Cooking from Scratch, not Packages is the Secret to Great Food

The “secret” behind why most chains are mediocre at best

Photo by Charles 🇵🇭 on Unsplash

I love food…

I am, by most people’s standards, what is known as a “foodie”, I take pride in my cooking skills, and prefer to use high quality (aka expensive) ingredients when I can. Even when I can’t afford the ingredients I want, I try to take care to make the best food possible, no matter what ingredients I have on hand.

Now, I’m not always the best at cleaning up after myself (as my wife continually reminds me), but at least we have a hearty and tasty meal in our bellies before we tackle that chore.

I have spent a significant part of my life working in food service, either in the front of house running a till, running a stove/grill/fryer in the kitchen, or even in a warehouse slinging boxes of raw and ready-made products. As a result, I’ve had a unique exposure to the world of food, and one that has definitely shaped my beliefs about what we eat.

I want people to fall in love with food like I have fallen in love with food, and the only way to do that is to take you through the journey I’ve taken.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Of course, this was back in the days where I could work sixteen hours and still be up and functional on four hours of sleep.

Like most people, my journeys with food started in the kitchen at home. That being said, fewer and fewer people are having the same kind of experience I did with homemade food. I was lucky enough to have a dad who worked across the road from the house I grew up in, and who could be home to meet us and have supper ready after school.

The food wasn’t always great, but my sisters and I got to see fresh food being prepared, and to learn how to make our own food. I started preparing meals when I became a teenager — more or less successfully. I did have a couple of major disasters, the most notable being when I used a cup of flour instead of a tablespoon.

We had very thick stew that night!

My first non-summer job was also my first behind the scenes experience with the industry of food. I worked in a local franchise of a national coffee and donuts chain, one of close to fifty in the city I lived in at the time. This was back in the days where they made their donuts fresh in-store every day instead of having them shipped in frozen from a factory.

Photo by Taylor Grote on Unsplash

I worked there long enough that I ended up learning most of the tasks, though I never baked. When I was done school and taking a gap year, I’d often end up working double shifts (don’t tell the labor lawyers) when someone wouldn’t show up for the night shift.

Of course, this was back in the days where I could work sixteen hours and still be up and functional on four hours of sleep.

It was an incredibly enlightening experience. I did everything from pouring coffee, to scrubbing floors, to receiving and putting away the bakery and drink mixes from our weekly delivery. This was the first time that I really realized not everyone made everything from scratch.

There is no man behind the curtain frantically cooking food behind the scenes at my local restaurant.

Often, there isn’t anyone for hundreds or thousands of miles.

Photo by Eric Sharp on Unsplash

Really Good Food

Somehow, I got it into my head that I should take Hotel, Resort, and Restaurant Management at a community college. At this point in my life, I was already reasonably skilled in the kitchen and able to make more of a variety of items than my peers.

I also made less from packages than they did.

It was at college that I really began to understand the difference between really good food, and mediocre food. It’s also where I learned that pretty much everyone can learn the skills needed to make really good food.

We were a group of marginally sober eighteen to twenty year-olds who were entrusted with the sharpest knives on campus.

Most of us will never be a Gordon Ramsey, Bobby Flay, or Kat Cora, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make really good food.

In a kitchen, the head chef is always referred to as “Chef” — you may have picked this little detail up from Hell’s Kitchen or some other show. I’ll be honest, I can’t remember the full name of our kitchen instructor, he’s just “Chef” in my brain at this point.

Chef taught us the basics, right from how to safely use different types of knives, all the way up to how to wash dishes.

There were lots of other things that we learned as well, but it is those basics that can take mediocre ingredients and turn them into culinary masterpieces. As the first-year students, we were responsible for lunch service in the dining room. Almost everything we did was from scratch, and we did everything in the kitchen.

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We received the orders daily, inspected them for quality, and made sure they were put away properly according to use and rotation needs. Stocks, broths, sauces, garnishes, sides, we made them all from scratch…and only occasionally lit something on fire.

We learned how to cut meat for different types of meals, learned how to strip a raw chicken from the carcass, and how to filet fish. I can still remember being elbow-deep in a whole salmon immersed in ice-cold water as I got it ready to filet.

We were a group of marginally sober eighteen to twenty year-olds who were entrusted with the sharpest knives on campus. Believe me when I say that our knives were sharper than some of our classmates…especially the one who got thrown out for stealing cooking wine.

