On Restaurants

July 14, 2006

I’ve been cooking on my own for the past couple years, and I can honestly say that I’ve gotten the hang of a lot of it. I know how to do some things really well, and I’m getting pretty quick about putting my dishes together, so that my average meal, with an entree and two side dishes, takes between 10-30 minutes from start to finish to prepare.

For the past few weeks I’ve kicked it up a notch: I’m taking photos of everything I make. The original intent was so that I could start working with GMS Events on a personal cookbook release, but almost instantly I realized another benefit. Because I want these pictures to look good, I’m really focusing on my presentation. Presentation is a huge part of a good meal, and it can transform a mediocre one into a spectacular one. I’m collecting a sizable folder of photos of my dishes, and I have to say that looking at them I’m a little proud.

My cooking has changed how I order food in restaurants. As a general rule, I don’t order anything that I can make at home. If I’m eating out, the last thing I want to do is spend three times as much money to get a meal I can just as easily prepare in my own kitchen. It won’t teach me more, and it’ll taste just as good. This means most pasta is out, steak is definitely not worth it, a lot of stir fries, chicken, and pan-fried fish. This rule is actually pretty convenient, as it eliminates a decent amount of the menu from my consideration, giving me time to focus on the more interesting dishes. Two of the things I look for are techniques that I don’t know or that would take a long time to cook (like lasagna or quiche, which take a long time to prepare and bake), and ingredients that are exotic or to which I have limited access (like some kinds of seafood or fruits). This way I’m guaranteed to get something I probably won’t be making at home, so it’ll be new and interesting to me, which is why I go out.

The other thing I do at restaurants is look at the presentation of the dish. They always clean the edge of the plate. There’s often parsley flakes sprinkled on top to give the dish flecks of color. The fancier the restaurant, the more vertical the food will get. So if you’re going to Denny’s, you’ll have a plate with meat and mashed potatoes next to it and corn next to that, and the whole plate will be covered with some kind of food. If you’re at a fancy restaurant, you’ll have a wide plate, but the food itself will cover a smaller area and be stacked, so the meat would be on top of the asparagus on top of the mashed potatoes. Then some kind of sauce is artfully painted around the unused portion of the plate. And the plate is always wiped clean after the food has been placed on it.

A successful restaurant venture leaves my stomach happy, my tongue intrigued, and my brain full of good ideas to try.

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