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Do any major chains actually *cook* (not just microwave)?

d
donw9876 May 27, 2009 05:31 PM

This week my wife and I went to a local TGIFriday's in Ohio. One of the items we ordered, the Balsamic-Sicilian-bla bla bla Quesadillas, were hard as a rock at the edges and could not even be cut with a steak knife. I complained to the manager and he took the price of the item, $8.99, off our bill. He said that it was probably over-microwaved. I realized that he was right - the fossilized hardness of the tortilla at the edges was the same texture of stuff that I have cooked just short of the ignition point in the microwave.

Ok, so I already knew that most of these mass market feeding troughs mainly serve pre-cooked, frozen crap that is microwaved at the point of serving. My wife was grossed out by the thought of our "restaurant" meal being an expensive version of Stouffer's or Marie Calendar's frozen entrees - I think it was truly news to her. (I was somewhat confused and deluded by Guy Fieri, of all people, endorsing TGIF's last year as though it was authentic through and through. I guess it was *strictly* a royalty decision...)

So, here's my question. Do any major chains actually *prepare* food today? I mean: combining fundamental ingredients and then searing, braising, frying, sauteing, etc. to achieve a desired result.

If not, then there is absolutely no point in eating out at one of these places unless you are on vacation and it's the only place along the interstate for 100 mi.

I put no hope for Chili's, Applebee's, and the minor league players like Damon's. But, you tell me.

But has anyone ever done a reference guide to chain restaurants and their preparation "techniques" that addresses this concern? I bet a dead tree guide would sell like hot cakes.

Thanks...

  1. f
    Fromageball Jul 27, 2009 07:06 AM

    "I was somewhat confused and deluded by Guy Fieri, of all people, endorsing TGIF's last year as though it was authentic through and through. I guess it was *strictly* a royalty decision..."

    So was I!!!
    As for how food is prepared, lately I've either been going to local places or staying at home. If the food has been microwaved, well, I can do that myself at home!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Fromageball
      h
      HollyDolly Jul 29, 2009 10:55 AM

      I haven't eaten at most of the chains in quite a while.
      A place i like to go is El Jalisco here in Schertz,not a chain.But i know they don't go out in the fields around here and cut the catus pads for their nopalitos.
      They most likely buy them from some place on Produce Road in San Antonio, already cleanded of all thorns, even pre sliced.I have seen bags of them this way at Handy Andy's, already to cook. But that doesn't mean I don't like the place.

      Taco Cabana makes their stuff fresh pretty much.At some of them, you can even see them making the flour tortillas fresh.But I'm sure they buy their corn tortillas and shells for the tacos from one of the tortilla factories in San Antonio,where the chain started and still is headquartered.
      Mama's Cafe is a chain. I had a very good aspergaus soup there one evening. It was fresh and home made, and had more aspergaus in it than the canned version for sure.The meat loaf seemed fresh and so was the sauce they put on it. They do use fresh veggies.
      I guess to it depends on the kitchen and what kind of staff they have.

    2. Davwud Jul 17, 2009 07:05 AM

      "Cooked just short of the ignition point"

      Love that.

      DT

      1. michele_corum Jul 13, 2009 03:56 PM

        So, how about Chevy's Fresh Mex? "Nothing from a jar or can..."

        Personally, I'd rather microwave my dinner at home and go out for breakfast instead. Breakfast is one meal that's still cooked to order without question.

        1. k
          KevinB Jun 17, 2009 09:14 AM

          I worked at a major steakhouse chain in Canada. We had a small microwave, which was only used in the event that a customer who ordered their steak "medium rare" complained that it was still red in the middle, and they didn't want to see ANY red at all (i.e. they wanted medium well, but didn't know that). It would take too long to throw it back on the grill and bring it back - everyone else would be most of the way through their meals by then. So, we'd zap that, and have it back to the customer in a few minutes. We figured if you're so ignorant, you don't know the difference between med-rare and med-well, you're not going to notice if you're steak has been microwaved.