This isn’t rocket science. Granted, most of our work wouldn’t pass an inspection by a professional chef, but how often do you go to someone’s house and expect a perfect julienne?

The irony in all of this is that when our day started at 6:30am for prep, we would break for lunch around 9:30 and go over to the cafeteria where just about everything was either fried, reheated, or packaged. Here we were creating beautiful meals for the people in the dining room, and not eating any (okay, not eating much) of it.

If a bunch of hungover teenagers can create beautiful food from scratch, there’s no reason that the vast majority of people could do the same.

There’s also no reason that restaurants can’t do it.

Believe it or not, I think I’m actually in this picture. I’m one of the blurry figures in the center-left beside the mid-rider forklift. (Source)

I worked a few more jobs in food service, either fast-food counters or in the kitchen, and saw more of that world than I ever expected. Eventually my career went in another direction and I moved out of food service.

What we have come to expect, and come to accept, is mediocrity.

Until life changed, and I found myself moving upstream in the industry, from an end-user to a middle-man, working in a food service warehouse.

At 300+lbs and 30+ years old, it was not an easy move to make.

It also exposed me to a brutal reality about the restaurant world: almost nobody makes their own food anymore.

If you eat at any type of chain, very little of your food is actually cooked in whatever passes for a kitchen. Maybe your pasta gets boiled, some cuts of meat will get cooked in some restaurants, even your salad isn’t guaranteed to be made on-site.

That sauce you love? Most likely packaged.

That “house” salad dressing? It probably came in a large plastic bottle before being put into that squeeze bottle.

That fantastic side of veggies/mashed potatoes/fried mushrooms? All of those most likely came individually packaged and ready to be reheated.

Photo by SJ Baren on Unsplash

It makes sense when you think about it, if you are going to have a chain you want every dish at every restaurant to taste the same. People eat at chain restaurants because they know what to expect.

What we have come to expect, and come to accept, is mediocrity.

I always knew which restaurants to eat at, because I knew which ones got whole, fresh food and which ones got the frozen or shelf-stable stuff. How good can a sauce be when it is designed to be stored in a plastic bag at room temperature for a month or more?

Now, don’t get me wrong…we were the middleman here, we didn’t force anyone to buy anything they didn’t want. Each restaurant has to make their own decisions about what ingredients they want to purchase.

Many of our products were beautiful and fresh, especially the ones that went to smaller restaurants. They weren’t as concerned about everything being EXACTLY the same, so they tended to purchase products that were processed less and required some skill to prepare.

I also have nothing against frozen or dry food when it’s appropriate. Dry pasta is great, and contemporary freezing techniques and technologies can make frozen food almost as good as fresh. Certainly we sold a lot of fresh fruits and veggies, not everyone was buying packaged items, but many of the biggest chains had everything brought in ready to reheat instead of buying the ingredients and preparing them on site.

Photo by Monika Izdebska on Unsplash

My favourite restaurants could all be found on those blue shelves in the picture above. That was our JIT, or Just-In-Time rack where products would sit in the warehouse for less than six hours before being shipped out to the restaurant.

Our partners, primarily subsidiaries of our company, would slice and prep fresh meat, veggies, and fish to order during the day. These products would get delivered to the warehouse in the afternoon/evening and be out the door on a truck before the sun came up the next morning.

Total time from processing to table? Less than 48 hours.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Just before I started my current job, they closed down the cafeteria in my new building. While it wasn’t a major issue, it did leave us in the middle of a relatively empty food area. If we didn’t want to bring lunch (or forgot it), it meant a twenty-minute walk to the closest grocery store or restaurant.

The loss was lamented by the people in the building, largely because they couldn’t get breakfast at the same time they walked in the building. By all accounts, and the prices they talked about, I wasn’t missing much.

They were running it as cheaply as they could, and were still losing money to the tune of six figures per year. Given that most new restaurants fail within the first few years, it is obvious that going cheap has to be a matter of scale and not something for most restauranteurs.

Photo by Sahil Nimje on Unsplash

My office is in a shared use building, and one of the other tenants opened up a cafe inside their space about a year ago. In that time, they have been massively successful, regularly selling out of baked goods and always having a full house. They started with only a few employees, but when I was there the other day, they had no fewer than five people on over the lunch rush.

Obviously, they are succeeding in a building where a price-focused cafeteria failed.

