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Chef’s Corner: Efficiency Doesn’t Have To Compromise Excellence

06/04/2024

Chef’s Corner: Efficiency Doesn’t Have To Compromise Excellence

Chef’s Corner: Efficiency Doesn’t Have To Compromise Excellence

Welcome to "Chef's Corner," Daniel Asher's monthly blog, where he delves into the intricate world of food, restaurants, distributors, and all things foodservice.  Daniel is a chef and restaurant owner + the head of strategic relationships & hospitality at Cut+Dry.


I’ve been working in commercial kitchens since I was 14. My earliest memories are of a bustling world of stainless steel, printers erupting into a symphony of synchronized ticket explosions, the clanking of plates, the beautifully brief language of “Hot, Behind, Corner, Sharp, Heard”. My first tasks to master were washing dishes in a 3comp sink (no luxury of an automated dishwasher) and peeling potatoes for a fresh cut fry program. 

The magic that is a properly executed fresh fry program is usually obvious in texture, appearance, and flavor. Innovation in the land of frozen fries has definitely evolved so that it is less obvious then it used to be, plus certain coatings now have the ability to keep fries crispy longer. This has become essential since we have now moved into a widespread dining experience phase based purely on delivery and fries are not being eaten in their peak phase which is moments after leaving their oil bath. People want the same quality and eating experience at home as they would have when ordering food 20 feet from the kitchen it is being prepared in. Not an easy feat and one that needs very specific innovations in culinary technology and packaging. 

My cooking philosophy has always been to keep things simple, support clean label ingredients, local first, and stay deeply connected to sustainable agriculture and good people doing meaningful things in our food systems. Over the years I have had to temper this mission based on the realities of daily operations across multiple kitchens, high volume execution, and hitting cost targets. It is a beautiful thing to support an ecosystem of amazing people but if you are losing money you won’t be around very long to support anything or anyone. I have learned to pick my battles. My relationship with my distributors, much like all human relationships, is based on trust and shared vision. My sales reps that understand me, my restaurants and my goals become advisors and consultants when I am trying to make a change. I can go to them with a problem or a goal and they come back with product samples and solutions.

A great example of this is when I needed a new appetizer for a quick menu change at a very high volume operation with a global street food influence. I wanted to do something with a Southern vibe that could be plated in five minutes, easily executed consistently for 300 plates a night, great flavor profile but also “safe” as far as mass appeal goes. One of my reps stopped by with a jalapeño hush puppy that was really fantastic. Just drop 5 in the fryer for 90 seconds, plate with a great housemade TenderBelly bacon chipotle aioli, and finish with Jacobsen smoked sea salt and local Forever Green farm microgreens. No messy batter station at the fryer, perfectly portioned, clean ingredients, highlights great people and hits an 18% food cost. Huge win all around, line cooks were happy, and our guests loved the new appetizer. 

This is how healthy relationships work from distributors to chefs and it’s one of my most favorite things in the business- finding new ingredients or products that I can work with that hit multiple needs and maintain scalable efficiency with high integrity. 

I had a sous chef about 12 years back for an opening of a very large Denver project that spanned 3 stories, 35 feet of hoods, a 14-cook hot line and 2 expo stations. It was a beast to say the least. When we were doing our R&D, I brought in peeled heirloom garlic from Christopher Ranch in California. It was their organic certified line and for me, represented high sourcing integrity. We would be going through a whole lot of it across 38 menu items. My sous chef immediately protested and said “top kitchens only use whole garlic and process it in-house”. His background was primarily fine dining and he had very high expectations for our kitchen which I loved. He was incredibly talented and made amazing food. I didn’t want to compromise as I knew we would have a better culinary experience if we devoted time to more impactful tasks and left the garlic peeling to a company that literally peels garlic for a living. I also knew that the most trusted lessons I have learned in kitchens come from lived experience, not by being told what’s best.

So I agreed and told him he had to manage our garlic situation and that was it. Fast forward 3 weeks into our opening month and we were in the middle of a 1,600 cover dinner service when the sauté station started yelling “garlic to the line please, garlic to the line” and we had a single quart left. I saw our sous chef in the back prep area frantically breaking up heads of garlic when he should’ve been on the line making sure all stations are rocking out properly, tasting sauces and helping me expo. I ran into the back and said “hey chef, how’s our in house garlic peeling program going?” and he looks up and says “ok I get it, can you please add peeled garlic for next week's order?”. 

It was a powerful moment and lesson: there is a way to balance efficiencies of scale with intelligent purchasing. Will any of our guests suddenly yell “hey! You guys are obviously phoning it in and using pre-peeled garlic! I’m gonna let all my friends know!” Of course not. The hours saved peeling garlic freed us up to be better cooks.

Now back to the fries. About 10 years ago, there was a little frenzy in the culinary world when it came out that Chef Thomas Keller, icon of excellence, used frozen French fries. He said it enabled consistency on a level that would be very challenging for a high volume fresh cut fry program and let them focus on other tasks. Also labor cost being reduced leads to a better price point for guests and for margins. This again was a critical moment for cooks everywhere to realize that there is a time and a place for smart business practices that ensure you’ll be cooking tasty food in a kitchen that can pay its bills, pay people fair wages, offer guests a delicious experience at an agreeable price, and keep everyone happy for many years into the future. 

At the National Restaurant Show a couple weeks ago in Chicago, I had the pleasure of meeting Jesse from Jesse & Ben’s, a new French Fry company focusing on responsibly sourced potatoes, par blanched in healthy oils and made with the highest levels of culinary talent and execution. Of course none of that matters if they aren’t delicious and luckily they are very, very delicious. The booth was finishing their fries in Zero Acre cooking oil which is made from fermented sugarcane. Pretty fascinating story and one that I will research and talk more about in a future edition about commercial fryer oils. These fries basically nail the fresh cut fry experience but with no labor, no waste, and no need for racks of cut fries that need to be rinsed then dried then blanched etc. I went back a few times for a fry fix and Jesse was happy to share his story and vision. I can happily outsource my future French fry needs and feel content in the knowledge that this efficiency won’t compromise any level of culinary excellence.

Love, Daniel.

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