Half-Baked: Menu Readings... Predicting the Outcome of Your Next Meal
Patty Canedo is a chef in Palm Beach. She writes frequently about her kitchen exploits in this column, Half Baked.
A thought that's in the back of mind during every shift or when I venture out is that there's nothing more disappointing than a bad meal. Whether it's trying a new place or the newest dish at a your favorite spot, the menu will steer you away from a bad dish.
I'm both blessed and cursed with a restaurant mentality; it's impossible to shut off. After years behind the line, I can look at a menu and tell you whether this will be a great meal or it'll be just an "eh" experience, right down to a specific dish. It never fails. So here's a peek at my thought process and hopefully it'll salvage you from a bad night out.
1. Menu Weigh More Than A Dish? There's a particular franchise that shall remain nameless (cough cough Cheesecake cough) where the menu's so big they even sell ad space in it.(By the way I applaud this double dip in revenue, geniuses.) No matter what the restaurant, there's only so much cooking and storage space in one kitchen and you only get so much shelf life out of food. Big menus equal big food costs and lots of production, so the kitchen will tend to push the limits of freshness and quality; enough said.
2. Burgers, Enchiladas, Meatballs, and Pad Thai on the same menu? Yes, people attend culinary school and get the basics of how to prepare everything. Does that mean the same hands will roll sushi and meatballs equally well? Or that a chef has the time to make everything with the same skill and love it requires? Wrong! Food vendors love these type of places. Welcome to soups from a bag, sauces from a jar or pouch, and pre-fab, frozen proteins.
3. Keep It Simple Stupid. First thing Chef ever taught me about creating a dish, designing a plate, and well, life was: don't over-think it. There's a difference between complementing something with a sauce and/or crust and masking/ruining it. After all, if you are using fresh and quality ingredients, what's to hide? More words of wisedom from Chef and his raging OCD: "When you look at a plate you can see how many people have touched your food before it gets to you." Haunting but true.
4. Do you know where you are? Before you even look at a menu, you can tell what kind of place you are in and the food they serve. I've said it before and I'll say it again-- I wouldn't order a burger at a sushi restaurant and I wouldn't get sushi in a burger joint.
5. Tempting your palate vs tempting fate. There's adventurous... and then there's "Dish Gone Wild!" That being said, one of my favorite desserts is a basil chocolate chip ice cream (yum). Something you wouldn't consider -- but delicious. But typically you have to earn my trust before I'll try your, let's say Grouper in banana liquor with banana slices (not so yum).
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