          Everything else - our roasts and baked potatoes were oven baked. Our steaks and some seafood were grilled. Our vegetable sides were either steamed or pan-fried. So, in answer to your question - yes, there are major chains that really cook, and don't just m-wave things.

          1. m
            maple99 Jun 9, 2009 11:56 AM

            Well, IHOP definitely cooks the pancakes in the restaurant!
            Applebee's has a new line of burgers coming: "We call them Realburgers because there is nothing fussy or fake about them. From the split top bakery bun, to the 100 percent fresh ground chuck, to the unique cooking method, our Realburgers are the real deal ..." quoting thier press release (no I don't work there). Doesn't say what the unique cooking method is (could be microwave!) but at least they can't be frozen based on this description, I don't think.

            3 Replies
            1. re: maple99
              sbp Jun 9, 2009 12:52 PM

              Sort of begs the question, does Applebee's Inc. now admit to serving fake-burgers up till now?

              1. re: sbp
                b
                Bobfrmia Jun 16, 2009 08:05 PM

                That does have kind of a "hey, look what we found" sound to it. Too funny.

                1. re: Bobfrmia
                  w
                  Woof Woof Woof Jun 16, 2009 08:56 PM

                  I see no reason why you could not get a tour of the kitchen, in so much while doing so ask the KM about how the "Real Burgers" are made, maybe even watch one being made :)

            2. al b. darned Jun 6, 2009 12:52 PM

              I'm not going to defend the chains, but I've got news for you...most of the "Ma & Pa" joints order from Sysco, too. That local diner down the street that has 15 items on the dinner menu...you actually think they cut the pork chops by hand or have half a cow hanging in the cooler? Yes, they may have "home made" soup, but I almost guarantee any protein item came from the freezer. So did the vegetables. Most high volume diners make their mashed potatoes from flakes, and most of the gravy starts from a can. Even many of the things like potatoes and mushrooms come pre-sliced in a bag. The diner I worked in years ago served a pitcher of "cream" with every cup of coffee. Our secret? One bag of "creamer" powder in a quart pitcher, add cold water, and stir.

              Yes we can all cite an example or two of a place that doesn't do this, but the simple economics of an "affordable family restaurant" dictate a full freezer. And the reality is that "frozen" doesn't necessarily mean "bad." Most of the "fresh" fish at the supermarket was frozen on the boat.

              4 Replies
              1. re: al b. darned
                sbp Jun 9, 2009 12:51 PM

                This is all a matter of degree. We can make fun of Sandra Lee, but if you open a can of Chipotles en Adobo, or tomato paste, does those count as semi-homemade? Most of us would say no, but where do you draw the line? I don't think there is any bright-line answer, but as far as "from scratch," to me it's more of a subjective thing; I know it when I see it.

                1. re: sbp
                  kchurchill5 Jun 9, 2009 05:44 PM

                  I made BBQ this weekend but used chipoltes in adobo, I even used pre minced garlic only cuz I wanted to finish off a jar, a bottle of ketchup so agreed, semi homemade or from scratch. I could of used the real fresh garlic, but just wanted to empty a jar.

                  Exactly sbp, where is the line drawn and who really cares. If it tastes great does it really matter.

                  1. re: sbp
                    b
                    beachmouse Jun 10, 2009 08:46 AM

                    It counts as semi-ho when you spend more time on the booze punch and tablescape than on the rest of the meal.

                    1. re: beachmouse
                      sbp Jun 10, 2009 10:57 AM

                      Aww, cmon, she spent a LOT of time on that Kwaanza cake with the corn nuts. That kind of grotesquerie don't come easy.

                2. mrbigshotno.1 May 28, 2009 12:18 PM

                  A chef I apprenticed under 35 years ago called the folkes that occupied the kitchen area in these places "cookers". They don't reall know how to cook per se', just prepare whatever the "house" has on the menu, all written up in easy to follow directions made up in some "lab" kitchen by guys in long white coats.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: mrbigshotno.1
                    kchurchill5 May 28, 2009 06:39 PM

                    You are 100% correct. Some do know how to cook, but they follow the instructions.

