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When the Cat’s Away………


FOOD FOR THOUGHT - August 9, 2006 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Archive

The other night my wife and I were having dinner at an Italian restaurant that I have been patronizing for years.  I know the chef/owner, his wife, and most of the wait staff.  This particularly evening, neither the chef nor his wife was present.  Interestingly, our garlic bread was served so burnt it was black, and the angel hair pasta was overcooked and mushy.  Moreover, the Bolognese sauce contained large acorn sized chunks of garlic, clearly indicative of some very lazy prep work.  But it’s the bread that really exposes the extent of slacking off when the head chef is absent.  The waitress can’t look at the pasta and determine its doneness.  But clearly she could observe that the bread was unacceptably charred.  Ergo, not only did the cook knowingly render an inferior product, but the waitress just as readily served it.  I shudder to think of the corners the dishwasher was cutting.

     It’s a well known fact among the culinary cognoscenti that the food at any restaurant is at its best when the head chef, (a.k.a. executive chef) is in the house.  The manifestation of this dynamic in the professional kitchen is but a microcosm of the entire working world.  Be it McDonalds, a four star French restaurant or the Ford assembly line, when the boss is in the midst, employee’s noses are closer to the proverbial grindstone.  Conversely, it’s human nature to shirk our duties in the face of impunity.

     How does this exactly play out in the professional kitchen?  What do the other chefs do or not do when the head chef is MIA?  At the most benign level, short cuts may be taken that don’t directly affect the quality of the food but rather it’s presentation.  Every head chef in the world has a plethora of practices that he insists must be done in a particular manner.  Some of these have more to do with aesthetics than food quality.  For example, maybe the chives don’t get minced as finely, the carrots not diced as uniformly, or the baby greens not arranged on the plate as carefully.  These minor deviances will not alter the enjoyment of your meal.  In fact, you’re probably not even aware that the head chef prefers his chives minced into a fine brunoise, (one sixteenth of an inch), as opposed to a regular brunoise, (one eight of an inch).   All you know is that the whatever-size pieces of chives on your potatoes tastes good.  But the prep cook who had to chop 5 bundles of chives and now has only half the cuts to make certainly knows the difference.  In addition to saving time and effort, here’s his chance to indulge his passive-aggressiveness as he mockingly ponders how sixteenth of inch pieces of chives can possibly make a difference over eighth of inch pieces.

     On a more serious level, shortcuts can be taken that directly affect food quality.  For example, the person washing the evening’s vegetables does so without due diligence to save time.  Subsequently you get served sautéed spinach a la grit.  Maybe the crab meat wasn’t picked through thoroughly and every other bite of your crabcake is accentuated by flakes of shell.  Or in an even more perilous example, the chef doesn’t thoroughly check the clams and you get served a dead one, (which carries significant more risk of bacterial contamination and thus food poisoning).  Quite a grave mistake, pardon the pun. 

     But it’s not just shortcuts aimed at saving time that can cause problems.  Sometimes it’s simply just a lack of assiduousness.  Burning garlic bread or overcooking pasta doesn’t save time.  In fact they take more time.  Those are simply cases of not being on the ball; of not being attentive and checking on the items as they cook.  In a word:  carelessness.  And with the head chef enjoying his night off, he won’t know even if the customer does send the dish back.  Or worse yet, the customer doesn’t complain at all.  He or she begrudgingly pays the bill and just never returns.  This is the worse case scenario for a restaurant.  They lose business without ever knowing why, and thus cannot redeem themselves.  It’s anybody’s guess how much repeat business is lost at any given eatery simply because of individual patron’s aversive and uncommunicated experiences.   

     The key to preventing the mouse’s escapades when the cat is away is to have more than one cat.  Most good restaurants employ a sous chef.  The sous chef is the second in command; a vitally important position.  He is the eyes and ears of the head chef.  It is absolutely imperative to have not only a highly skilled but trustworthy sous chef.  One who the head chef can count on to implement his practices and standards when he is absent.  A loyal sous chef is the Spock of any culinary enterprise. 

     Maintaining consistent quality is every restaurant’s greatest challenge.  Customers expect consistency and it is a daunting task to churn out the same high quality dishes, fabricated in the same manner on a regular basis.  Those that do invariably have someone in the rarely vacated catbird seat…………cracking the cat-o-nine-tails.


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