I have a lot of opinions about things – mostly having to do with food and drink. Some people look for art galleries, botanical gardens or old churches as places they seek out and visit when they go to a new city, but my hobby is trying new restaurants and visiting independent retail stores relating to food. I’m fascinated by everything that these businesses do to differentiate themselves from everyone else, from the format to the decor, how the staff presents themselves and the price an product. A lot of these opinions are not of consequence and don’t make much difference in the grand scheme of things. But I find it fun to share them for what they’re worth.
This is certainly one of those opinions. This opinion deals with my perception of restaurants anointing themselves self-consciously with a crown of virtuosity and goodness when they make everything in house. They treat you like you should bow before them or certainly tip your hat to them because they’ve created something. Sure, it’s a good thing to make soups, salad dressings, desserts, etc. in house and most customers would expect that be the case in a reasonable restaurant (i.e. non-chain, non-fast food).
However feeling so virtuous about making items in house is often a slippery slope because if you can’t make it better that what you can buy then why make it. For instance, when a server brags to me that they make their own pasta, it’s a red flag and I hardly ever order it. This is because certain pasta brands in Italy have evolved into the product they are with extreme dedication to the craft and often generations of attention to detail which makes their pasta better than anything you could attempt to make in house. Things like sourcing the wheat, blending the wheat, mixing the dough, the extrusion of the dough when the pasta shape can’t simply be cut and formed by hand, and lastly the drying of the pasta so its ready to cook. All this requires a skill and often equipment that is way beyond most restaurants’ capabilities, but the one exception for house made pasta is hand formed pastas like sheet pasta used for ravioli and lasagna.
It seems presumptuous, bordering on preposterous, to me for a restaurant to decide they can spend a little money on a pasta mixer and extruder, order semolina from the commercial food distributor and come anywhere close to the quality of a good dried Italian pasta because they can’t. Especially with spaghetti and linguine, which happen to be my favorite cuts and require proper extrusion technology that is hard to do in a small restaurant and is extremely expensive.
There are some places, like Mothers and Sons in Durham, who have done much more to assure a good product as in going to Italy to “Pasta School” (yes that’s a thing), buying better ingredients, and investing in the proper equipment, but others fall woefully short.
Another example of poorly made in house items is hot sauce. Just the other day I ordered and was served chicken and dumplings. After a taste, I thought this would really benefit from some fresh cracked black pepper and a little bit of Tabasco or Texas Pete. When my server came by to check on me, I asked for both. She said she would be right over with the pepper, but she didn’t have either hot sauce, rather they made their own. After a moment she trotted out with one of those dreaded stainless steel ramekins full of made in house hot sauce. And I say I dread ramekins because so many restaurants have hot sauce but they won’t bring you a small bottle and I’m not sure why, most likely they have a giant container of it in the back that they dish out from. It’s almost as if they think it’s special or something to put it into a ramekin because it’s not in the container you can buy at the supermarket, but it’s wasteful and I hate this presentation of hot sauce because you can’t get the right amount of hot sauce on your eggs, you’re always dumping or spooning out way too much. In the case of Made in House hot sauce, I guess a ramekin is the only way to deliver it to a table since they didn’t bottle it (and few would buy it even if they did bottle it).
The great thing about the two branded hot sauced I asked for, is that its not a lot of spice or complexity of flavor, its just the chili, vinegar, and salt to add some brightness to the dish without complicating the flavor profile of the herbs and spices which the chef has carefully executed in the kitchen.
After she delivered the ramekin I put my spoon in to try it, and it was a powerhouse of spices like cumin, oregano and what tasted like two or three others. This addition of all these Herbs and flavors would not be complimentary to my chicken and dumplings, which had already been well seasoned. The server asked me how I like the hot sauce, with a big virtuous grin on her face. I replied that it was fine, just not for the chicken and dumplings.
Another frequent made in house brag is ketchup. Boy, I’ve had some horrendous made in house ketchups. If only restaurateurs had any idea the research, time and money the Heinz Corporation has spent on sourcing the tomatoes, spicing the ketchup and perfecting the recipe. Heinz has an amazing production method in which they heat the ketchup up to the temperature where it can go into the jar safely and then cool it down to a temp that retains its great flavor and bright red color. Sure, Heinz has corn syrup in it, and I’m not a corn syrup advocate either; however, I eat just a small quantity of ketchup and I’m dedicated to the taste, so I always go for the Heinz.
Lastly, baked goods. I was served a hot dog one time with the server bragging bout the made in house buns that were as big as a slipper. The ratio of hot dog to bread was so off, that I could barely find the hot dog.
Again this is just my opinion and I’m sure that I will make plenty of restaurants mad by attempting to call into question their self placed crowns of virtuosity. I’m standing for any blowback I’m confident I will receive from this opinion and I welcome any comments that are likely to ensue.