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"Pre-Prepared" Food in Restaurants

Naive question: how common is it for restaurants to serve food not prepared from scratch in their own kitchens? Is it possible that a restaurant with a small kitchen and kitchen staff can prepare from scratch 15 appetizers and 30 entrees, many of the entrees with their own special sauces and accompaniments? How common is it to purchase prepared food and finish it in the kitchen?

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  1. it happens; probably in most chain restaurants where they get their food from a centralized kitchen and they only do the re-heating and plating.

    "Is it possible that a restaurant with a small kitchen and kitchen staff can prepare from scratch 15 appetizers and 30 entrees, many of the entrees with their own special sauces and accompaniments?"

    That is why it's really hard to be a successul restaurant chef/owner, there is a lot of preparation (mise en place) needed for a night at the restaurant, all the cooks prepare the food (that can be made in advance) during the day, so that in the evening they only have to cook what needs to be cooked fresh.

    1. While some restaurants may prepare from scratch, it doesn't mean that it is prepared when you order. When I was in college, I worked in a restaurant that 'prepared from scratch' lasagne, including making the noodles. However, this was done once a week, and many trays were put in the freezer. Each day, two or more trays would be pulled in the morning and baked off to serve that day.
      Similarly, the boneless stuffed roast chicken was roasted in the morning and out in a holding over for the lunch and dinner crowd. I would not want to order it at 8:30pm after if had sat in a holding oven since 10:30 am.
      Prepared from scratch doesn't mean freshly made.

      Many items are purchased 'prepared' and finished/garnished in house. Most restaurant don't make their French Fries from raw potatoes, they buy and cook frozen raw French Fries. Similarly, many 'fried' fish, seafood, chicken, eggplant come in prebreaded and frozen, they are cooked on site, someties spiced and then cooked, garnished and served.

      1. I had a different idea of pre-prepared when I saw this thread...

        There is a local restaurant where I swear they already have plates made up of different entrees. They take them out of storage, nuke them, and serve. They bring you your food five minutes after placing the order, before an appetizer or drink has barely been tasted. Some people believe this is just great service, I say it’s fast food.

        I don’t expect a restaurant to peel, slice and fry potatoes for every order, and I understand that certain foods lend themselves to pre-order production – soup, chili, bread, etc., but I like to believe that restaurants, “good” ones at least, assembl my plate with freshly cooked food.

        1. I worked in restaurants for 12 years and even the somewhat low-end chain started with some raw ingredients and cooked them. For example, we got raw chicken breasts by the case and cooked them as ordered. They did have frozen appetizers like chicken fingers and stuffed jalapenos that went in the fryer. And one place had pre-formed burger patties they'd throw on the grill. But I never worked anywhere that would microwave an entire meal.

          4 Replies
          1. re: mojoeater

            And maybe they don’t...

            It’s a Mexican restaurant and when you order let’s say the “#12 – two enchiladas, two tacos and a chimichanga”, it’s on the table before you can sample the tortilla chips. I’m sure they have some of these things prepared and they plate it up with a scoop of beans and rice drawn from a larger batch.

            But it’s not just my meal, it’s everyone’s. A party of five will all get their dinners 5 minutes after ordering. I find it a little suspect and liken it more to “fast food with a waiter” than “authentic Mexican” food.

            1. re: cuccubear

              The Mexican place where I worked would marinate the meat overnight. Various meats would be cooked in the mornings, the meat pulled and kept warm in their respective juices right next to the flat top. The steak (carne asada or fajita meat) and grilled chicken were uncooked but already sliced and in their marinades. They'd throw them on the flat top when an order came in and would be cooked in no time.

              When a meal is ordered, the corresponding tortillas would be thrown on the flat top, filled with meat/cheese/whatever, plated with beans and rice, and sauced. Everything was made in house and kept warm for service. I don't think we even had a microwave.

              1. re: mojoeater

                That’s probably what this restaurant does. Their speed has always made me wonder...

                Thanks for the insight.

              2. re: cuccubear

                I would guess that's pretty common during lunch when people have to get in and out in 30-45 minutes. Many restaurants have a limited menu with only a few items, presumably so they can just prepare a lot in advance and have them ready to go by the time people order. I've certainly been in Asian restaurants that have a lunch special and are bringing out the spring roll/soup before you even get to order, so I imagine they have a set of spring rolls cooking and waiting at all times.

            2. Let's see ... how about soup to start with? Cream of Mushroom, Vegetarian 7-bean, Asiago Cheese Bisque, Chicken Coconut Curry? Boil-in-bags in the kitchen freezer, defrosted to order.
              Quiche Lorraine for your main? Beef Sate? Pacific Rim Ravioli? Arrived on the truck on Tuesday, just waiting for its turn in the convection oven.
              Oh, sure, we saved room for dessert. Pear & Brie In Phyllo? Banana Foster Pie?
              Belgian Chocolate Cheesecake? Thawed and delicious.
              I just randomly copied these from the Sysco.com website ... doesn't even include the plastic bags of pre-mashed potatoes, baked beans with "excellent plate coverage and plate appeal" and pre-roasted vegetables that give your local restaurant "heat-and-serve convenience, real cost savings, outstanding eye appeal and the "hottest" flavors around." Not that there's anything wrong with Sysco or similar companies, but yes, restaurants do serve food that wasn't made on the premises. And unless it specifically says "made here," anymore I tend to take it for granted it was made elsewhere.

              11 Replies
              1. re: Samalicious

                Now that is exactly what I believe is going on in the restaurant I mentioned above.

