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Common Foodsense: There’s More to Cooking Than Deliciousness

I was cooking with some friends the other day when I gained a moment of perspective and realized that I was an idiot. This sort of thing happens to me more often than I care to admit, but I no longer have the energy to worry much about it, and besides, it puts me in good company: I could be in politics. And it always seems to happen when I’m doing something I know how to do, and make the mistake of being slightly impressed with myself.

The most recent occasion was trout. An Alsatian trout, specifically, that I used to make five nights a week in my youth, stuffed with a shiitake duxelle—a coarse puree of mushrooms and shallots cooked in butter—and braised in dry Riesling. It gets finished by making the braising liquid into a cream sauce with more sautéed shiitakes and shallots, which is then poured over the skinned upper side of the trout (leave the skin on the lower side, please, so it doesn’t fall to bits). It’s finicky, fatty and fabulous, and a tremendous pain to do as a line cook, and I was being pleased with my younger self when I realized what a dope he was about food costs.

At the time, I was the chef of San Francisco’s Café Maisonnette (chef by courtesy; I was also the prep cook, sauté cook, saucier and expediter). I thought that I had a pretty good handle on the costs of my ingredients: I did all the ordering, after all, and had instituted a variety of money-saving elements to my purchasing program. For instance, on my way to work I would steal fresh rosemary from a house near the bus stop whose retaining wall and front yard were entirely covered with it. I helped myself to nasturtiums in the little park that I crossed to get to the grocery store, where I bought frenched lamb racks for a dollar a pound less than my meat company charged for them with the fat cap still on.

But still, I never sat down to do a recipe costing, and at that point in my life, I didn’t really know how. Nor did I care. It was quite a teeny place—eight tables and 28 seats, two burners, one cook, one dishwasher, two servers or three when it was busy (no bus or pantry people; they handled that)—and so we thought we were close enough to everything that went on that we didn’t need to bother with precisely balancing the till or precisely costing the recipes.

There was some truth to this. We didn’t take inventory, either—you could have asked me at any time what we had in the fridge (not walk-in or reach-in: fridge) and I’d have told you. This was not an amazing feat of memory; I keep more in my refrigerator at home than we needed there. 

Inventory, however, is one of those things which lies in wait for the unwary cook looking for a careless career advancement. It pounces just when you think you can go home and sleep—or just when you think you have crawled out of the primordial sea of wage work onto the bright shore of exempt employment. Now you get to learn what “exempt” means. Bring a thermos of coffee and a pillow.

And why, you ask, must we traverse this hell? Why, when none of those fancy places you worked at in 1980s North Beach even bothered? Did Ronnie the ex-pool-shark turned chef at Washington Square stay up till four every first-of-month to count napkins? Do you think his ability to calculate the angles of a bank shot ever translated, beneath the florescent lights of some grim back room, into neat columns of menu prices and ingredient costs?

I can guarantee that it didn’t; I worked with Ronnie. However, I also worked with the accountant upstairs, and I will bet that she had a monthly date with the coolers. Even if no one else had suggested it, she would have: There was just too much money tied up there to ignore, and she wasn’t the sort to do that.  And she probably would have insisted on someone costing out the recipes if the place had been a more normal restaurant, and not one of the most crowded watering holes in town. As it was, the bar had enough business that it probably could have supported a loss in the kitchen—but the restaurant tended to be packed, too, and the prices weren’t low. Fabulous revenue covers a multitude of minor sins, so why search them out if you don’t need to? If it don’t rain, the roof don’t leak.

The answer becomes apparent when one opens a second unit, and then a third. As you expand, your unknowns grow and grow, and sometimes they turn out to be ravenous beasts in search of a snack, looking right at you. The iconic onesie, that incarnation of the ideal restaurant, has to have so many pieces of its existence going absolutely right—the personality of the owner, the service, the food, the location, the adoption by a locale as its special place—that its health is endangered by an injury to any one of them. Opening a second unit can be a defensive posture, or a long-planned step towards world dominion. Either way, the skill set begins to change.

So there I am, thinking about the yield loss in a duxelles for the first time, and realizing that it took me half a pound each of shiitakes and cremini to make enough to stuff four trout. Fifteen dollars’ worth of mushrooms, plus butter and shallots and labor. Divided by four. And the trout, and the Riesling, and the cream. And I’m thinking that perhaps the popularity of the dish wasn’t just because it was delicious (which it was) or unique to our restaurant (which, at least in our neighborhood, it also was) or because the vintner who made the Riesling loved it (which he did), but because some yahoo in the kitchen was selling it at cost. Oops. 

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 foodsense@hotmail.com or 612-236-6463.

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