                    1. re: mrbigshotno.1
                      alanbarnes May 28, 2009 07:27 PM

                      As far as cooking "per se," how much does what a line drone does at Applebee's differ form what a line drone does at, for example, Per Se? If either one does anything other than exactly what he's been told, he'll be out on his ass.

                      Just imagine - "Yeah, I know Thomas Keller created this recipe, but I think it would be a lot better with some anchovy paste." Not Gonna Happen.

                      Whether they're taking direction from a celebrity chef or a guy in a long white coat, the kitchen staff's job is to cook the food according to somebody else's vision. There's no question that Thomas Keller's vision is a lot more interesting than that of the drones at some corporate HQ, or that Per Se attracts a far higher caliber of line cook than some crappy chain. But speaking as a former line cook, I can tell you right now that the #1 rule of the job is to follow instructions.

                      1. re: alanbarnes
                        f
                        Fibber McGee May 29, 2009 04:45 AM

                        At a local TGIF where I used to run live trivia, they would occasionally have special customer appreciation nights where they would serve items buffet style off the menu. I can assure you the chef did all the cooking and preparation for those. And it was all good. So it's not as if they don't know how or can only read the instructions.

                        1. re: Fibber McGee
                          w
                          Woof Woof Woof Jun 2, 2009 01:16 AM

                          I used to work at a Crappplebees as a Line Cook. Yes, they used to throw pretty much everything in the Microwave. Yes, pretty much everything came out of the Freezer. Even the burgers and steaks were frozen from the freezers then thawed. The Nacho Cheese came in a plastic bag and was stored in the walk-in cooler and then we warmed up in a boiling pot of water before being dumped in one of those metal cambro pans. We made our Mashed Potatoes from Scratch though like we actually had REAL potatoes in our restaurant we mashed (I liked them) I thought TGI Fridays does too? ..Kind of recall asking one time. When in a restaurant I always ASK before if I order if the Mash are HOMEMADE (or instant), and I have ordered them before...(though last few times I ordered their Yellow Rice)

                          1. re: Woof Woof Woof
                            katiepie Jun 3, 2009 07:21 AM

                            I remember a friend of mine's brother got a job as a cook at Chili's his freshman year at college. It was the first job he ever had. I recall thinking, "how can he get a cooking job at a restaurant with no experience??"

                            This was about ten years ago, before I really knew anything about food. Lol!

                    2. b
                      beachmouse May 28, 2009 09:36 AM

                      The Outback family (Outback Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill, Carabba's) does the vast majority of their prep and cooking on site fresh every day.

                      1. d
                        donw9876 May 27, 2009 07:11 PM

                        To respond to the two pejoratives in these responses: I don't expect any restaurant to bend to my will, and I didn't go into this to bash chains. The chains are what they are. My leading question was a sincere one.

                        I mean, for the sake of a concrete example, if someone knows that a particular regional or national chain that I didn't mention *does* prepare many of their entrees from fresh-"er"ingredients, I'd like to know about it.

                        Re: locally owned restaurants - we just wanted to go out to a restaurant that didn't feel like a dinky hole in the wall. In the area we ate in, almost all the local places are just that - very small places, very lightly patronized, and most close pretty early, well before the 8:30 we sat down at. My point is that none of the road food places in that vicinity feel like a "date night" setting. So it's basically chain food hell or nothing. I like the ambiance of a lot of chains compared to the local equivalents. The tradeoff appears to be to be served food off of a factory line.

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: donw9876
                          f
                          fourunder May 27, 2009 07:26 PM

                          Lets be honest here. Here are some of the adjectives and/or words used to describe your experience at Friday's in your original post:

                          fossilized
                          frozen crap
                          grossed out
                          frozen entrees

                          No bashing and being sincere??? I guess we will have to disagree on the issue.

