We live in a “frozen” world… food wise that is

I have been working on 4 different topics for my next post, then I thought I should get this one out, since it has been on my mind a lot lately…

Do you watch “Kitchen Nightmares”? Lately Lesli (my wife) started recording “Restaurant Impossible” and “Restaurant Stakeout”, have you heard of those? As you start watching these shows, you will being to ponder. What have I been eating? How to spot a good restaurant from a bad one? Is it fresh or frozen? So I started going through some of my experiences and align them with these shows and started to put a few things together. The following are my observations only.. some of them are assumptions and may not be actual… How about that for a disclaimer? (No food was harmed in writing of this blog).

It all started 20 years ago while I was working as a manager for big Fast Food chain on Campus and they announced release of their “Grilled Chicken” sandwich and we will be receiving “equipment” soon. When we received our package, it consisted of an iron ring, a spatula and a lid. The instructions said… “when you receive your grilled chicken, place it on the hot plate inside the iron ring, pour some water, put the lid on and let it heat 3 minutes on each side. That’s because the meat already came pre-cooked, with perfect grill lines… there is no way in hell we are grilling chicken breasts in kitchen taking risk of them cooked incorrectly by hourly employees. It makes perfect sense – quality control and risk management. Till today I still can’t get over the fact how much of the fast food comes already prepared.

Then a few years ago I went to late lunch with a customer to a Chinese restaurant. Our order arrived very quickly and it burned my customer’s mouth when he tried to eat it. He spit it out and said, “damn microwaves” – I asked why… he said.. there is no way that food could be that hot in such a short time on a traditional stove, the only way it could be so hot is the microwave. Since then, I have been noticing temperature of food quite closely.

Watching the above mentioned “shows”, it is pretty apparent that quick service comes with a price, most of the time it includes frozen food or re-heated left overs from a big batch. Also, fresh food is tough to get and always tastes the best and costs more too. Have you tried to eat seafood in Jacksonville, Florida and Denver, Colorado?

Now some of the so called high end hotels I stay at, all have restaurants, some big, some small. The big ones (chains, signature restaurants like Palm) are good, but most others resort to frozen food. One time I ordered wings… the ranch dressing was still cold and solid in middle and Celery is slightly hot, may be a little too much “thawing” – every wing was “perfect”… so must be pre-packaged. Then I looked through their entire menu… it is all setup for quick preparation… probably 2 or 3 separate packets thrown together and heated. The golden test here is to try to customize… if you say, can you make it without sauce or certain vegetable, they will say it comes pre-mixed… then it is probably not fresh. Don’t get me wrong here, there are a lot of good pre-made meals – like soups – the same perfect taste every time reheated to perfection 🙂

Then today I ordered flatbread and same soup I had last night at this new hotel, that went through major multi-million dollar renovation. The soup is good – same “EXACT” copy of what it was yesterday – the Chef can’t be this consistent every day. The flatbread is also elegant and fancy looking, mushrooms arranged perfectly on it, no uneven spots, but the actual bread is still brittle from reheating (probably not enough moisture) and the waiter tried to convince me that it is one of the best thing “chef” makes… Ok, I buy that… NOT!

On a positive side, we went to a Chinese restaurant at the end of street from the Condo we were staying at in Vancouver. It looked like a dive from outside, but when we went inside, half of it was open kitchen and half seating area… Bingo… I like open kitchens… you can see the chefs tossing noodles, stir frying orders, not reheating in microwaves.

It is tough to find these “fresh” restaurants since most of them use frozen stuff… but you can find these now and then… one of the Mexican places in Roswell, Georgia, family owned, in a strip mall, but always the best… they make all their salsa from scratch. Talking of which, I am looking forward to lots of fresh food on our vacation coming up in the small town of Bucerias north of Puerto Vallarta… No Chains, just family restaurants.

So in conclusion.. here is what I started doing…

1. Read Trip Advisor and Yelp reviews, most of the problem ones get weeded out here.
2. Look for places with open kitchen or have “specials” that are not printed (have you seen some restaurants that have same specials all month?? I did :))
3. Try to find non-chain restaurants… this idea has risks, since not everyone has high quality, so have to be selective and ask either bartenders or locals for suggestions.

Please share your thoughts and experiences, as this will help me eat better in my travels. Believe it or not I have been ordering a lot of soup and salads recently…. Eat Healthy!!!

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