, who merit our awed reverence.
So when we hear of a new restaurant headed by someone whose name is preceded by the esteemed title “Chef,” we know that the fare at this eating establishment must be exemplary, extraordinary, exquisite. And if a lavishly written and photographed feature on the restaurant graces the pages of the Sunday paper’s supplement, if the place has a chic Twitter and Facebook presence, and if multiple Twitter friends and celebrities (ohhh, they must be the illuminati!) post gaudy Instagrams of their cheerful banquets at the locale, then a visit to that restaurant becomes a mandatory bucket list entry.
I decided that we should make a visit to this restaurant on Mother’s Day. I was looking forward to impressing my wife and mother-in-law by my choice of a great dining experience. I called and made a reservation for four, and swelled with pride and anticipation.
On Sunday, the appointed hour arrived and we climbed out of the car onto the street in front of the locale. The first thing that struck me was that its visual appearance of a rustic chinchorro was at stark odds with the hype I had seen. Oh well, I thought, after all, this is Las Lomas, not the Condado. We climbed the entrance and, once inside, were plunged into a steamy mass of sweaty bodies, a few seated at tables but most standing, waiting. Overhead a big screen TV was showing NBA action. Ahead a girl was frantically punching orders into a touch screen as two waiters weaved back and forth through the crowd delivering attractive plates of food to customers seated above on the second floor. Beyond was a dark bar, behind of which reigned The Wizard: The Chef we came to see, directing the whirlwind of activity like an orchestra conductor. As a handful of worker ants cooked entrees, he efficiently composed dishes on large white plates: neatly molded mounds of rice or mofongo, a filet of fish, chicken or churrasco cocked at a studied 37.5 degree angle against the mound, a ladle of sauce applied longitudinally along the fillet, and finally an understated flourish which dispersed a garnish of chopped green herbs over the entire ensemble.
The most astounding thing was that The Wizard…er…the Chef was not safely esconced behind the curtain or a wall, but was there in plain sight, sweaty, beard stubble on his face, extraordinarily human. I felt a little sorry for him, as I did for the Wizard of Oz when he was discovered to be just an ordinary Kansan.
The girl eventually made the fatal mistake of looking away from the screen, and I and several other customers competed for her attention. I informed her that I had a reservation for four, and she dutifully added my name to the same hand-written list where the walk-ins were annotated. I asked her what was our estimated waiting time, and without missing a beat chewing her gum she responded with something unintelligible.
After waiting for about ten minutes and not seeing any names getting crossed off the girl’s list, I suggested to my wife and 89-year-old mother-in-law (who were still standing) that they might be more comfortable waiting in the car; that my son and I would stay here and that I’d call when the table was ready.
The next twenty minutes were an illuminating experience. My son and I came out as the true illuminati…
An employee went out to a freezer and brought back an armload of frozen food: A large bag of frozen amarillos, a bag of Kirkland frozen mahi-mahi, a bag of frozen Kirkland shrimp, a bag of frozen Kirkland boneless chicken breasts. Stacked against the wall behind the chef were two cases of jars of Classico brand Alfredo sauce. My son and I looked at each other incredulously. The ingredients were all from Costco! For a restaurant to use frozen meat is understandable, as long as they don’t try to pass off the mahi-mahi as freshly-caught. But I was disappointed that the amarillos and mofongo was made from frozen, and that the Alfredo sauce was packaged and not the cook’s own recipe! I felt disillusioned that the menu apparently does not contain any truly original creations. (To be fair, their propaganda does not suggest that all of its creations are original and unique.) My son summed it up succinctly: “There’s nothing here that we couldn’t make ourselves at home!”
I ascertained that my name wasn’t moving up the list. I asked the girl if they really do honor reservations. Her answer was the same masticated unintelligible utterance.
I needed to save us from this looming dining disaster. I called Macaroni Grill and asked how long the wait time was. The answer: “Ninguno!”
We left, returned to the car, and drove to Macaroni Grill. My wife and mother-in-law were pleased; they like Macaroni Grill. There were a couple of new entrées on the menu. We had a great meal.
Macaroni Grill??? Sure, their ingredients may be frozen, but their sauces aren’t sold by the case at Costco, and their food is consistently good.
I have no problem with restaurants using pre-packaged ingredients. I also understand that using fresh ingredients rather than frozen can result in higher costs. The challenge for the customer is to ascertain what is the actual practice of a given restaurant. Some restaurants are very open in providing this information. Those who do not provide this information, or who do not permit customers to see the kitchen, just may have something to hide. It’s not always easy differentiating between a Chef, a chef, and a cook.
The following day, as I was coming out of Costco, I followed two uniformed men straining as they pushed their heavy flat trucks of Kirkland frozen food and cases of Classico Alfredo sauce. I asked one of them, “Is this for a restaurant?” He answered disdainly, “Yes.” “May I ask which one?” He answered with the name of another local restaurant supposedly headed by a Chef.
In our family’s anecdotal history, today marks the date that the restaurant P. F. Chang’s initials became forever after immortalized as Precaution: Flying Chile. Let me explain.
It all started on a sunny Sunday afternoon, when we invited Doña Patria to accompany us to eat at P. F. Chang’s new restaurant in Plaza Las Americas. Just managing to eat there was a feat in itself; the event had so many factors conspiring against it:
- Being new, the restaurant had long waiting lines in the first several weeks after it opened, and we were planning to go on a Sunday afternoon, itself a busy time for any restaurant.