                          To answer your question for any chains who prepare their menu with fresher ingredients. Here are some:

                          Ruth's Chris Steak House
                          Morton's The Steak House
                          The Cheesecake Factory
                          Grand Lux Cafe
                          Houston's
                          Legal Sea Foods

                          1. re: fourunder
                            d
                            donw9876 May 27, 2009 07:52 PM

                            >> Lets be honest here.

                            Yes, let's.

                            Re: fossilized - accurately describes the texture of a tortilla dish that has been over microwaved (according to the restaurant manager.) As in: not burnt, but bone dry and dessicated (sorry, is that bashing?)

                            Re: frozen crap - perhaps gratuitous.
                            Re: grossed out - a frank reaction.
                            Re: frozen entrees - honest and factual

                            Thanks for the list. Not so much for the critique of my posting style.

                            Have fun, I have better things to do than get bashed on a message board because of a grudge over something meaningless. Back to lurking, where I will not offend anyone...

                            1. re: donw9876
                              c
                              Christine May 28, 2009 09:53 AM

                              Hey, Don, I for one appreciated your observation. I'd say most, or the vast majority, of the chain restaurants get their food shipped in in a bag, and just throw it together and nuke it. I could be wrong, but that's what a lot of it tastes like, such as Crapplebee's, TGIF, Olive Garden, and the Salt Fest known as Macaroni Grill. Heck, I know the mashed potatoes at Red Lobster are made from a bag because I asked about their "home-style" mashed potatoes. Fresh catch, my ass!

                              Don, I thought your point was a good one. Maybe the folks on here who got so up in arms about it really like this food and don't want to be reminded it's out of a bag and they could do the same thing at home!

                            2. re: fourunder
                              x
                              xanadude May 27, 2009 08:08 PM

                              You missed "mass market feeding troughs"

                              1. re: fourunder
                                c
                                cyberroo Jun 1, 2009 01:14 PM

                                If Cheesecake Factory is preparing that entire, advertising-filled menu from "scratch", it's a miracle.

                                Steakhouses, anyplace with an average check of $50 or more, is probably much more likely to be doing scratch cooking.

                            3. f
                              fourunder May 27, 2009 06:48 PM

                              All the restaurants you have mentioned cater to convenience, perceived value, liquor and presumably an enjoyable experience out. It is arguable whether or not these points are attainable at the places you have mentioned.

                              The quality of food you receive anywhere has a direct relationship between costs to prepare and selling price for their targeted customers. Even at the places you mention there are items that are prepared freshly daily, but many others are not and are cry-o-vac-ed or frozen. No big surprises.

                              Bottom line, there are many quality chains regardless of what anyone else will tell you...... and they prepare their menus daily with quality fresh produce and meats. You get what you pay for.......... and the chain bashing really gets old.

                              1. alanbarnes May 27, 2009 06:38 PM

                                Steaks and burgers are typically cooked on a grill. Deep fried stuff is usually fried to order (although it may go straight from the Sysco bag into the fryolator). Aside from that, you're probably better off asking.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: alanbarnes
                                  kchurchill5 May 27, 2009 07:23 PM

                                  When I go to chains I always order a burger, chicken sandwich even though I know it is frozen and pre marinated nothing fresh or a salad. It is safe and simple. Maybe nachos. They are at least baked whether the cheese is good or not, they are descent. I stay away from pretty much everything else.

                                  I eat fast food, I have clients that meet me there, I don't complain, but I just learn what to and what not to order. And even then, I never say anything. I guess I just am very easy to get along with or not easily provoked. I just go with the flow and try not to cause contraversary most of the time. I may not like it, but I just ignore and don't say anything. My day is too stressed and hectic as is at times and I just don't cause any more. I guess it just doesn't bother me that much.

                                2. f
                                  ferret May 27, 2009 06:19 PM

                                  You order TGI Friday's, you get TGI Friday's. I can't believe there isn't a locally-owned restaurant in your area with decent food that blows the pants off TGIF. If you're waiting for Applebee's/Chili's/TGIF to bend to your will, it ain't gonna happen.

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