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Dumbing Down of Dining


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#31 stovetop

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Posted 27 September 2005 - 01:12 PM

All good points brought up; I do not want to be anti Corporation, but I feel the big huge Corporations are a little slow in reacting to market forces, the top is heavy and the middle is empty, corporations are now lining up and buying everything in the Organic industry; so when you think that Organic is safe well look behind the curtain and there is a big corporation. (Ben jerry ice cream)
We as the consumer have to look even harder at our choices; food is becoming very political and choices are hard to find. The bottom is growing and so is the middle but every time someone gets a market share the top absorbs them.
The farmer and the consumer seem to be somewhat at the same level but the two have a hard time meeting each other, when the market forces really listen to both parties the whole process will hopefully correct itself.
The problem with big is you need big to supply big, so the whole lower end of the food supply and logistics becomes obsolete.
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#32 MSchmidt909

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Posted 27 September 2005 - 01:57 PM

I also believe that chain restaurants are not the work of the devil. In fact, many of those "mom and pop" establishments were often not quite the places we remember them to be. I have had plenty of awful meals at mom and pop "joints" --small and independantly owned and operated do not guarantee anything.

Currently we are seeing "chain" restaurants move upscale in price and quality--a perfect example is Legal Seafoods. Complaints about consistancy aside, I can get a selection of oysters that are fresh and superb quality at numerous locations from Floriday to Maine.
Chains like Fudrucker's (I haven't been recently) proved that a good burger could be served in large numbers in many places.
Lower end operations like Outback have ventured into high end steak with reasonably good results at their " Flemings" retaurants. Ruth's Chris, the Palm and Morton's are in reality "chain restaurants."

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sometimes these chains try to venture beyond the scope of what they do. Carlson Restaurants (TGIF's parent company) purchase of Stephan Pyles restaurants Star Canyon and AquaKnox come to mind, this was a dismal failure at best. They wanted to break into the fine dining segment of the business, but in my opinion, they were not equiped. I know, I was there for a while. I also believe that chains are not evil, they serve a purpose, but now that I own a small fine dining restaurant (40 seats) in a small town it is frustating to see the parking lot at Chili,s packed when my place isn't. But thats the way it goes sometimes, Chili's may have fed 200 people, but I've made 40 people very happy.
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#33 Bux

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Posted 27 September 2005 - 07:38 PM

Oysters, which require no cooking at all to be enjoyed, and perhaps enjoyed at their best, are exactly what a chain might be able to do best. And I think you've also hit upon a note that represents a change in dining. I suspect there was a time when oysters might be one of the prime foods at a fine restaurant, but I don't want to go to a restaurant with a staff of excellently trained and talented cooks and chefs. I want them to exercise their talents and cook for me. What I want when I'm in the mood for oysters, is fresh, and perhaps some talent in opening the damn things so I don't get lots of little pieces of broken shell. It's a one talent job in the kitchen, although you only need a bar and ice, not kitchen. In New York City there exists in Grand Central Station a famous restaurant where I've found every cooked dish to have over priced, not to mention disappointing at half the price, but the oysters are fresh and there's always a large selection. I'll go there at the drop of a hat and sit at the oyster bar order a beer or a bottle of a crisp chardonnay such as a Chablis, any number of sauvignon blancs from all over the world or a muscadet and start eating oysters and nothing else. It's a model for a chain and an argument for specialized restaurants for certain foods. And nothing dumb about a good oyster bar. Once you've located the source, good distribution is what's important.
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#34 JohnL

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Posted 28 September 2005 - 07:25 AM

Good points Bux.
I never thought about it but maybe Oysters are the ultimate fast food in some respects.
The things a place like Legal Seafoods does best are raw bar items, chowder--easy to make in large amounts and the base is freezable (so are shrimp).
The main consideration is freshness-absolutely critical here for raw bar items--and handling.
Steak house fare is also conducive to "chains" either the meat is good quality or it isn't and cooking it properly is more a technical skill rather than demanding any great culinary art.
Come to think of it--raw bar plus steak equals--a steakhouse!
Anyway--my point was that there seems to be a lot of choice out there.
Also-chains like MacDonalds are constantly testing new items (a good thing)--they are what they are--and as someone else mentioned here--they are responsive to consumer demands.
I believe that we may see a welcome swing back toward family dinners--there is already a stronger focus on fresher items and more variety throughout the country.
Also consumers are more aware of food and food related issues and seem to be more interested in general: if they weren't the Food Network would disappear quickly.
All for the good!
I was struck by Holly's somewhat bleaker view of things--maybe I am just a "cockel-eyed optimist! "

#35 Bux

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Posted 28 September 2005 - 11:20 AM

Be that as it may, the most disappointing oysters I can remember on at least two continents were in France at a cafe/restaurant that was part of a chain. Considering the potential for volume would assure freshness and that a number of branches would assure the need to be reputable, I figured the oysters would be a safe bet. Live and learn.
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#36 jamiemaw

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Posted 28 September 2005 - 01:13 PM

In the US there are two futures for dining.

