In 1999, Anthony Bourdain wrote an article for The New Yorker on dining out.
‘Don’t Eat Before Reading This’ is a must-read article.
He was talking about top-end bistros and restaurants, but he raised insider facts which will interest aficionados of the dining scene.
I saw the article thanks to this tweet about steak …
… which led me to this one (click on image to see the full text):
I’ll come back to that in a moment.
I nearly always have Fish when eating out. Here’s the truth for fish lovers who dine out at the weekend or on a Monday (emphases mine):
The fish specialty is reasonably priced, and the place got two stars in the Times. Why not go for it? If you like four-day-old fish, be my guest. Here’s how things usually work. The chef orders his seafood for the weekend on Thursday night. It arrives on Friday morning. He’s hoping to sell the bulk of it on Friday and Saturday nights, when he knows that the restaurant will be busy, and he’d like to run out of the last few orders by Sunday evening. Many fish purveyors don’t deliver on Saturday, so the chances are that the Monday-night tuna you want has been kicking around in the kitchen since Friday morning, under God knows what conditions. When a kitchen is in full swing, proper refrigeration is almost nonexistent, what with the many openings of the refrigerator door as the cooks rummage frantically during the rush, mingling your tuna with the chicken, the lamb, or the beef. Even if the chef has ordered just the right amount of tuna for the weekend, and has had to reorder it for a Monday delivery, the only safeguard against the seafood supplier’s off-loading junk is the presence of a vigilant chef who can make sure that the delivery is fresh from Sunday night’s market.
Generally speaking, the good stuff comes in on Tuesday …
I cannot emphasise enough this bit about well done steaks. For those who missed the tweet above:
In many kitchens, there’s a time-honored practice called “save for well-done.” When one of the cooks finds a particularly unlovely piece of steak—tough, riddled with nerve and connective tissue, off the hip end of the loin, and maybe a little stinky from age—he’ll dangle it in the air and say, “Hey, Chef, whaddya want me to do with this?” … What he’s going to do is repeat the mantra of cost-conscious chefs everywhere: “Save for well-done.” The way he figures it, the philistine who orders his food well-done is not likely to notice the difference between food and flotsam.
Apologies to any vegetarians reading here, but this is what chefs think. Bourdain prefaced this by saying serious cooks find preparing brunch dull:
Even more despised than the Brunch People are the vegetarians. Serious cooks regard these members of the dining public—and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans—as enemies of everything that’s good and decent in the human spirit. To live life without veal or chicken stock, fish cheeks, sausages, cheese, or organ meats is treasonous.
Whether we realise it or not, a good restaurant will use butter — and a lot of it:
In a good restaurant, what this all adds up to is that you could be putting away almost a stick of butter with every meal.
Leftover bread and butter
Speaking of butter — and bread — you might wonder (as I did) what happens to whatever you leave on your table.
It gets re-used:
Recently, there was a news report about the practice of recycling bread. By means of a hidden camera in a restaurant, the reporter was horrified to see returned bread being sent right back out to the floor. This, to me, wasn’t news: the reuse of bread has been an open secret—and a fairly standard practice—in the industry for years. It makes more sense to worry about what happens to the leftover table butter—many restaurants recycle it for hollandaise.
If you’re wondering (as I did) if line cooks and chefs wear gloves in the kitchen, the short answer is ‘rarely’:
As the author and former chef Nicolas Freeling notes in his definitive book “The Kitchen,” the better the restaurant, the more your food has been prodded, poked, handled, and tasted. By the time a three-star crew has finished carving and arranging your saddle of monkfish with dried cherries and wild-herb-infused nage into a Parthenon or a Space Needle, it’s had dozens of sweaty fingers all over it. Gloves? You’ll find a box of surgical gloves—in my kitchen we call them “anal-research gloves”—over every station on the line, for the benefit of the health inspectors, but does anyone actually use them? Yes, a cook will slip a pair on every now and then, especially when he’s handling something with a lingering odor, like salmon. But during the hours of service gloves are clumsy and dangerous. When you’re using your hands constantly, latex will make you drop things, which is the last thing you want to do.
Bourdain says that toques or other head coverings are not generally worn:
For most chefs, wearing anything on their head, especially one of those picturesque paper toques—they’re often referred to as “coffee filters”—is a nuisance: they dissolve when you sweat, bump into range hoods, burst into flame.
Despite having raised the hairs on people’s necks by revealing all this insider information, Bourdain is adamant that a top restaurant kitchen is cleaner than that of the average home:
The fact is that most good kitchens are far less septic than your kitchen at home. I run a scrupulously clean, orderly restaurant kitchen, where food is rotated and handled and stored very conscientiously.
Having read Bourdain’s article, I am happy I do not eat out all that often — at most, 10 to 12 times a year — and always in good restaurants.
I would dispute that their kitchens are cleaner than mine at home.
And finally, although I disagreed with his politics, I am sorry that Anthony Bourdain is no longer with us.