For the readers who do not yet know me, I am a Michelin Star trained chef.
I have trained for 8 years in the most renowned catering colleges of my time, and further, in restaurants under Alain Ducasse, and later on, disciples of Gary Rhodes and Raymond Blanc.
I arrived in London, UK, in my early twenties with my head filled with dreams of achieving greatness in the world of cooking. Following my employment under Alain Ducasse, I decided to stay a little longer and finally learn the language.
Afraid to make a fool of myself or be thrown out of the window (I am sure you know of the Gordon Ramsey type of chef) for looking like a goldfish whenever I am given a task to do, I went to work for a company of pan-Asian restaurants.
All of my hopes and dreams went crashing down so hard that I can still hear the fracas.
The kitchen staff, no longer called chefs, a kitchen no longer called a brigade, and this is for good reasoning. I was the only trained chef in the entire chain. I was positioned to Sous-chef within a week, even though I could barely put two words in the language together.
I was horrified to see individuals claiming to be chefs, or at least to know a thing or two about cooking, but knowing nothing about health and safety.
I have completed the actual council training, a level 2 (the minimum certificate to be able to cook in commercial establishments), in 20 minutes, and passed. Apparently, it typically takes weeks.
With the lack of knowledge regarding health and safety, this means that the customers who were hoping to have a great meal out, may or may not go home via the ER.
If Pixar has made a rat in the kitchen an oh-so-sweet affair, by giving it a name: Ratatouille, to me, it is not so sweet when in real life, the said rat is eating a dead rat right in front of your eyes, and chefs are still cooking around them.
And this is not an isolated story: The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 others are hospitalized, and 3,000 people die of foodborne diseases (eating contaminated food). Up to 74% of the total illnesses originate from food services, according to the Alliance for Food & Farming.
Every day, restaurants are closed by health and safety departments, including from well-known chains.
Ok, I hear you. You may feel somewhat scared now so I will change the subject.
In top restaurants, you can expect an immaculate level of hygiene, after all, chefs working in such establishments have signed a contract similar to the army, and you have to follow the rules like you would in the army. Uniforms must be adequately ironed and be cleaned, and the kitchen deep-cleaned weekly.
Knowing this, you know that you can be safe. Plus, the reputation of these restaurants is dependent on having a clean record.
What you may not know is the true meaning of “rich” foods. Potato mash, for example, must be rich and comforting, almost melting on the tongue, and the only way a top chef achieves this is by adding 50–100 g of butter and 50–100 ml of double cream, working all the ingredients until smooth, light and delicious.
A jus, commonly called gravy, is wine reduction with veal (or chicken) stock, and believe it or not, 50–100 g of butter, to make it rich and shiny. If you order a very expensive steak with potato mash, you have probably consumed an entire pack of butter, in one single meal. And, that is, if you did not have a dessert.
This is somewhat pleasing because it is whole foods, but consider all the cheaper options. For example, when buying a meal from a chain and eating on a plastic tray, you would be scared for life if you could read the labels of the pre-made sauces and dressing used. Out of the entire list of ingredients, you may only recognise a couple, and already they do not sound nice. Salt, Sugar, gums, thickeners, and plenty of E-numbers.
Why on earth do they taste nice then? Thanks to MSG, anything tastes nice.
MSG has about 25 different names, and you would need to be an expert to spot it. It was at the Pan-Asian restaurant that I was first exposed to MSG, and it was added, by the ladle full, in every single recipe. Our Red Thai Curry recipe, for example, contained over 500 g of MSG, and that was for only 5 Litres, the equivalent of 10–15 portions.
Having never been exposed to such chemically-engineered ingredients, it was quite exciting. The before and after taste was so unbelievable, I wanted to add it to all of my food. That was until I realised what it was.
I am not writing about “natural” substances that can make it into your food. There are enough of these “incidents” reported nationally.
I will leave you with one piece of advice:
Never upset the Chef!
If you complain, do it nicely. It seems that some chefs are not scared of breaking the law to get back at you, and somehow feel okay about it. This is especially true if you are at a restaurant chain. The kitchen staff probably knows very little about hygiene or what dragging your food on the floor, or worse, can do to your health.