Common Foodsense: Time to Get a Second Rubber Spatula?
I was cooking with my daughter-in-law recently when she asked me if I had always been cheap, or if it was learned behavior. I was flattered, of course. This was an informational question: She started working in restaurants when she was 16, so chef-ly idiosyncrasies were not new to her; she just wanted to know where mine came from.
I can’t remember what started the conversation, but I think it was rubber spatulas. She didn’t have any at one point, so I had gone out and bought a couple. Culinary virtue is not impossible to achieve without a rubber spatula, but it’s a lot more difficult. I still remember clearly how pissed I was when the sous chef at Narsai’s expressed his surprise and disappointment that a person like me would leave ‘two hamburgers worth of mayonnaise’ at the bottom of a five-gallon bucket. I showed him one of our rubber spats; the rubber was petrified and broken into gap-toothed serrations. I told him they were both like that (there were only two in a 12-cook kitchen), and if he’d like me to comb the mayo, I’d be happy to, but if he wanted me to get it out, the restaurant should consider an investment.
So, learned behavior, I suppose.
This also explains the plastic bags in my freezer, one of which contains parsley stems, celery butts and the outer layer of onions. Several others contain various species of fats; one is labeled”‘sifted dredging flour,” another… OK, I’m going to stop now; I feel like I’m making a list for my wife’s attorney. The cheapness that comes from looking at everything in a restaurant in terms of its cost and potential return on investment can have awkward manifestations when it’s brought back home.
It’s fun, though; and after a while it becomes almost a game. I’m reminded of the old days at Faegre’s, when we had 10 lunch specials to decide on each day, so we’d spend the first few minutes of the shift in the cooler with our jackets on, looking at what we had, what needed to move and figuring out what we could do with it. It meant we kept a weird variety of stuff around. One morning there was a plastic tub marked “red bell pepper juju,” with maybe a cup-and-a-half of rosy dark liquid in it. You roast your red peppers on the grill, you see, and then stick them in a steel bowl when the skins are blackened. The bowl gets covered with plastic wrap and ignored for 10 minutes, and the air pressure builds up under the skins and makes them easier to peel off. There is some liquid purge in the bottom, which, if you were at Faegre’s, you strained to get the ashes out and labeled “juju.” It makes quite a flavorful way to thin a vinaigrette.
So if I get quarantined in the house, I can at least play “Cheap Eye of the Chef Guy” before I need to go on the ventilator. I have enough bones, beans and rice to last me a while, and if I get bored I can probably get a new recipe or two out of them. If I had a restaurant, I’d be turning the cheap eye towards survival in an uncertain future, where my staff, supply lines and customer base might all evaporate without notice. What can I make with minimum help from shelf-stable stuff that I can order in huge amounts now in case my supplier goes down? Have I laid in enough gloves? Does a beard-net count as a mask? If people get too scared to come into a dining room, can I switch to delivery only? Who runs the show if I can’t? Does my lease say anything about force majeure? And most importantly, do I have enough rubber spatulas?
Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants, and is a chef-instructor at St. Paul College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-236-6463.