"To make an amazing dish, you have to start with the best fresh ingredients."
It's safe to say that, in the struggle to deliver good meals – whether to friends, family or ourselves – none of us need the added stress of a directive to use only the very best ingredients. Yet this mantra has been spouted by almost every celebrity chef of our generation.
It's discouraging, and it's a lie.
Wouldn't it be more relevant, certainly more honest, if these chefs we adore touted the economics of food and celebrated the less loved, mundane, accessible ingredients that fill our kitchens?
In 2012, the Cut Waste, Grow Profit draft report from the Ontario-based Value Chain Management Centre (VCMC) suggested that 51 per cent of the estimated $27-billion of food wasted in Canada is leftovers thrown out. In stark contrast, the food service industry runs at around 8 per cent.
In spite of what cookbooks and TV may have us believing, chefs don't spend their days meandering about herb gardens, gently plucking, smelling and placing only the most pristine produce into perfectly curated wicker baskets. In fact, chefs are more frugal with their selection and usage of ingredients than you can imagine. Their very profession is selecting the right ingredient for the right job, and that doesn't always involve "the best."
When I was a young lad starting out in kitchens, the chefs training me would keep one eye locked on my chopping board, the other on my trash can. I can't recall how many times a chef reached into the garbage and hurled a dime-sized piece of carrot or onion at my head yelling in almost indiscernible Austrian/English "that's 10 cents you just threw out!" (I know every chef reading that just chuckled.)
Like many of us, I have a ravenous appetite for food porn. Whether it's TV, print or mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, I can't get enough of "aspirational" dishes created with high-priced, picture-perfect ingredients touting "organic" this and "free-range" that.
That said, the last time I drooled over perfectly butchered organic, grass-fed, free-range, triple-A beef, $100 would have gotten me maybe three steaks. With the average Canadian family grocery budget hovering around $400, that doesn't leave much cash for aspiration.
Chefs are 70 per cent accountants. And as any good accountant says, "a dollar saved is a dollar earned." A chef's day is spent meticulously managing every morsel that enters the back door of their restaurant. Everything is counted, checked, cleaned and stored to maximize its shelf life. Perhaps food porn should display a disclaimer: "The following is designed to inspire and excite – that is all."
In a professional kitchen, wilting herbs become pestos, softening vegetables are stocks and soups. This is not bad practice; in fact it's good business. The very meaning of technique is the ability to maximize one's tools. And make no mistake – a chef's tools are not his knives, but his ingredients. It's hard to mess up a $35 steak; real skill lies in breathing life into what's already in stock.
That's what the pros don't talk about.