Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares & the curse of pre-made food

I’ve been watching the British version of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and I’m enjoying it quite a bit.  I’ve watched the American version before, but I never really liked it. Every episode seemed the same and Ramsay was just so mean and cruel to the restaurant owners.  The British version (which started in 2004) is much better.  Ramsay swears a lot and sometimes he gets into people’s faces, but it looks like he’s honestly trying to help the restaurants get better.  Now, it’s true that his formula for success is always the same:

-Simplify the menu: offer just a few dishes that the kitchen can manage and do well

-Use fresh, local ingredients whenever possible

-Simplify dishes: let the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves

-Have a concept behind the menu: whether it be “new American”, “Irish inspired” or whatever

-Play to the local audience: with dishes they will understand and embrace

-Offer good value and competitive prices

-Have great lines of communications between the kitchen & dining room staff

-The manager/chef must have a firm command of the restaurant/kitchen and not be afraid to demand best performance from workers.

-Chefs must learn to delegate/communicate appropriately with kitchen staff

-Promote the restaurant by going to the people

but it seems like a good formula.

All of this makes sense, of course, but it’s surprisingly hard to do.  I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) about how many restaurants serve commercially manufactured food, stuff they buy frozen and then just reheat in the microwave. It’s easy to understand why: reheating things is much easier than cooking it yourself and while it’s not necessarily cheaper ingredient wise, it saves a lot of money labor-wise.  And it’s not a complete surprise that they’re doing this.  I expect all the foods served at chain restaurants, for example, to be manufactured at a central facility and then re-heated.  And I think we can expect any deep fried appetizer at a regular restaurant to be commercially made, plus only top restaurants have pastry chefs, which means most restaurants must be buying their desserts commercially.  But I didn’t realize how extensive this practice was.  In France, for example, the majority of restaurants serve frozen food that they pass as the real thing. The food, filled with flavor enhancers of all types, is tasty enough to fool French gourmets so it must be quite good.  And don’t think it’s any better in America, tens of thousands of restaurants – including top rated ones like Thomas Keller‘s Bouchonserve  manufactured frozen food. Even Gordon Ramsey himself has been caught serving pre-made food at his restaurants – albeit the food is cooked daily and, supposedly, without preservatives or enhancers.  As a restaurant patron, I have to say I’m appalled by the practice. If I want frozen food, I can buy it myself and microwave it.  Indeed, I wish these foods were available at retails here.

Even restaurants that don’t rely on manufactured food, may take short-cuts themselves pre-cooking and then re-heating their food offerings or using less-than-fresh ingredients.  Indeed, the former is probably what’s going on with Ramsey’s restaurants (though he, himself, has decried that practice).  Now, there are a few things out there that can be frozen without any loss of quality (things made with puff pastry, for example) and there are many dishes (stews, braises, soups) that should be made in advance and then refrigerated and reheated before serving (though for things with meats, and in particular chicken, stove-top reheating is preferred).  But in one of the restaurants in Kitchen Nightmares they were pre-cooking the hamburgers.  Now I suspect that if a restaurant won’t serve you a medium-rare burger, it’s not because of safety concerns but because their patties are pre-cooked. My new rule: if I can’t get a burger medium rare, I’m not ordering it.

Given all this, what I think restaurant reviewers should do from now on is take a look at restaurant kitchens, preferably during dinner service, so they can see whether cooks are cooking or re-heating, though even noting the number of freezers and microwaves can give you a clue as to what they’re doing in that kitchen.


Cookbook Review: Gordon Ramsay’s Fast Food

I wouldn’t say I’m the biggest fan of Gordon Ramsay’s (I’d probably have to eat in his restaurants to really appreciate him), but I do like watching Kitchen Nightmares from time to time – even though the program is all in all pretty repetitive.

Anyway, I saw Ramsay’s cookbook (Gordon Ramsay’s Fast Food) at the library and thought I’d give it a try. During the week, I do need recipes that can be done rather quickly. Plus I wanted to see if he’s as good as he believes.

One thing I can say, is that his book reflects his personality, at least as seen on TV. The book is completely frantic, going from one topic to another apparently randomly. Instead of having the recipes organized by ingredient, they are intercepted by recipes from different cuisines or courses. A chapter on working lunches, for example, is followed by one on Mexican flavors. The book is also very colorful and has pretty pictures of all the included dishes. The recipes are relatively simple, though not necessarily cheap.

The first dish I tried was his Pasta with pancetta, leek & mushrooms. Rather than spend $ on pancetta, I used bacon. I did use creme fraiche, which was a waste of money (I bought it at Safeway, it’s half as cheap at Trader Joe’s). I can’t imagine it made too much of a difference. In any case, I was not impressed. The dish was quite bland. It’d have been much better (but much more caloric) with twice the amount of bacon. I did add a lot of Parmesan cheese, and that helped – but then again, pasta with Parmesan cheese by itself is pretty good. I would not make this dish again. You can find my adaptation of the recipe below.

The second dish was Baked pork chops with a piquant sauce, a recipe which you can also find online. I followed this one pretty closely as well, though I used a different type of mushrooms and used dried thyme instead of fresh (because I couldn’t find fresh thyme last time I went to Safeway). My one big mistake was misreading “1 Tbsp” sugar for “1 tsp” sugar – so the resulting sauce was a tad too sweet. Mike liked the overall dish, but I wasn’t too impressed yet again. It just seemed like an average dish, not bad, not great. I probably wouldn’t make it again either. My version of the recipe (with the correct amount of sugar) is below as well.

