If You Bake It, They Will Come

11 Aug

Today a friend and I got into a bit of a discussion about food. This is typical. He was complaining about a Sysco truck parked in front of a restaurant during prime breakfast hours. His complaint was that it had blocked the view of the place, it’s outdoor seating, and disrupted customers at several neighboring businesses. Fair enough. I mean, it is true. How rude, right?

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He asked, “Isn’t there a loading dock?” Is there anything more off-putting at breakfast time than the smell of burning diesel fuel and the deep vibrating tremors of an idling 16-cylinder engine?

To me, however, it’s what’s INSIDE of that steel box that sends me running. But before I rant, let me say this: I am no restauranteur. I am not much of a business man. I’ve never kept the books of a self-financed start-up restaurant. I have not walked in those shoes, and therefore I cannot judge.

But I will anyways.

Sysco, U.S. Foods, etc. is mass produced on a conveyor belt, homogenous, sterile, conceived in a laboratory, lacking any character, charm, locality or freshness whatsoever, purchased in bulk, thoughtless crap food. When I walk into a restaurant and see SYSCO boxes for anything other than plasticware, napkins or soda syrup (because I do enjoy diet coke), I do one of two things, either 1) exit promptly, or 2) if I am forced, order the cheapest item on the menu and call it a win.

Too many restaurants in this country use mass produced ingredients from large food suppliers, and I’m not talking about McDonalds who, let’s face it, has a self-awareness that most local “mom n’ pop” delis do not. Please do not cram a bunch of hormel lunch meat, some frozen iceberg lettuce and kraft mayonnaise between two slices of preservative laden bread and charge me $6.50 for it. If I wanted this, I’d have stopped at Rite-Aid. And for the love of God, don’t place your fancy hot dog inside of a Blue Ribbon bun and tell me it’s “the best in hotdog in town!” Don’t wow me with your ribs and then offer me a dessert menu filled with “chocolate lava cake” and “apple pie” frozen and thawed, and topped with a dollop of fake cool-whip. If you can’t bake it, order it locally. If you can’t do that, then don’t serve dessert. Have some respect for the cuisine. I am too conscious of the money and calories that I spend to waist $5 and 500 calories on a piece of blueberry pie that was built by a machine, frozen, shipped, thawed, plated, and called “the best pie I’ve had in years” by a waiter who just inhaled his last table’s leftovers in the back of the kitchen by the walk-in freezer while nobody was looking.

I think that many Americans are catching on to this sea change. Restaurant owners are starting to notice. My friend, who works in the industry, said “I think that restaurants are starting to realize that they can do better by supporting each other with local desserts, meats etc. and people are looking to eat out where there are less antibiotics and mass produced foods.”

And because it’s the right thing to do. And because it’s sustainable. And because it tastes better. That last part is almost always a fact. Food that was baked on the premises or locally by talented chefs will always taste better. This isn’t anything new. Are there exceptions to this rule? Sure. Even with the highest quality ingredients, most people simply cannot cook. Restaurants close their doors every single day in major American cities, and while they may cite economic or geographic reasoning, in most cases it’s because the food just wasn’t very memorable. Such is the competitive nature of the food biz in population dense areas. The real trickery is happening in the suburbs. Savvy owners are jumping onto the farm-to-table bandwagon and people are eating it up — one bloated menu description after another. They’re citing ingredient sources on their menus but you can’t fool me with your “White Marble Farms” pork chop. White Marble Farms is a brand of Sysco, North America’s largest food services distributor. The pork comes from Cargill Meat Solutions, America’s second-largest meat processor. Let me just say right now that meat should never be considered a “solution”. From an article in SFGate:

It is bred to ensure tender meat marbled with just enough flavor-boosting fat. But these pigs never see a pasture. They’re raised indoors in confinement barns, just the way most commercial pork is produced, except in smaller numbers. Aside from genetics, they’re conventional pigs wearing a lip gloss of sustainability.

It just amazes me that restaurant owners would have the audacity to serve food that arrived frozen in the back of a semi truck, most likely raised inhumanely or grown unsustainably and without any thought whatsoever beyond the bottom line. It amazes me even more that 90% of American restaurant owners have no idea WHY this is a problem! There are FAR too many awful restaurants in this country. FAR too many. And even worse, there are FAR too many people gobbling it up and paying for it. Even if you’re not a sweets person, you can tell a lot about a restaurant by their dessert menu alone. I always ask my server, “are the desserts baked here?” and if the answer is “yes, all of our desserts are homemade” I order. If the answer is “um, no we actually get them in from a supplier in Baltimore” then I don’t. I you’ve put that little effort into your menu, you’ve probably put little effort into your entrees, and you don’t deserve my business. And you deserve to fail. This is why I’m so unforgiving of bad restaurants. I don’t sympathize with the owners of a failed BBQ joint or the losers on shows like “Restaurant Impossible” — a) because I hate that guy, and b) because THEY decided to get into a business where they simply cannot compete. They had so little respect for the history and the art of cooking, they just figured they’d order some crap from a website, hire their nephew to cook it, turn the lights on and retire. I work in marketing. I went to school to learn how to do what I do. I practiced, developed myself professionally, explored, experimented, took risks, studied the greats. And as a result, I am successful in what I do. I have a great respect for my industry and it shows in the work that I do. Just sayin’.

If you want to buy your salt from SYSCO, fine. But ONE STAR to all of those places frying eggs, grilling burgers, roasting turkeys, steaming veggies, or slicing blueberry pies that were born and raised in big metal factories. And ONE STAR to you if you’re spending hard earned money on it.

Cheers to homemade pie.

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