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Common Foodsense: Costing Out the High Price of Scratch Staples

I was delighted to find duck bones at my co-op this afternoon, and I promptly spent my children’s inheritance to make the stock that is now simmering away in the kitchen. This was an unexpected treat; I was never able to order duck bones for a restaurant—I had to accumulate them, duck by duck. After a month of weekend specials (“Do we have to have suprêmes with tart cherries again? That’s, like, sooo done. And so pretentious. We have to explain it every time—can’t we just call them breasts?”) Ahem. After a month you’d have enough leg quarters for confit and enough bones to make a stock. 

But now no one wants to buy a whole duck to cook at home, I guess, so the butchers are cutting them up and selling me the bones. They were two bucks a pound, putting them squarely in the luxury part of the ossuary, next to the woolly mammoth femurs and King Tut’s ankle—but I’m a big fan of duck stock. And the process is an exercise in nostalgia, taking me back to an era when kitchens obsessively avoided waste, every menu item shared DNA with every other item, and bones and fat were hoarded like the treasures they truly are.

That was a time when food was expensive and labor was cheap, and now we’ve pretty much flipped that around. I can remember the day I realized it had changed: It was almost 30 years ago, for crying out loud, and I was the new chef of Christo’s. I wanted to replace our excellent, expensive chicken base with chicken stock made in-house, thinking we could save some money. Uh huh. And homemade is always better, n’est ce-pas? Well, I was young.

After costing out the bones, vegetables, labor and trash-removal expenses (and the damn bay leaves as well, which required a gram scale, three cigarettes and the ability to make a half-educated guess), I found that homemade stock cost almost half again as much as our base. If I looked for the most expensive no-MSG base made from free-range chickens who got weekly massages and were sung to sleep by B-list Nashville stars after their gigs at local casinos, it still cost me 30 percent more. Depressing. One more skill set down the tubes, along with hand-cut fries and fluency in DOS.

Not that we’ve abandoned our affection for controlling food costs, it’s just gotten more complicated. Nowadays you need to take the exorbitant price of cut lettuce and put it up against the wage of the cook who opens the box of whole heads, cleans it and cuts it. This means salary times your multiplier for benefits, unemployment insurance, and workman’s comp, of course—as we all know, 12 bucks an hour isn’t 12 bucks an hour. Oh, sorry, I forgot: $15. And on the other end of the equation you need to measure your yield, which is 100 percent for bagged lettuce (or it had better be. If it isn’t, there’s a procedural problem) and substantially less when you cut it yourself. You will be left with an unusable core and trimmings, and a box, all of which you need to pay to get rid of, so add that in, too. And I’m assuming you know how to adjust your cost to include yield loss, right? Divide by the percentage expressed as a decimal.

I encountered several miraculous phenomena when I was teaching, and that last sentence always summoned up a particular one: You can actually hear the sound of eyes glazing over. Culinary students have been avoiding phrases like “percentage expressed as a decimal” since fourth grade. It’s like saying “Alexa, play white noise.” And when you begin the discussion of comparing “prime costs” to prepared food, you’re less likely to lose them if your comparison is phased as “cost-to-make vs. cost-to-buy.”

This is a worthwhile exercise even for the arithmetically challenged, though. It gives you the freedom to save money on trivial prep—the stuff that your customers really don’t care about (hand-shredded cabbage!)—and direct your labor hours toward the items that give you a chance to brag. Make sure you do indeed brag, though. There’s no use grinding your own burger if you don’t make a big deal about it.

With duck stock, you should probably include the time spent searching for the product in your cost-to-buy assessment. And good luck finding a base. I haven’t noticed a huge demand for this stuff—most Americans couldn’t give you the name of a classic duck soup, and if asked, will mention a vineyard or Groucho Marx—so you’re likely to have to make it yourself if you want it. If you need talking points for your servers or a recipe for garbure, let me know. 

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