                What stops them from ordering cases of enchiladas and chili rellenos from somewhere, arranging them all on a plate labeled “#12” or “Special #3” and then nuking them when they’re ordered? They’d be out on the table in 5 minutes, no real cooking.

                But, you know, in this case, I don’t really care. I eat there once in a while for variety and the food is good enough. I’ve had no complaints, but the topic of this thread has made me wonder about a lot of places.

                Do you guys believe there is any way to tell if the food is prepared from scratch or pre-prepared? (Short of dumpster diving out back looking for those Sysco cartons!) Maybe they employ cooks instead a Chef?

                1. re: cuccubear

                  The chef/cook distinction doesn't necessarily work. There's a smallish chain of family-owned Italian restaurants in Northern California that definitely employs "Cooks", but all of the sauces, soups, salad dressings, etc are made from scratch, as well as meatballs, lasagna... The list goes on and on. The pasta isn't house made, but fresh spaghetti isn't really what you want under your meatballs anyway.

                  What does come on a truck? Chicken strips for the kids, chicken wings, calamari is frozen, but gets it's crispy crust in house. The non-fat salad dressing isn't homemade. The ravioli, tortellini, gnocchi are made my a San Francisco pasta company to their recipe. Desserts (always be suspicious of a frozen dessert - hardly anyone makes their own ice cream - even a fancy restaurant might buy their gelato).

                  I guess my point is that a "Cook" can follow a recipe just fine - they don't need to microwave the soup from the commissary.

                  1. re: cuccubear

                    "Do you guys believe there is any way to tell if the food is prepared from scratch or pre-prepared?"

                    You can try customizing your order. For example, if there is a sauteed shrimp with pasta dish, substitute scallop for the shrimp. Then ask them to use very little salt. If they can't do that, or if the dish tastes salty, it was probably at least partially pre-prepared. However, there are no guarantees.

                    1. re: cuccubear

                      Here's an important question to ask: Are the cooks at the Mexican restaurant males, or females?

                      If they are predominately male then your food is most likely going to be pathetic.

                      Why? Because in Hispanic culture it is a woman's job to cook, the men find whatever work they can. A lot of cooks in restaurants are Mexican dudes. Mexican dudes are generally good cooks across the board, not many of them know how to cook Mexican food. A lot of them are just phoning it in (but then a lot of white dudes are just phoning it in too).If you work with a Mexican guy who can make Mexican food, then you know you've got a passionate cook, and most likely a good cook.

                      How do you know if a restaurant is just phoning it in?

                      Palate.

                      1. re: J.Dish

                        Now was that ever some kind of rambling generalization that is mainly untrue. First, it is not just in Hispanic cultures that "it is a woman's job to cook." That is true in almost every culture in the world. Second, you say if the cooks at the Mexican restaurant are "predominantly male than your food is most likely going to be pathetic." You give no rational reason for that except because they don't know how to cook Mexican food. But then you say Mexican dudes [dudes, dudes?] are generally good cooks and if one can make Mexican food, you've got a passionate and good cook. Sorry, I think that is all based on nothing and actually is insulting. I've eaten wonderful homestyle Mexican food in many places with both male and female chefs.

                        1. re: escondido123

                          Tony Bourdain has stated repeatedly that the best restaurant cooks in the world right now are men from Mexico, specifically from Puebla. Aside from my conviction that he knows what he's talking about, I've eaten a whole lot of great food prepared by Latino males in a whole lot of L.A. County restaurants, including more than a few Chinese ones!

                          1. re: Will Owen

                            It is not difficult to train people to cook certain dishes, such as chow mein. But it is difficult to train people to cook a cuisine, such as Cantonese cooking. It takes a good teacher, a willing student, and plenty of time.

                            For example, the first time I went to PF Chang's (this one had many Latino cooks), I asked for an off-the-menu beef chow fun dish that any Cantonese restaurant can cook. Heck, I could've gone in the kitchen and made it myself. I was informed that they couldn't make it. But the chow mein dish that I eventually ordered wasn't bad. It wasn't the greatest, but it was a reasonable version.

                            1. re: raytamsgv

                              That may be, but any Cantonese restaurant would have the hard necessary to make chow fun, but I doubt PF Chang's has lard in the kitchen.

                              It is not realistic to expect a chain restaurant to make off the menu dishes. Adjust the recipe of a dish by leaving out an ingrredient, or adding something that is used in other dishes on the menu is much moe doable.

                              As an aside, I've been eating American Chinese food for more than half a century and remember when Cantonese food was the only variety available in most of the USA. Szechuan arrived in the early 70s, then Hunan, etc. Today, most of the Chinese restaurants in my area are owned/staffed by Fujianese. They can cook many classic Chinese-American dishes, but not most classic Cantonese style Chinese-American food.

                        2. re: J.Dish

                          This is nonsense. One of my favorite Mexican places has a female hostess/owner. The food is prepared by her uncle who is pretty much a mole master. He was well known of his moles in Mexico and has continued the tradition here. "All xx are women (or men)" is a 1950's view of the world.

                          1. re: J.Dish

                            J. Dish - have you ever been to Mexico? If you had you would know everything you said above is untrue.

                        3. re: Samalicious

                          Helps explain the sameness in the soup, side and dessert choices out there, that's for sure. Anywhere you go in this country, somebody's serving Broccoli Cheese Soup on the same menu with those Roasted Redskin Potatoes alongside some crisply breaded Farm-raised Freshwater Catfish (whose water and how fresh, nobody's sayin') and a big slice from a carrot layer cake.
                          And almost no one ever notices the SYSCO truck 'cause it pulls in off-hours.

                          Over at the red-and-yellow hockey puck chains, the SYSCO truck pulls right in during the daylight. :)