During a recent panel discussion from one of the many foodie conventions, chef-lebrity Anthony Bourdain offered this insight, “If you find yourself using pre-minced garlic from a jar, instead of mincing fresh garlic with your own hands, you might want to re-evaluate whether or not you really enjoy cooking.” Direct physical communion with quality fresh ingredients is one of the chief factors that make preparing great food a popular and enjoyable home activity. If you find you are drawn to time-saver ingredient substitutes that trade away flavor and freshness for preparation speed, perhaps you would be just as happy tossing a Stouffer’s entrée into the microwave and enjoying an extra glass of wine while it effortlessly transforms from frozen to family feast.
Usually, Chef Tony B. directs his pointed critiques, along with a blast of cigarette smoke, not at the amateur home cook, but at his own fan base of jaded professional chefs and rough-hewn restaurant line cooks. Any talented chef will readily admit that jarred herbs and spices, and other pre-processed ingredients, can’t bring the same flavor complexity to a dish as those which are hand-prepped and cooked fresh to order. The only reason they could possibly use to justify amateurish shortcuts is diners have such uneducated palates that we can’t really tell the difference anyway. But lately, I have been noticing that cooks at every level of restaurant from four stars to fast food, are unwisely precooking ingredients to save time; and producing plates of food where any six-year old could taste the difference.
It was a few recent bacon cheeseburgers that brought this trend into sharp focus. The difference is immense between a piece of fresh cooked bacon, still greasy and sizzling with heat, and the same piece cooked hours before. Fresh cooked bacon is irresistibly crispy, luxuriant, and warm. Precooked bacon is either flaccid and stringy, or rock-hard chewy, cold, and fatty. Similarly, there is no substitute in taste and texture for a hamburger patty that started as a mound of freshly ground beef minutes before.
My wife’s parents offered a last minute invite to a local high-end steakhouse a few weekends ago. I had not cut back on lunch that day, and wasn’t hungry enough to tackle a steak and baked potato, so I opted for a bacon cheeseburger. The waiter told me he had just had the very same burger for his pre-shift lunch and that their kitchen did one of the best burgers in town. Admittedly, it was a juicy, thick slab of hamburger cooked medium rare as requested. I’m not going to get that deliciously sloppy, juice dripping patty cooked to my specification at any fast food joint. But then again, I’m at a white table cloth restaurant and paying three or four times fast food prices for a cheeseburger. So why does the burger have bacon that was cooked hours before I even arrived? The chef clearly had to take considerable time to cook the burger in the proper way from scratch. Couldn’t he have cooked the bacon right alongside the patty? Quality certainly was traded away, but was any time really saved?
You might expect a different experience at a true Mom and Pop hamburger stand that doesn’t have prime steaks, a generous bar and snappy uniformed, professional servers to fall back on. A lazy Saturday morning was my first visit to a Southside hole-in-the-wall that makes its reputation on burgers alone. And on that occasion, they nailed it! No frills, American classic burgers with fries. But recently, I ducked in for a second visit during the workday lunch rush. It was standing room only as the busy staff tried to serve a half dozen patrons, plus at least an equal number of orders that had been phoned in. I winced when I saw that the woman in front of the sizzling flat top grill was picking precooked burgers out of a container with tongs, and dancing them rapidly across the heat just long enough to melt the cheese on top. In a place making their reputation with the single menu offering of hamburgers, they were sacrificing huge amounts of quality for prep speed. And of course the bacon was precooked hard and cold, to match the patty. Far from nailing it, they completely screwed it.
I guess most chefs and restaurateurs just figure that bacon cheeseburgers are a lot like sex. The worst it’s ever going to get is still pretty damn good. So what does it matter if you shave a few minutes off preparation to give the customer a sandwich plenty tasty enough for a hungry patron? Well, bacon cheeseburgers are not at all like sex in one critical respect. I’ve already had the very best there is, and can get more whenever I want. You can too. If you truly want a bacon cheeseburger done perfectly, simply head for your nearest glowing yellow Waffle House sign. The much joked about diner will gladly show you why there are hundreds of them packed with patrons at every hour.
The Waffle House has strict rules for how every item is properly prepared. And one of the most important rules is every order is cooked to order. The cook doesn’t remove a single hamburger patty or strip of bacon from the cooler until after the order is placed. He cooks it while you wait, knowing that the reward in taste is well worth the time spent doing it right. They serve it to you sizzling hot, not in foam or paper, but on a real plate, and let you dress it with as little or a much of each condiment as you desire. They’ll even grill onions and mushrooms for the top like a fancy steakhouse, if you ask nicely. Sit at the counter overlooking the flat top, and enjoy the rare opportunity to watch a master practice his craft. It’s a great show and greasy perfection that can’t be duplicated at any price. Do your fellow Birmingham diners a favor, and bring along an Anthony Bourdain wannabe/bad boy chef from some local restaurant.
The experience might make him re-evaluate whether or not he really loves cooking.
Dee Marcus writes food centric commentary for Birmingham. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org