For a few it will be an adventure.  New tastes, new fusions.  At some point, perhaps (dare I say I hope), a return to Escoffier.  Then the cycle continues.  More new tastes and new fusions.  It is our nature to regularly return to our roots and set out once again.  A wheel of dining.

For the masses the future lies in embellishing the mediocre.  Vaster frozen food aisles in the supermarkets.  Lowest common denominator product development by the restaurant chains.  Ever expanding suburbs boasting fewer independent restaurants and more family oriented chains; fewer supermarkets and more warehouse food centers

Starting with the last third of the 20th century and with no end in sight, for generations of children and generations to come, their primary exposure to cuisine has been and will be home cooking thawed and finished off in the microwave and dining out at chains that bland down and Americanize cuisine for the greatest possible appeal.  The McDonald's generation has raised the Chucky Cheese generation who has raised the Olive Garden generation.  Their future is simplification, unchallenging flavors, and oceans of melted processed cheese.

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Just imagine a chain of more than 50 restaurants, conveniently located and pleasantly decorated. The greens program is 100% organic (and has been for a decade), the wine list is a model of clarity and value (designed by two outstanding wine experts), the servers are tested frequently on product and service knowledge, and the development chef is a former head of both his country's Bocuse d'Or and Culinary Olympics team. There is not a microwave to be seen and the deep fryer only fires frites. There are few commisary foods, with the exception of soups--their clam chowder though, is a superb meal and fresh.

While cynics might call Earls only the best and brightest of the concept bunch of three-ring binder chains, I think they do an extraordinary job in serving flavourful, good quality food for all the citizens.

Earls, Cactus Club Cafe, The Keg, Joey's Global, Saltlik, Red Door, Milestone's and OPM are useful examples of how good chain dining can be.

But it is also, depressingly, proof of your point. There are few American chains that have been able to get a toehold in western Canadian markets because the standards of sourcing and distribution of quality ingredients, service training (a story in itself), decor and the cooking itself are simply too high.

That being said, there's hope: I've noticed on my frequent American travels that the line-ups are longest at the best chains: a recent report indicates that the average line-up at PF Chang's is 57 minutes and that, as a result, the chain is now taking reservations. Salty, sweet, sour, and bitter seemingly resonates more strongly than factory Alfredo, and even more so than the vacuous (and now bankrupt) Planet Hollywood and Rainforest Cafe chains.

Edited by jamiemaw, 28 September 2005 - 04:04 PM.

from the thinly veneered desk of:
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#37 stovetop

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Posted 28 September 2005 - 01:58 PM

Jamie said:
"But it is also, depressingly, proof of your point. There are few American chains that have been able to get a toehold in western Canadian markets because the standards of sourcing and distribution of quality ingredients, service training (a story in itself), decor and the cooking itself are simply too high"


This is the main problem in the restaurant business, sourcing is where it starts, the chef does his or her menu design, then they go out and look for the raw product. Like the oyster, ah! But it is not that simple, first you must find that oyster, then you have to bring it in, then you have to store properly then you have to have someone who knows what the hell a Oyster is :blink:

I am not joking; there are a lot of rookies out there, staffing is the next biggest problem.

Getting good food is hard to find; sysco and Gordon foods have all generic crap which makes all the food taste the same, such as pre formed chicken soy pumped chicken breast, all fast food places use that crappie product, I hate it!!
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#38 chile_peppa

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Posted 28 September 2005 - 02:35 PM

From the Chicago Tribune

Boston Market (owned by McDonald's) is trying a new concept:

Instead of homestyle side dishes, the menu has a more contemporary flair. Some holdovers from the old menu remain, like creamed spinach, cinnamon apples, mashed potatoes and soon, cornbread. But sitting alongside them in the deli-style case are sides dishes like roasted beets, grilled asparagus, quinoa salad and cherry tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. There also are salads, sandwiches, wraps and individual portions of desserts like tiramisu and lemon mousse.

...