What’s the difference here?

The cafe makes almost everything on site.

In fact, the only things that aren’t made in-house are the cured meats (salami, prosciutto, bacon, etc…) and the coffee — which comes from a coffee roaster just down the road.

Everything else comes in as raw ingredients, and leaves as finished product. They took the time to hire a well-trained chef and to invest the time and care that it takes to make things from scratch, and it shows.

In a city where you can get coffee, baked goods, sandwiches, and salads in a thousand different places, people go out of their way to come to this cafe. They’re not the cheapest, but they are one of the best…and one of the best kept secrets in the city. They have a loyal following who returns time and time again, and bring new customers with them.

Restaurants are notorious for having paper-thin profit margins, so I can’t imagine that they’re getting rich from this business, but they’re making enough to be able to stay in business and regularly bring new innovations to the menu.

Having everything come through the door as raw ingredients means that they have the freedom to innovate and try new things. They can find a recipe that works for them and their customers, and then innovate around the basic recipe.

Even more than that, having their staff use raw ingredients instead of prepackaged processed foods means that their staff are more adaptable and flexible when it comes to new ideas or menu changes.

Bread and pasta are composed of essentially the same ingredients as biscuits, muffins, and cookies. Fresh greens can be used in salads, sandwiches, as a garnish, or even in soup. Trimmings from onions and carrots that have been diced for pickling are used to make soup stock. Instead of having to store a giant jar of pickles, they simply slice up an additional cucumber or two and pickle them on site.

Because food comes in as individual components and not finished (or nearly-finished) products, they have a small footprint because they don’t need to store as many items. They have the flexibility to change and adapt their menu as needed.

Because their food spends more of it’s life as whole components, instead of mixed, mashed, and processed, it is healthier, tastier, and much more versatile.

The results show in the lineup every lunch time, and the number of tables that are regularly occupied throughout the day. They’re crushing it, every day.

All of this is nice, but it doesn’t reflect the reality for many people. I’m lucky enough that I have a spouse and partner to share the cooking duties with. I’m also lucky enough to be able to afford fresh fruits and veggies, to have suitable storage space for fresh and frozen foods, and to have learned some basic cooking techniques that transfer over to many different styles of cooking.

Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

A lot of people don’t have the time, the energy, or the resources to invest in kitchen skills and supplies. For many people, it is hard enough to throw a pizza on the table after a full day of work, or maybe in between two different jobs.

There is lots of help available on the internet, or even in your own community to be able to learn some of these skills. Most of them don’t take a long time to learn, and learning even one of them will help bring your food costs down by allowing you to make better use of raw ingredients.

What will be the most helpful for you?

  • Basic Knife Skills — Learn how to chop, dice, mince, and slice basic items like veggies and meat.
  • Safe Storage and Reuse of Discards — Onion skins, peels from carrots and potatoes, trimmings off of carrots and celery; all of these things can be used again. One of my favourite things to do after a big turkey dinner is to take all of the vegetable trimmings, bundle them up in some cheesecloth and then throw them into a pot of boiling water with the turkey carcass for six hours or so. No additional work involved, and six hours later you’ve got enough turkey stock to last a long time!
  • Learn How to Bake Bread and Make Pasta — These are both relatively simple products to make and can be used in a wide variety of ways.
  • Butchering and Meat Cutting — This one takes a little more time, but when you can get two chicken breasts, two drumsticks, and two thighs for the price of a whole chicken (not to mention making stock afterwards like I mentioned above), you’ll realize you can save a lot of money!
  • Basic Roux — Roux is a simple base for many sauces. It is simply butter and flour mixed together into a thick paste to which you can add whatever you want your sauce to taste like. I use this to make my homemade mac and cheese. You haven’t lived until you’ve had mac and cheese made with left over pieces of brie, cheddar, and smoked gouda.
  • Basic Cooking Techniques — We’ve all heard of searing, sauteeing, caramelizing, tossing, boiling, simmering, etc…but do you know what they mean and how to use them? Learn some of these basic techniques, and you’ll never go back to pre-seared meat.

There are lots of things that you can do to elevate your cooking and find joy in your food again. The most important one is to cook with care and attention. Cooking for others should always be an act of love and compassion, and take every chance you have to bring more care and attention to your cooking.

I am a dedicated and experienced emergency manager/responder who is learning the ropes of philanthropy too!

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