- Luisa dislikes Chinese food in general, especially the greasy stuff served at cheap Chinese restaurants where they use industrial quantities of MSG to cover up the fact that their food doesn’t really taste good anyway. Also, she has had unpleasant reactions to MSG in the past, and has been leery of almost all Chinese restaurants since. The only exception has been Back Street Hong Kong in the El San Juan Hotel, which she loved, but it closed several years ago, much to our dismay.
- Doña Patria had seen the façade of P. F. Chang’s from the outside, and the imposing horse statues and dark color scheme gave her a foreboding of a place that she wouldn’t enjoy entering.
But today, despite all odds, as we say in Borinquen, el evento se dió.
We were lucky to find parking right in front, which was good, so that Doña Patria wouldn’t have to walk very far. To our surprise, the wait for a table was less than ten minutes. Doña Patria surveyed the ambiance and thought, “bueno, no está mal.” We inquired whether they used MSG in their dishes, and the waitress inquiry to the kitchen and our own Google inquiry came back with the same answer simultaneously: No, they do not use MSG.
Things were definitely looking up.
I myself was eagerly looking forward to this. I love good Chinese food. Heck, I even love lousy Chinese food.
My mind drifted back, back into the distant recesses of my memory, back when I was in graduate school and worked summer jobs for the State of Kansas, which involved traveling the entire state, visiting each and every county and its respective county seat. I remember being amazed how there—in the middle of the homogeneous plains—a few gems of diversity glinted like a galvanized steel-sided grain elevator in the afternoon sun: Almost every small Kansas town had one Chinese restaurant. Run by real Chinese who, although they were second- or third-generation Chinese-American, still spoke Chinese between themselves, and to the rest of they world they drawled the same folksy, affable Kansas drawl that all Kansans do. Where did they all come from? Well, their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had come over from China in the mid and late 1860s as indentured servants to link the East and the West: They built the great transcontinental railroads. Swinging pick and axe, tossing and catching railroad ties, hammering down millions of spikes to hold down the rails, their sweat contributed to the very lifeblood of our adolescent nation and its economy. Many of their offspring stayed put, and found a niche to fill: they established Chinese restaurants.
But I digress… (Dx: major digression)
We ordered tea and drinks and appetizers, and then ordered the main course. (I won’t give you much detail here; this is not a restaurant review but rather a food-related anecdote. Bear with me.)
My main dish came out cold. No surprise. That has happened to us so often in larger restaurants on Sunday afternoons that I suspect that it may be one of the culinary laws of nature: In a busy restaurant on a Sunday afternoon, food will be served cold 90% of the time. In case I am the first to have ever put this down in writing, let it be known henceforth as Ficek’s First Culinary Law. (insert standard copyright disclaimer here) I complained to the waitress and suggested that she have it nuked. She apologized and informed me that no, she would not have it warmed up. Instead, they would cook up a fresh dish right away, and that I could be assured that it would be served hot. And it was. The food was without exception delicious.
As we were getting close to finishing our meal, there came a sudden commotion and the sound of something small falling behind us, in the entrance to the kitchen. Immediately Joey and I got splattered by something on our heads and shoulders. Our table also got splattered by something. It took a full minute to discover exactly what had happened: a waitress leaving the dining room for the kitchen lost control of a tray, and a small container of red chile sauce fell to the floor. Its sudden deceleration and acceleration back away from the floor sent its contents flying a prodigious distance through the air—a full twenty feet across the first row of tables into our table in the second row.
The appearance of red chile sauce on clothing is not a pleasant sight. It gives the unsightly suggestion that the clothing’s owner may not practice the same kind of personal hygiene as the majority of civilized folk. On the front of a shirt, it gives the impression that its wearer is a hearty but sloppy eater, an impression that is entirely forgivable. However, when the red chile splashes are on the back, shoulders and neck, the uninitiated observer has no clue how this may have come about, and can only draw the conclusion that the red-splotched individual (now blushing a similar red color) is someone who befalls strange and unusual manifestations of fate, and is someone to be avoided by as large a distance as possible.
Indeed, the wait staff wished to have as little to do with us as possible, and only after considerable pleading and motioning to the manager, did we succeed in having them deliver to us half a dozen wet wipes which Joey and I used on each other to try to remove the splattered sauce from our clothing and hair. Our attempts to remove the stuff were largely ineffective; several large reddish-brown stains had already penetrated our respective shirts and wouldn’t come out with such meager measures.
Luckily, the aerial range of red chile sauce from a ceramic container dropped onto carpet was limited by the laws of physics and aerodynamics to just twenty feet. Had it reached twenty-three feet, the caustic capsicum concoction would have landed in the faces and eyes of Luisa and her mother, who were seated opposite us, facing directly towards the scene of the accident. Luckily for us, so many laws—physical, culinary and whatnot—were present and were being applied in the circumstance that there wasn’t any room left for Murphy’s Law, which is what saved the two ladies from being blinded by flying chile sauce.
Postscript: The manager knocked off a sizable discount from our check, and gave us a dessert on the house.
Post-postscript: And we forgot the brown bag containing our leftovers on the table in the restaurant.