There was a time, not so long ago, when kitchens put a premium on making things from scratch.
Baking one’s own bread and making desserts from personal recipes was a source of pride as well as a marketing difference. Many foodservice operations cut and portioned their own cattle, fish and poultry. Soups, marinades and condiments were also an essential part of back-of-the-house food preparation. Such artisanship, attention to detail and quality remains an integral part of many fine and independent restaurants.
However, as time has passed, the role of the kitchen staff has evolved from old-fashioned cook to high-tech assembler. In some cases, such as in-flight kitchens and other large providers of food, there is almost zero cooking done in the kitchen.
Two major developments spurred this evolution:
The Rise of Technology
When we think of technology, we normally think about computers, programs, and such. Now, we can add food engineering to that list. Consider, for instance, that seeds are being engineered to last longer; that recipes are changed to add moisture and texture (e.g. adding ice crystals inside a muffin that alter its normal consistency); how modified air packaging increases shelf life from one week to as much as 90 days for “fresh” food.
In many cases, these engineered products taste just as good while providing a quicker reconstitution. Even flavors are simulated as a way to reduce waste and add efficiency. Vanilla, lemon, saffron and many other ingredients are now “grown” synthetically. Starbucks does not have a bunch of pumpkins in the back room in order to make their popular Pumpkin Latte; they add flavored syrup in specified amounts to create this holiday treat.
Food purchasers are no longer restricted by the ability to get what they need in a timely fashion. Product shelf life has added to the distance products can ship. The ease of shipping combined with advanced software allows you to track the movement of your order in a highly efficient manner.
Today’s food comes pre-cooked and pre-portioned. All it needs is that final warm up, reconstitution and presentation on the plate.
Where some would say this is terrible, you may have no idea how often you have eaten these products and surprised at how good the food tastes and looks. Technology in food engineering and processing equipment coupled with better logistics has given companies the ability to specialize. Investments can be made in equipment and research because of the return on investment from a larger purchasing base.
As a food purchaser, you are emboldened by how such pre-conceived and delivered food reduces labor costs and increases value.
Small and large restaurants and foodservice companies need to ask, “What do I need to produce in-house that will drive my customer’s satisfaction?” Do you need to have your own bakery? Should you be cutting steaks in-house or buy them pre-portioned? Is it better to buy a fresh chicken, cut it up and deal with waste, potential injury, over-portioning and spoilage versus having pre-portioned, frozen char-grilled and marked chicken?
Some chefs would shout absolutely and with unbridled passion: “Give me Fresh or Give me Death!” In addition, they may be right about many things that are made in their kitchen. If the marketing and menu philosophy of a restaurant relies on the statement that everything is made by hand, in-house from scratch using only fresh food, then, of course, you should abide by what has made you great and successful.
However, it might also be time to take a second look at some parts of your menu based on consistency, efficiency and waste. Where do you want to put your efforts? If you can prove your method drives customers, then continue. But if you cannot, then why do it?