The store also sells bouquets of fresh flowers for $9.99 and soon, wines for less than $20 a bottle. Behind a few tables offering bamboo serving pieces and utensils for sale, shelves are stocked with upscale items like scone mix, blueberry salsa, and wild mushroom pasta sauce.


Corporate America will eventually respond to customer demand, perhaps slowly, but they will respond. All around me I see signs that people are becoming more interested in food: learning to cook, opening up to foods that they aren't familiar with, viewing and reading food media of all sorts, dining out more than ever, building state-of-the-art kitchens... the list goes on. The rise of this market segment is significant. But even those who are "gourmets" or "foodies" or whatever term you prefer, do not eat "high end" all the time. Chain restaurants, fast food outlets – they do serve a purpose (for whatever reasons, not everyone can prepare every meal at home every day, nor can everyone eat at restaurants like Alinea every day), and as their customers start demanding better choices, they will respond. There is a market push for better food at such restaurants as people become more knowledgeable about food, and more interesting products will be made available. After all, corporations need to make money, and if they're not responsive to their customers, they won't.
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#39 WHT

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Posted 28 September 2005 - 03:06 PM

Jamie said:

Getting good food is hard to find; sysco and Gordon foods have all generic crap which makes all the food taste the same, such as pre formed chicken soy pumped chicken breast, all fast food places use that crappie product, I hate it!!
steve

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Good point, as you get over a certain size you have to look for reliable suppliers. I can’t count the number of times I have tasted a dressing or sauce and knew where it was from. Sysco will do custom stuff but you have to be able to commit to large minimum orders. Some places do make alterations to make them seem more unique but it is often not the case.
Living hard will take its toll...

#40 clark wolf

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Posted 29 September 2005 - 09:16 PM

I'm glad to read much of this. What we're all talking about is culture, which is a living, growing, changing thing. Each element has it's place. Chains are not monolithic. They are very different from each other. Starbucks has been good for American in a lot of ways. It has taught a whole new generation or two that serving food can include personality (and maybe blue hair and an eyebrow pierce...) and that being warm and friendly can actually be a smart choice. They also happen to support a lot of good movements. Micky D can empty a forrest if it chooses a new paper product. Starbucks can make fair trade food practices popular and viable. And it's still better coffee than in most other places. Not the worlds best perfectly every time but really very good.

At it's best. "dumbing down" can actually be offering more broadly, which is less exclusive but certainly not dumb. I really hae no trouble sharing. We have plenty, and it's good, and a real and critical part of dining, past and I hope future - to share.


In Ireland, we are playing “catch up” in many ways.  Our recent economic boom has been very dramatic and really only started to kick in financially for most people in 1998/99.  In terms of the dining landscape, this has meant that there are now restaurants in suburbs that would previously have been unable to support such a business.  The market is not dominated by chains to the same extent that the US is, it’s more dominated by independent “type”.  These tend to be lack lustre Italian, Indian or Thai imitators, with pretty awful food that’s served up from similar buckets of sauce.  So, it’s not the “chain” shackle that is holding them down.  It’s the choice of an easy option.  They have the location, location, location advantage and I don’t see too many of them closing..

However, the “evil global food giant” sound bite is a media favourite over here (as I think it is in most places), and whilst I detest the one sided laziness in which this debate is presented, it is having an effect.  And people are talking, and questioning the quality of the food they are buying and this will inevitably lead to all restaurants (and not just McDonalds and the likes) coming under the same scrutiny. 

I agree with the comments upthread that corporations respond to market needs as opposed to drive them which is a much costlier process.  That’s why they invest heavily in surveys and market research.  However, sometimes the information, however enlightening about the move to a healthier lifestyle, can be interpreted inappropriately.  For instance, in a supermarket recently, I saw a new product which was a bag of fresh fruit segments with a shelf life of 5 days or so.  This, I am sure, was a response to the earnest desire of time poor parents to give their children a convenient healthy snack for school.  But this product was an abomination, an oxymoron of fresh food trickery.  The apple segments which were treated so that they did not turn brown had a slightly spongy quality on the outside and left a chalky residue in the mouth.  I don’t blame the fruit importers for trying to break into the snack sector, but I found the “fruit” of their labour scary, to say the least and I really don’t think they’ll find too many kids pestering for it.  But I don’t think that this was a dumbing down of fresh apples,  It was simply a misguided response to market change, in this case probably “ I’d eat healthier if I had the time to peel an apple”. 

