One of the questions I’ve often been asked at Culinary Arts teaching interviews has been to identify my culinary perspective. Insofar as my father was in the service, I grew up abroad in Ghana, Thailand, and El Salvador. As an adult, I also spent 8 years abroad teaching at private American schools in Saudi Arabia and Beirut, Lebanon. As a result of these experiences, my culinary perspective has been that of international casual dining.
Why not fine dining?
Sadly, I’m allergic to alcohol. I’m told that my body lacks an enzyme to digest this chemical compound. If I were to take a drink, I wouldn’t get a pleasant buzz and I certainly wouldn’t get inebriated. The merest sip of alcohol sends my blood pressure up and turns my face beet red. Anything I drink after that gives me a horrible headache. I essentially suffer from the worst effects of a hangover with not of the supposedly pleasant interludes.
Although I can cook with alcohol provided it cooks off, fine dining chefs are often expected to pair wines with a given plated meal. Everything I know about wine I had to memorize while attending culinary school. I can’t speak to a wine’s fruitiness with undertones of cranberry and orange highlights because whenever I taste a drink whether it’s wine or a hard liquor, all I can taste is the alcohol.
What’s truly sad is that most culinary schools and many junior colleges with Culinary Arts departments seem to want chef instructors with fine dining background.
I’ve never really understood this because the vast majority of all restaurants in the United States are casual dining. Some are fast food chains like McDonald’s and Taco Bell. Some are full service restaurants such as the Cracker Barrel and Applebees. There are also a great many family owned diners and all sorts of ethnic foods restaurants.
Although fast food restaurants and a great many casual dining chains overly rely on the use of processed foods such as powdered or bagged frozen concentrated gravy, frozen vegetables, and even preformed frozen hamburger patties that only need to be thrown on the grill, there are still a great many restaurants that need people who know how to cook from scratch.
If you’ve ever watched TV shows like Food Network’s Kitchen Nightmares which features Chef Gordon Ramsey or Restaurant Impossible which features another British Chef, Robert Irvine, the single biggest mistake that many independently owned casual dining restaurants fall into is the use of processed foods.
They use bagged frozen mashed potatoes, frozen breaded fish, frozen shoestring fries, and even frozen pizza crust with canned Marinara Sauce. The use of such products allows them to cutback on hiring trained staff because it doesn’t take a lot of know how to deep fry frozen fries or to assemble a pizza using frozen dough and canned sauce.
What these owners don’t understand is that by using processed foods, they’re lowering the quality of what they sell. They’re paying higher food costs for the convenience of using an indifferently made processed food product. They’re also serving food that could just as easily be purchased in the frozen section of any supermarket and heated at home without the 30-40% markup and the 15% gratuity.
To borrow a term that I learned from my young (and hip) students, the ability to make food from scratch is”the bomb.” The first time I heard this, I thought a student was disparaging the plated Pasta Alfredo that we had produced and sold as a plated special through our student operated fast food restaurant. I initially thought that the student disliked our food so much that he wanted to blow it up but as he later explained explained, he had in fact really liked our Pasta Alfredo, so much so that the marching band (of which he was a member), later adopted a movement that was named, “The Pasta Alfredo.” (GRIN)
For lunch today I produced a vegan version of a classic American comfort food – Macaroni and Cheese that I served with some sauteed vegetables.
In vegan cuisine, I think there’s a tendency for many cooks to look for vegan equivalents to a given product. When producing mac and cheese, I think there is a tendency to substitute dairy milk for soy milk.
I tried this when I first went vegan and didn’t like the result. Soy milk has a slightly sweet aftertaste to it while real dairy milk is creamy … particularly if you’re using regular milk instead of skim (which to me always tasted like colored water.)
The vegan mac and cheese pictured above was made using water with pureed silken tofu into which I added melted margarine (for the rich fatty flavor) and melted soy cheese. The tofu gave the cheese sauce a creamy texture. The margarine added some much needed fat. The soy cheese made this mixture yellow while also adding a pleasantly cheesy flavor.
This dish would go well with a vegan sausage. My cookbook, Unintentional Vegan: Pork, has recipes for several sausages such as Italian, Chorizo, and Green Chili. Mac and cheese would also go well with grilled vegetables.
A recipe for this vegan mac and cheese will appear in a future Unintentional Vegan cookbook for soups and side dishes.
In the meanwhile, since I’ve decided to take a break from making vegan seafood, I think that tomorrow I’ll prepare some Butler Soy Curls for a vegan beef steak tips with mushrooms in brown gravy.
David Chin, Author of:
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