(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.