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Secrets of the Incredible Shrinking Brigade


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#1 robert brown

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Posted 14 August 2003 - 03:06 AM

My wife, an American friend and I spent an enjoyable weekend just past at the Villa Fiordalisa in Gardone Riviera, which is a lovely lakeside town on the western banks of the Lake of Garda. As we were walking to our rooms from the parking lot Saturday afternoon, we spotted one of the chefs carrying a large tray from the kitchen in the villa to an outbuilding that the staff used for storing food. As he past us, something fell from the tray, which our friend picked up off the ground. It was a plastic bag containing what he recognized as veal cheeks. He said to the sous-chef, "guanciale?" referring to the veal cheeks we had ordered the night before. There must have been about 50 of these “seal a meal” packets on the tray, which were going into one of the seven freezers we counted the next morning after curiosity drove us to look into the auxiliary kitchen building. My reaction was to say "Ah-ha, secrets of the shrinking brigade".

To be fair, we found the veal cheeks quite acceptable at dinner, as did the couple we were dining with, the exceedingly-well-traveled gastronomes Vedat Milor, known on eGullet as “vmilor” and his wife Linda. Nothing about the veal cheeks or any of the other dishes we had hinted of having been frozen. Yet we couldn’t help wonder whether the restaurant has gone as far as it can go using these pouches, and whether Michelin would take away the Villa Fiordalisa's star were they able to confirm the restaurant’s use of seal-a-meal bags.

Anyone who has dined regularly in Europe over the past 15 years will know that the number of workers in "haute cuisine” restaurant kitchens has been reduced by 50% or more over this period. Some restaurants that are a notch below the top tier get by with cooking staffs of six or less. An immediate symptom of this is the sharply reduced choice of dishes and the increasing use of fixed menus, sometimes to the point of offering little or no choice whatsoever.

I am interested in the ways in which restaurateurs and chefs are getting by with smaller brigades through the use of technology and procedures in the kitchen.

How you feel about the use of "boil a meal" bags, either as a diner or a chef?

Do you feel that it is cheating to use them, or at least to use them without revealing it?

What else do you know about short cuts in the kitchen and what they imply?

Do you think that these techniques are a detriment to good and honest dining or that they are beneficial because they reduce the costs of providing good food?

#2 John Whiting

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Posted 14 August 2003 - 04:17 AM

John and Karen Hess exposed this practice a quarter-century ago in _The Taste of America_. It was widespread back then in American restaurants. A couple of years ago I met a fellow-diner at an auberge B&B in France who told me that his brother ran a food factory in the southwest of France which supplied frozen dinners to a large number of highly respected restaurants.

As the techniques become more sophisticated, the labor costs go up and the clientelle become less discriminating, expect this trend to accellerate. The mortal enemy of the best is not the worst, but the almost-as-good.
John Whiting, London
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#3 alanamoana

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Posted 15 August 2003 - 01:28 PM

in the case of the restaurant you went to john whiting, it seems as if the point is mass production. however, there is the case to be made for sous vide "cooking" (or whatever one would call it). at some fine dining establishments, the food is sealed in these bags and slow cooked for a specific effect. i'm sure you can find more information on this on the net. i have read about it in art culinaire and other food related magazines. i'm neither for nor against, but if restaurants are just storing tons of stuff in the freezer, then that's not my idea of "a la minute" cooking.

#4 robert brown

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Posted 15 August 2003 - 02:20 PM

alanamoana, the kitchen at the Villa Fiordalisa appeared to be engaged in the kind of "meals" one buys in these specialized frozen food stores one finds, such as Picard in France, or Stauffer dishes. This is opposed to "sous-vide" cooking in which fresh food is put in plastic in order to be cooked in a certain way. But it would be interesting to hear what chefs think in terms of sous-vide cooking compared to using a pig's bladder ("en vessie") or sealing a dish with pastry dough. To what extent also is "sous-vide" cooking a shortcut?

#5 John Whiting

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Posted 15 August 2003 - 03:30 PM

Food which comes from a central warehouse, however perfectly executed, is as depressing as computer art or propaganda dressed as literature. It becomes dehumanized and predictable and therefor profoundly boring.

Manufacturers aim for uniformity, but this is not inevitable. For instance we regularly buy Copella apple juice, squeezed and immediately bottled with only light pasteurization. It must be kept regrigerated. It is indeed mass produced, but the apples come from a wide variety of sources and at different times of the season the juice tastes different, precisely because the pressings are not held over a period of time and blended in order at achieve uniformity. It's not the best apple juice on the market, but it's good, it's reasonably priced and it's honest.
John Whiting, London
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#6 chefjack

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Posted 27 September 2003 - 09:58 AM

Referring to the question about smaller brigades, I am a pure witness to that, my staff is so small I can count it on one hand! However, the restaurant I work for is not a high tier restaurant (yet? at least in acclamations and reviews) but serves fine dinning, however I don't have a paco-jet or use foam or any high tech gadgets or put granitee on veal cheeks or other "avant garde" as in the other topic, but thats another story. I do see "sous vide" on menus (I think Seegers in Atlanta uses it quite a bit) but the whole idea sounds Red Lobster-ish! Not like some restaurants I make 80% of my sauces ala minute, for the freshest flavor possible and that's what I think is lacking in pre-packaged foods. Does it decrease food waste yes, is it easier probably, but does that = customer satisfaction?
Life is so brief that we should not glance either too far backwards or forwards…therefore study how to fix our happiness in our glass and in our plate.
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