When I think of mass produced food I think of cafeterias, dining halls, large organizational banquets, some weddings, and airline food. I believe that the unspoken assumption that large quantities of food cannot be well done simply because it is a large quantity of food is somewhat false. Large quantities of food come with their own set of challenges that we don’t encounter in la carte restaurants.
- The first challenge in mass produced food is that there is a lot of food to manage. I am reminded of my first sous-chef job, post-apprenticeship. I was a classically trained French cook who had been raised on an odd mix of fast food drive-thru and ultra-hippie fare. On the first Thanksgiving in my new role as a sous-chef, I looked at the 2,300 lbs. of a turkey delivery and was in utter disbelief. How were we going to cook 2,300 lbs. of turkey AND make it taste good? I simply had no Thanksgiving experience and no frame of reference on how one might cook that much food.
- The second challenge of mass produced food is the cost- while the COGs per meal are significantly lower, the overall cost is just significantly higher and the customer demands a lower price per person to offset the number of meals. This results in the mandate to buy cheaper ingredients.
While all the above is true and we can find other reasons that mass-produced food is not as good, that’s not really the point. In fact, I’d like to propose that there is an incredible market need and opportunity to make a lot of food taste a lot of great! And we can do this by returning to the basics on a regular basis. It all comes down to – training and tasting.
Both training and tasting come from a simple but powerful vision. A clear goal with a plan that is executed according to that plan will always produce better results. It’s hard to do but it is that simple.
We can train cooks by setting the expectations and providing the tools they need to achieve those expectations of greatness and circling back to measure and reward when expectations are met and even exceeded. When people know what the targeted success is and how to achieve it they rise to the occasion. Train your cooks carefully with clear expectations and tools and magic will happen. Yes on some level it really is that simple.
And then there is tasting as a concept. Oh boy! I remember when I was in cooking school I heard a more senior student say, “You’d be surprised how hard it is to teach cooks to taste,” and I paused in disbelief for a moment. That comment stuck in my mind and that is what indeed taught me to taste. Everything, everytime, without fail. I can assure you that in my 25 years in the kitchen there were many a day that I did not eat a meal because I was full from tasting all day long. I soon realized that I, too, had to teach cooks to taste; often when we repeat the same motions repeatedly we can become complacent in the belief that we know what we are doing. That complacency is offset by self-monitoring, by tasting the food every time. The cooks I worked with used to tease me because I was known to say, “There is a human being on the other side of that plate.” Simply meant to drive home the point that we are feeding people rather than assembling a plate.
I believe that consistent attention to the basics, careful training, setting expectations for success and tasting the food, we make and serve delicious food!