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Boil In

May 26, 2016

Soup. Not only is it easy to make, but it plays a really important role in restaurant kitchens. Soup is a great way to still make money off of scraps of food that might otherwise be wasted.

Restaurants are a shitty business. Heck, most businesses these days are. But the trick to any business is trying to squeeze revenue out of every part of the operation. When nothing goes to waste, the business has a shot at being profitable.

A couple years ago when I was at the Americana Diner outside of Princeton, I saw their stock pots. They were shockingly large. My friend chef Cory, says the secret to his food is the flavor of his stock. Stock is important to cooking. And it’s often the base of soups.

At the Americana Diner, I saw a surprising number of large, plump chicken wings in the stock pot. These wings could have been sold for a buck a pop. But instead of adding to the bottom line, the chef felt that her food was better served using these tasty bird bits in the stock which would ultimately improve the flavor of what was coming out of the kitchen.

But that’s not the case everywhere.

Menus can be challenging to navigate, and the language of menus is starting to resemble the marketing trickery of packaged foods in supermarkets. There’s a consumer expectation that when they go to a restaurant, the food is made from scratch to order.

And that’s false on its face.

Even the best restaurants make things in advance, and when you order, the kitchen effectively reheats and finishes the dishes. The best restaurants manage this process well, making smart decisions about what to prep in advance, and what to produce on the spot. Restaurants that pre-cook their pasta are not in this classification.

But there can be other shenanigans going on in the kitchen too. And that’s the stuff that comes from food service companies, which isn’t made in house, but simply heated and served. Some of these products can be quite good, and very hard to spot. For example, the smashed red skin potato producer makes sure the product has a rustic look. The same goes for French fries.

Other things like pretzel sticks, which seem to be popping up on restaurants everywhere, may be a bit more obvious.

This isn’t just something that happens in American kitchens, but it’s happening all over the world. Even in the bistros of Paris, there’s a good chance that your blanquette de veau was frozen and nuked.

But soup? Something as central and as important to the efficient operations of a kitchen?

Yep. The interesting thing is that you don’t often hear restaurant owners bragging about their soup in a bag. However, years ago I found one such owner on Yelp who replied to a one-star review with a defense of their decision to serve pre-made soups. You can see the review and response here, but this is what the owner had to say:

[Our restaurant] pays top dollar for the priviledge (sic) of selling soups that are prepared by the best chefs in the country. It also enables us to serve a variety of 22 soups with total consistency. They are heated in a sealed bag to prevent the freshly made soups from burning.

That is certainly an interesting take on the matter. But I’d venture to guess that if you asked any of the guests ordering the soup if they thought it was made in house, most would say yes. And the above example is not meant to single out one restaurant. The practice is widespread, and that quotation was from years ago, so who knows what’s happening in that kitchen today.

That said, I think this practice makes restaurants deceptive. No more deceptive than supermarkets. And heck, even farmers markets aren’t the bastions of integrity people expect either.

Next time you are eating out, take a long hard look at the menu. And ask yourself when one item is singled out as being house-made, why don’t more dishes also carry that designation. Maybe they are, and maybe they are not. The only way to know for sure is to talk to your server and hope you’re getting an accurate picture of the kitchen.

But in today’s day and age, a lot of chefs are on Twitter and Facebook. And it’s pretty easy to find the people who are doing it the hard way. Which, really, is the only way worth doing it.

Once again, let the buyer beware. Stay vigilant my friends.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2016 10:55 am

    I try always to remember to ask if the salad dressings are made in-house. Is it so hard to make? I feel many places want to offer lots of choices, but offering just a few and making them fresh from good quality ingredients is so much tastier.

  2. May 26, 2016 11:12 am

    Did I ever tell you I used to work at Peaches & Cream (or Peaches Cafe or whatever they are calling it these days…) 20 or so years ago? That place is bizarre. Everything about it is bizarre.

    • Kerosena permalink
      May 26, 2016 1:10 pm

      Same. I was a fill-in dishwasher there when I was 15. Didn’t eat there then, haven’t eaten there since.

  3. May 26, 2016 2:07 pm

    I know this isn’t what you mean, but I’m going to throw this out there anyway: bags do have their place in soups. The best vegetable stocks I ever made were in bags and cooked in a water bath. Tried doing the same recipe in a pressure cooker and didn’t think it was as good. Never got a vegetable stock I liked just simmering on a stovetop. I guess don’t hate the bag, hate what’s sealed inside the bag. Or maybe hate the bag. It does feel like I’m generating extra trash I cook in bags.

    Worked at a Friendly’s. Their clam chowder was one disturbingly big can of condensed soup thinned with a half gallon of whole milk.

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