The point is that corporations, food chains and restaurants will respond.  People are looking for change but it won’t happen overnight.  So I’m going to throw my optimistic hat into the things are going to get better ring, accepting that they’re never going to be perfect.

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#41 MarketStEl

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Posted 29 September 2005 - 09:27 PM

Growing up as I did on canned vegetables, I guess I don't share Holly's pessimism.

I too remember eating at a number of small mom-and-pop restaurants in Kansas City where the food was, let's say, serviceable. Better than fuel, but not really great. For Chrissakes, when I was growing up there, the city's cafeterias were touted as among the better places to eat out! (This was back when the local elites were trying very hard to distance themselves from anything that might remind anyone that the city really was a cowtown at heart; since then, the upper crust have learned to stop worrying and embrace barbecue and decent burgers, and from that gesture--for which a debt of gratitude is owed to Calvin Trillin--all sorts of good things have flowed.)

We have had predictable, middling chain restaurants for decades. White Castle dates to 1921, I believe J.W. Marriott's Hot Shoppes in and around Washington are not that much younger, and Howard Johnson began spreading orange roofs and 28 flavors of ice cream across the country in the 1930s. Many of today's chains offer fare that's a good deal more flavorful than what I ate at the aforementioned mom-and-pops, if not higher in quality, and certainly more interesting than what you got at HoJo's--and served to you faster to boot.

IOW, as our palates have gotten more educated, both the indie and chain restaurants have had to improve their offerings. Now as then, the good indie restaurants beat the chains taken collectively hands down for inventiveness and quality, but as has been already noted, the better chains are no longer content to settle for lowest-common-denominator fare.

As for the posters who have noted that they've eaten very well in poorer communities, may I suggest that this has less to do with having high-class ingredients and more to do with putting time and care into the foods they work with? I can think of few vegetables that can outdo some well-prepared collard or mustard greens for taste, for example. You're probably still going to find canned Parmesan in the pantries of the houses where such greens are made, but boy, those greens are going to be great.
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#42 vmilor

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Posted 30 September 2005 - 02:54 AM

There are quite a few fascinating posts here and I would like to thank again the organizers and participants. Some minor points:

1. I hope the idea of "golden age of dining" did not come from my post. I have never implied it.

2. I suppose I am more pessimistic than most (those who grew on canned vegetables) because my comparators and baseline are different. It is true that America is a "polyglot" country (as is Turkey) but there are so many pressures for homogenizing which risk to turn it into a "polyglut" culture. The "average citizen" is of course an approximation, an ideal typical model which lives in the mind of socilogists and may not live up to comparisons with flesh and blood examples. On the other hand, for every single story of the immigrant who clings to tradition there are 10 of them which cease to resist and end up microwaving frozen crap. The life pressures are just relentless.

3. I also compare day care food here in Istanbul and there in Atlanta. Our 3.5 years old has been in different day cares. When in US they eat frozen pizza and chicken nougets and processed cheese all the time and, at home, she sneers at our cooking. In Turkey, they eat so much more varied and better and she then devours lamb chops, fish and shellfish and vegetables cooked in olive oil with us. I suppose her palate will be very different depending on where she grows up.

Apologies from Molly for gender confusion and thanks to 2 participants for bringing to my attention. At the same time, my brand of male chauvinism is such that when I am intellectually attracted to some arguments from unknown people I may subconsciously wish it is a "she" and then I become more motivated to start a dialogue!

#43 mrsadm

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Posted 30 September 2005 - 03:42 AM

I suggest we all quit moaning about low dining standards and chain restaurants. Was American dining any better off when mothers made jello salads, TV dinners and other atrocities of the 1950's? I don't think so.

"Dining" at a chain means to most people letting others do the work after you've put in an exhaustive week at work. Let Olive Garden do the shopping, chopping, cooking, serving, and cleaning up. Americans work longer hours per week than any other country in the world, and many of our households have BOTH spouses doing so.
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#44 M.X.Hassett

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Posted 30 September 2005 - 03:38 PM

I suggest we all quit moaning about low dining standards and chain restaurants.  Was American dining any better off when mothers made jello salads, TV dinners and other atrocities of the 1950's?  I don't think so. 

"Dining" at a chain means to most people letting others do the work after you've put in an exhaustive week at work.  Let Olive Garden do the shopping, chopping, cooking, serving, and cleaning up.  Americans work longer hours per week than any other country in the world, and many of our households have BOTH spouses doing so.

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Chains are normally more expensive than local indies why not eat at the local italian rest' intead of
OG, you support local economy and probably local suppliers. IMHO
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