Let's be realistic, unless your restaurant's check average is $190 or you have an endless supply of talented interns working strictly for the glory, everybody has to make sacrifices. Not everything can be from scratch. Here are some common battlegrounds for the debate between from-scratch vs. ready-made.
Case Study: Do It Yourself? A Candid Look at Pre-made versus Scratch in the Startup Kitchen
Any steakhouse worth its Hawaiian Volcanic Sea Salt, wouldn't dream of using a Béarnaise that was made from anything but the chef's own whisk but the truth is, Knorr Swiss, and I'm sure many other companies, make a just-add-water Béarnaise sauce mix (though I doubt they carry it at our 7-11).
Where do you draw the line? It's easy to say "we only serve what we make ourselves" but there reaches a point where that's impractical and in fact counter-productive. When is it worth the extra expense in effort, labor, and sometimes food cost to do it yourself? Bake your own bread? Roll your own pasta? Make your own desserts? What about making your own salad dressings and Cole slaw? If it's sold in a restaurant, it's a sure bet that it's available in ready-made form somewhere.
The most important factor that makes one restaurant unique and separates it from the pack, most chefs will say, is food quality. If there's a chef alive who doesn't believe that his food isn't better than the next guy's, he's not living up to the chef's credo ("my ego is exceeded only by my cooking ability"). Let's be realistic, unless your restaurant's check average is $190 or you have an endless supply of talented interns working strictly for the glory, everybody has to make sacrifices. Not everything can be from scratch. Here are some common battlegrounds for the debate between from-scratch vs. ready-made.
Baking bread is such a specialized art that most restaurant chefs are only too happy to delegate those duties to someone who is in business for only that purpose. The proposition of baking bread is so precarious that even professional bakeries often need to supplement sales by offering retail sales as well as desserts and pastries.
Baking bread, while it is perhaps the most therapeutic ways of making a living in the food industry (there's just something wholesome about waking up early and working with doughs and creating a masterpiece from a blob of flour water and leavener), presents a tremendous burden for a restaurant kitchen. It requires an area almost exclusively to itself with mixing machines, scaling tables, proofers and specific ovens.
The signature of one of my restaurants is our house-made breadsticks, which I came upon quite by accident. While I was trying to produce a crispy little "grissini" to serve upon guests' arrival, I made what more resembled mini baguettes. They're baked by the sheet tray all service long and it's a monumental task to produce them from the single convection oven on the sauté station. But if I ever tried to remove them from the repertoire, I'm certain that the National Guard would be called in to restore calm.
Chef's Recommendation: Despite the fact that bread baking is a hallmark of one of my restaurants, I'd recommend leaving the baking to the pros and sleep an extra hour or two in the morning.
There was a time before the late Dr. Atkins started his insidious campaign against the food cost darling, pasta. Pasta is making a comeback as the low-carb craze thankfully loses steam (no comment about karma here). And while it will be some time before pasta sees a return of the "salad days," creative filled pastas are creeping back onto menus.
Since my first job out of culinary school was in a very upscale Italian restaurant, the concept of making pasta from scratch was deeply engrained. Four or five varieties of filled pastas were pumped out of a hand cranked pasta machine by a guy whose right arm was three times the size of his left. The product was terrifically light and unmistakably fresh.
The hand-made pasta was the defining dish of this restaurant and we promoted it by changing the filling with unusual fillings (for that time) like roasted rabbit with truffles and herbs and chorizo goat cheese. Having the flexibility to change fillings on the fly to create more interest as well as to "clean out the walk-in" is a terrific benefit of being able to "roll your own."
Depending on the degree to which pasta is a staple on your menu, the space and equipment requirements can be fairly small: a rolling machine, an unoccupied prep table (for at least a few hours) and a grinding attachment for your mixer (which is actually optional). But what is difficult to attain is someone who knows what they're doing. To make fresh pasta properly, the chef needs to understand how to stretch the dough and develop the gluten strands to just the right dryness and be able to work quickly enough so that the pasta sheets don't dry and crack. It's not too much to ask of an experienced chef but teaching an unskilled worker the ropes can be a task only a Nonna (Italian grandmother) might have the patience for.
Companies like Joseph's Gourmet Pasta offer a very credible product that's easy to find and easy to prepare and available in some impressively creative varieties. The product typically comes par-cooked and frozen. The pastas aren't terrifically light or unmistakably fresh (in fact they're frozen) but they are fairly foolproof and frankly might yield a higher quality than someone who is unfamiliar with the process.
Chef's Recommendation: If you or someone on your staff makes great hand made pasta, by all means, promote the heck out of it. If it's a minor part of your menu, choose a high quality frozen and make it "your own" with a signature sauce.
I've heard so many people tell me that they believe that dessert is the most important course of the meal. It's the last impression that a customer will have of your restaurant. Granted, only a percentage of your guests will "indulge" but those who do, it's fair to say, are truly celebrating the experience. Yet so many chefs are willing to leave the dessert up to a manufacturer with a freezer bank larger than the frozen tundra itself.
Hiring a pastry chef is a serious step. Frankly, for most restaurants, spending labor dollars (often as much as for a sous chef) for a full time trained or experience pastry chef just doesn't add up. To justify their salary, a pastry chef would need to increase dessert sales by about 50 desserts a day (based on 35K annual salary, 25% kitchen labor cost, and $8 avg dessert price). That's a tall order.
There's no doubt that a restaurant that does make that sort of commitment benefits in other ways, including customer satisfaction and overall panache. All of which sort of makes the pastry chef position, in supermarket terms, a "loss leader".
I have no qualms with the professional pastry chef, especially after having been one myself. I employ an outstanding pastry chef who is in charge of the pastry program in all my restaurants. But I understand that there isn't room in every kitchen (or its budget) for one.
I mean no offense to pastry chefs when I say that restaurants that can't afford a pastry chef can still do a good job without one without buying everything from a pre-made dessert supplier, many of which provide a good product. Still, restaurant chefs who panic or are dismissive when it comes to making desserts and would rather buy ready-made cheesecake, apple pie or frozen gateau St. Honore sell themselves short and do their restaurants a disservice. There are plenty of options for even the most novice chef if he makes the decision to learn. Crème brulée, tiramisu, cobbler and fresh fruit with a creative preparation are easy alternatives.
Chef's Recommendation: If a pastry chef position is an implausible luxury in your kitchen, learn to make a couple of dessert dishes that you can really call your own and then augment the dessert list with high quality ready-made desserts.
Three Key Factors in the Do-It-Yourself Equation
1. Food quality. Can you make it better than you can buy it?
2. Profitability. Can you produce it for cheaper than you can buy it? This requires evaluation of food versus labor costs, and whether you can charge more for "home made."
3. Promotability. Can you make it distinctly your own? Will your customers appreciate it?