Cooking in Vats
By Kay West
MARCH 20, 2000: It must have been my lucky day. All weekend long, I had fretted about a restaurant that I had visited the Thursday before and that required a second visit. This is not an indication that I liked it so much I wanted to go back for seconds, but a policy when the first visit has been, how do you say in America, less than stellar. My column deadline was fast approaching, and I hadn't yet been able to persuade any of my normally accommodating friends to join me, particularly when I told them it was a return visit. They know exactly what that means. "But I went to the last two bad restaurants," was the typical whining response that greeted my generous invitation to buy lunch.
So, there I was, Monday morning, without a lunch partner, without a column, and without a backup plan. I was pondering my limited options over coffee when there was a knock at my front door. It was only 8:05, too early for a delivery from UPS or a Jehovah's Witness. I peered though the peep hole, just in case, and there was Michael, the chef who lives around the corner. Was it a food emergency?
Actually, Michael was holding the solution to my dilemma in his hands. "Do you remember last summer when Kim and I were telling you about the Robet Orr-Sysco food show, and you said you would love to go? Well, it's today and tomorrow at the Convention Center." He handed me a ticket.
Which is how I came to be standing at the Papetti's Hygrade Egg Products booth, poking at a bag of yellow liquid marked "Egg Product for Scrambled Egg." Beside it was another bag just marked "Eggs." As Edward Leiker, director of sales, Southeast region, explained to me, the egg product for scrambled eggs contains egg, citric acid, and skim milk and should be used for scrambled eggs only; the other bag contains just whole eggs and citric acid.
The egg bag, which holds 60 eggs, is delivered, and should be stored, frozen. To cook the frozen egg product, simply toss the entire bag into a big vat of boiling water for 45 minutes. When the time is up, remove the bag from the water, knead it like a ball of dough, slice it open, pour into a warming pan, and--voila!--breakfast is served.
The whole eggs also come in a bag that is encased in a box--exactly like wine in a box--complete with a little spout. These eggs--240 to a box--are not frozen. When it comes time to make your omelette, or fritatta, or whatever, simply pull the spout, pour what you need, and close the spout. But, according to the unidentified chef on duty in the Papetti booth, when you're cooking for a really big crowd, like at a huge convention hotel similar to, ummm, Opryland for instance, you can simply take that bag out of the box, throw it in a huge vat of boiling water, along with 12 other boxed bags (that's a total of 3,120 eggs a pop), cook it up for 30 minutes, knead the bag, then throw it in a tilt skillet (kitchen lingo for a huge, round-sided skillet) to finish it, and you have breakfast for 3,000. Then, the process is repeated, sometimes twice, depending on occupancy at the hotel. Who can blame them? It's hard enough to get help these days; imagine the manpower it would take to crack open 6,240 eggs every morning.
Robet Orr-Sysco is the nation's largest food service marketer and distributor; there is no name more prevalent in Nashville's restaurant, hotel, and institutional food service industry. The prevalence of those products in a kitchen depends on the kitchen; some just purchase paper products and huge containers of herbs, others look like a Robet Orr-Sysco warehouse.
In each of its markets, the company holds an annual trade show to showcase its products and the products of its vendors. The company also dispenses handy tips on presentation, recipes, and cutting food costs. In the Pastabilities class, we were advised to mix a high-end flavored pasta with a standard macaroni product, which will raise your food costs by about a quarter, but because the plate looks fancier, you can pass along a $1-$3 increase to the customer! And here's a use for those broken pieces of dried lasagna noodles that always accumulate in the pasta box: boil them, drain them, spread them on a baking sheet, sprinkle with Italian herbs, garlic salt, and Parmesan cheese, cook them in the oven until crispy, then serve them with a bowl of marinara or pesto sauce. You can do this at home, or in your restaurant as an appetizer for $3.95 (cost to you, about 35 cents).
I discovered that Robet Orr-Sysco distributes more than 50 tomato products alone, from peeled whole California pear tomatoes to pizza sauce. There are four categories of Sysco products, from the upper-end Sysco Supreme, to Sysco Imperial, Sysco Classic, and Sysco Reliance. Under the Reliance label, you'll find things like 6-pound cans of irregularly sliced peaches. Reliance products are generally used in institutional kitchens, like hospitals and schools.
Look for a brand spankin' new appetizer called pretzarella stix, "a crispy, crunchy pretzel coating over a creamy, real mozzarella cheese stick." The pretzarella stix, along with about 50 percent of the other foods on display, were deep-fried, which bodes well for Sysco's Fry-On, "a unique combination of canola and corn oil. A wise choice [because] your patrons are concerned about their intake of saturated fats." I guarantee you that any patrons chowing down on Brew Buddies deep-fried appetizer selection of butter-battered mushrooms, beer-battered giant onion rings, breaded cream cheese-stuffed jalapenos, shrimp-and-cheese wild chili peppers, or beer-battered tater rounds with cheddar cheese and peppers aren't thinking about their saturated fat intake.
I was thinking about my saturated fat intake, along with my calorie, sodium, cholesterol, and sugar intake as I made my way through Lamb Weston's 80 potato products, La Francaise's European butter croissants and double chocolate chunk muffins, Atkins Elegant Desserts (freezable up to six months), Frionor's fish products, Zartic's pre-cooked breaded meat products, Good Old Days fruit cobblers, and Eskimo Pie's soft-serve ice cream.
As I was leaving, I ran into Tom Allen, executive chef at the Belle Meade Country Club. I asked him if anyone in Nashville restaurants was cooking anymore. He assured me that there is plenty of actual cooking going on at restaurants like Zola, Sunset, F. Scott's, Sasso, The Trace, Mad Platter, and other independents.
But, of course it's a different story at chain restaurants, and the Robert Orr-Sysco show went a long way toward explaining why the food at Applebee's, for example, tastes exactly the same as the food at Chili's; or why Olive Garden, which may be using Sysco Supreme or Imperial, tastes a smidgen better and costs more than Fazoli, which might be using Sysco Classic or Sysco Reliance.
So now, having seen and tasted for myself the products available from the nation's largest food distributor, I have a ready answer for people who ask me why I am so reluctant to review chain restaurants: Been there, done that.
Whenever the Scene takes an out-of-town trip, I am charged with finding the places we will eat. Everyone wants something that we are unable to get in Nashville--not always a difficult task--and ultimately, a memorable dining experience. This can and does include everything from a chic little French bistro to a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint.
I do my research in a couple of ways. Usually I go to a bookstore and find that city's restaurant guide, which I keep on file for future reference. Sometimes I log onto CitySearch, but that is time consuming. Usually, I do what other food writers do to me: find the city magazine or alternative newspaper, call their food critic, and pick their brains for suggestions.
Beginning in April, we will all have another alternative. That's when Restaurant.com will launch its Web site, a search engine for restaurants across the nation. Already, they have 400,000 entries, according to Dennis Lane, executive vice president of sales and marketing. Inclusion in the Web site is being offered at a discounted rate to Sysco customers, but anyone can be included.
Travelers can find a restaurant in the city they are planning to visit by launching a search by several different categories, including cuisine, price, bar service, dress code, smoking policy, and whether it is child-friendly.
Participating restaurants fill out an extensive form, listing everything from specialties to additional perks like parking availability, celebrity viewing, stadium view, or dart boards. They can offer coupons and gift certificates online. They can display menus and photos, along with chef profiles, review snippets, and awards received. The site will display a map and directions and can accept online reservations. Restaurant.com also lists banquet facilities and caterers.
In addition, the Web site will contain weekly updated news and columns on topics related to the dining experience. For more information, contact 212-512-0570, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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