BTW, IMHO, the recipe produces too much sauce for the pork chops, I’d either reduce it by a third or use it with 6 pork chops. I served them with buttermilk mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli.

Finally, I made Sticky Lemon Chicken, another recipe easily found online. Indeed, it seems that you can find many of his recipes online, so it may not be worth it to buy his cookbook at all (it’s pretty sad that he has to recycle old recipes into a new book, rather than coming up with new ones). In any case, even though I skipped the fresh thyme and parsley listed in the original recipe, the results were quite good. I should say that the recipe calls for 1 large chicken cut into pieces – there is no suggestion that the chicken should be boneless. HOWEVER, as I suspected, my bone-in chicken parts did not cook in the 15 minutes it takes for the sauce to cook. I’d suggest that you either use boneless chicken for this recipe, or be prepared to cook the chicken for at least half an hour. I’d also suggest that you cover the dish while cooking. My suggestions are incorporated into the recipe below.

When l originally wrote this posting, I forgot dessert! Indeed, I made one of the desserts from the book, the Banana mousse with butterscotch ripple, it was very easy, quite good and extremely caloric. Still, it’s definitely the sort of dessert you can whip up when you really, really, really want something sweet to finish a meal – and happen to have both bananas and whipping cream handy. I did like how easy it was to make the butterscotch. This was my second adventure in candy making (the first being toffee).

Recipes

Penne with Bacon, Leeks & Mushrooms

  • 10 oz dried penne
  • salt
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 6 slices of bacon, chopped
  • 1 large leek, finely sliced
  • 8 oz button mushrooms, sliced
  • salt & pepper
  • 2 Tbsp. creme fraiche
  • 1 bunch Italian parsley, chopped
  • Parmesan cheese

Boil the penne in salted water until al dente.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil to medium-high in a large skillet. Add the bacon and cook until golden brown. Add the leek and mushrooms; season with salt & pepper. Cook over high heat until the leeks are tender, about 6-8 minutes, stirring frequently.

Drain the pasta and immediately mix with the leek/mushroom mixture and the creme fraiche. Season again with salt & pepper. Sprinkle with the parsley and mix. Serve with Parmesan cheese.

Baked Pork Chops with a Piquant Sauce

  • olive oil
  • 4 pork chops
  • sea salt & pepper
  • 1 tsp. thyme
  • 3 rosemary sprigs (leaves only)
  • 1/2 head of garlic, separated into cloves but left unpeeled
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1 red Jalapeño, seeded and chopped
  • 8oz white button mushrooms, sliced
  • 14 oz can diced tomatoes
  • 1 tsp. sugar

Preheat the oven to 400F. Lightly oil a baking sheet large enough to accommodate the pork chops.

Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides of the pork chops. Place in the baking sheet and sprinkle with thyme. Put the rosemary leaves and unpeeled garlic cloves on top of the pork chops. Drizzle with olive oil. Put in the oven and cook until done 20-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. Heat 3 Tbsp. olive oil in a large saucepan and add the onion, red pepper, jalapeño and mushrooms. Cook until softened, about 6 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and mix well. Season with salt and pepper and add sugar, mix. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 10-12 minutes, until the onions are tender and the sauce has thickened.

Once the pork chops are ready, let them rest for 5 minutes. Plate them, pour any liquid remaining in the baking sheet onto the sauce, and mix well. Spoon the sauce onto the pork chops and serve.

Sticky Lemon Chicken

  • 5 lb bone-in chicken pieces (or equivalent boneless chicken)
  • sea salt & black pepper
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 head of garlic, halved horizontally
  • 1 tsp. dried thyme
  • 2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • 3 Tbsp. honey
  • 1/4 cup hot water
  • 1 lemon, finely sliced

Salt and pepper the chicken. Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and garlic and sprinkle with thyme. Brown the chicken on both sides.

Add the sherry vinegar and boil until reduced by half. Add the soy sauce and honey and shake the pan to mix. Add the hot water and lemon slices. Mix well. If using bone-in chicken, cover the pan and cook until the chicken is almost done (half an hour or so). Then uncover and boil the liquid until syrupy. If using boneless chicken, cook uncovered until the chicken is done and the liquid is syrupy, around 10 minutes, turning once.

Banana mousse with butterscotch ripple

  • 4 large ripe bananas
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 3 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 1/4 cups whipping cream
  • squeeze of lemon juice
  • 1 oz semisweet chocolate

Place the bananas in the freezer for 1-2 hours, if possible. When they are ready, peel and chop them.

Meanwhile, make the butterscoth sauce by putting the sugar, butter and 2/3 cup of whipping cream in a small heavy pot and cooking it over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved and the butter is melted, stirring constantly. Let it bubble for a couple of minutes, still stirring, and then remove from the heat and let the sauce cool down completely.

Put the bananas, the lemon juice and the remaining whipping cream in a blender bowl. Blend until smooth and creamy.
To assemble, spoon some butterscotch along the sides of 4 glasses or serving bowls. Pour in the banana mousse and top with some more butterscotch. Grate some chocolate on top of each bowl and serve.

Marga’s Best Recipes