It’s occurred to me that my last two columns might seem to be in conflict with each other, and while I’ve talked about this issue before, I think it bears repeating. Last week, in my column about local grocery stores, I suggested (as I’ve done before) that “cooking at home is crucial to healthy living.” I also drew attention to Jay McKenzie‘s intention to cook all his meals at home in February. Then just a few days later, I wrote a column about Scenic City Supper Club and what a wonderful experience it was.
I’ll call myself out on this, as that might seem paradoxical or ironic, but I’ll also maintain a notion that I’ve mentioned before: that eating out is helpful in that it informs home cooking, while also helping to break up monotony. Preparing all of your own meals is fun some days and challenging on others. The payoffs can be great, but even though most of my meals are made in under 30 minutes, preparing food from scratch most certainly takes more time and effort than takeout or heating up frozen food. It also requires imagination. Unless you’re satisfied with eating the same things day in and day out, you constantly need new ideas to allow your dishes and menus to continue to evolve and intrigue-to be interesting both for the consumer and the cook.
Finding inspiration for those new ideas can be a tricky business. It often seems like we’re constantly bombarded with pictures of food, especially in advertising, but also on cooking shows and online, where everything from Pinterest to YouTube would have us constantly thinking about eating incredibly pretty things. But in the era of Photoshop, staging, stylists, special effects and careful editing, most of the media images we encounter are not realistic depictions of real food. These are not always things we can actually produce in the real world (witness pinterestfail.com) and maybe also aren’t things we should aspire to consume (some of the ingredients used to add flavor and attractiveness to industrial food can be rather sketchy).
This is where I think carefully curated restaurant experiences can be really informative. But the trick is that you have to choose restaurants that employ chefs and not kitchen managers. You want someone in back who has spent time thinking about the food you’re going to eat, has interacted with the growers and providers of the ingredients, and is aware of the quality of those raw materials. That way, if you encounter a dish that appeals to you (or if you’re trying to avoid particular ingredients), it’s possible to ask questions about it, and since it is something that was created on the premises, you might actually get a helpful answer-because while some chefs are attracted by the commercial and attention-grabbing sides of the restaurant business, most of the successful ones do what they do because they’re passionate about good food.
Chains and franchises are more likely to be run by kitchen managers, instead of by chefs. These are eateries that serve food that was developed-and sometimes also prepped, cooked and frozen-in distant kitchens, by not just cooks, but also with input from food scientists, marketers and accountants. Formulas are created, instructions are prepared, and the managers that run the individual kitchens follow procedures set in corporate offices. The motivations are different. While almost all businesses have to make money to survive, many chain eateries exist solely to make a profit. Corners are cut, cheaper alternatives are sought out, uniformity is valued over creativity, and kitchens are usually closed off.
At the recent Scenic City Supper Club, I was able to wander back into the kitchen area and see the food being assembled. At some point, I might even entertain the possibility of trying to reproduce something that I ate that evening at home. But whether or not I can recreate a dish in the same way (their plating of dishes was far more picturesque than anything I’m likely to attempt at home), I still found lots of inspiration there. And next time I’m trying to figure out how to make a monochromatic bowl of soup a little more distinctive, I might remember how Jeremy Vasterling’s addition of a coppa chip to his vichyssoise gave it a special flourish while adding an extra splash of flavor, or the way Matt Bolus made a seemingly simple appetizer exceptional by topping a biscuit with really high quality ham and jam.
Sometimes I eat out because I want a break from the kitchen, am being sociable, or want to indulge in something that I could not (real pit barbecue) or would not (fried food) make at home. But more than anything else, I eat out so that the food I prepare in my own kitchen is more interesting. And ideally, by cooking at home most of the time, I save enough money so that when I do eat out, it’s affordable to eat at the local restaurants that are run by chefs who care about the ingredients and cooking methods that produce the food they serve. Unlike the food on cooking shows or Pinterest, this is food I can not only smell and taste, but also possibly discuss with others who are as fascinated by it as I am.
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.