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"Pre-Prepared" Food in Restaurants

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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. :)

                        4. 15 apps and 30 entrees!?!

                          1. The place I used to work at had a much smaller menu - the house specialty was smoked meat sandwiches, but they also had smoked turkey, tongue, etc. Lots of traditional Jewish deli aps like chopped liver, knishes, smoked salmon. They didn't bake, but got their bagels and breads from one of the better bakeries in town each day. And while they smoked their own brisket and turkey, they brought in the smoked salmon.

                            So I'm curious how the OP would categorize a meal where you ordered a bagel with cream cheese and lox while your companion ordered the smoked meat sandwich with their home-made (i.e. fresh cut potatoes, not frozen) fries. Is the first one "pre-prepared" in that all the ingredients were essentially brought in as is, and just assembled for you, while the second meal isn't, because everything but the bread was made on site?

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: FrankD

                              I was thinking more of a whole dish (beef stroganoff, sirloin tips with red wine sauce, shrimp scampi, etc.) being pre-prepared, i.e.,. coming in a plastic container and being nuked and served with sides that may have been made by the staff.

                            2. Some do, some don't. There's no way to answer this question without knowing what type of restaurant you are referring to. On one extreme, there are places like Boston Chicken, where all the food prep is done off site, and cooks more or less heat it up when it arrives to them (my husband's brother works at one). On the other is a restaurant I first worked at after college (dishwasher/prep, not chef!), where we made everything in house, includign bread, desserts, stock to start our soups, variety of sauces, etc. To be sure, when we made soup, we would make enough to last a few days - it would be nigh on impossible to prep each dish fresh everyday (and we usually started dinner prep by 8 or 9am; nor do you really need to prep things fresh every day), and we were serving a menu that was relatively short and was newly printed each day to represent what ingredients had arrived that day.
                              Of course, this brings up the neat point that those lovely sauces and soups that people raved over were actually made by me, the dishwasher, only with the oversight of the chef.

                              1. I believe Tom Ka Kai soup at Thai restaurants are all pre-prepared. I bought a paste labeled such at the market, dropped a dollop of it in a bowl of hot water with a few cut up mushrooms and, voila, it was as good as every bowl I've ever had at a restaurant. It must be the most profitable item on the menu.

                                1. We often have Saturday lunch at a casual place that's part of a regional chain (5 or 6 locations total). The first time I ate there, we were served by the asst. FOH manager (a server had called out sick). I was amazed by how really good/fresh my salad was and the soup was amazing! The asst. manager told me they make everything in house... no bagged salad greens, no bottled dressings, no pre-cooked chicken breasts, etc. He said they cut many pounds of greens and veg and poach big pans of chicken breasts every day for their chicken salad, wraps, etc. Their fish is frozen, but then cooked-to-order on a flame grill.

                                  Their menu is somewhat extensive (a variety of apps, 2 daily soups, several salads, sandwiches, wraps, pizza) and they have a "grill" section where you choose a protein (chicken, steak, salmon or mahi-mahi) and pair it with one of four sauces. They even make their own hummus and the tartar sauce for their mahi-mahi sandwich.

                                  I've never has dessert there, so couldn't say about those.

                                  This place is always jammin'! They are doing it right and people keep coming back. They've focused on simple, yet very flavorful food, based on fresh ingredients and no pre-made junk. I hope they can keep their standards as their little chain grows! One day, when I have a few extra moments, I'm going to ask to see their kitchen operation.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: onrushpam

                                    If it's so good why be coy about naming it?

                                  2. A lot of appetizers in chain restos are premade "heat-n-eat" products, made by a company, available in your grocer's freezer, and I think that's kind of appalling and something of a rip-off when it's so easy to CREATE an appetizer fit for an emperor, on the spot to order. Maybe use some pre-made INGREDIENTS, such as canned beans or ready-made phyllo shells or bouillon concentrate, but a restaurant serving a WHOLE DISH made in a factory? I don't see the point. If we wanted heat-n-eat-factory food, we'd stay home and heat up some Farm Rich frozen snacks. Why go out and eat something that you can always get from your grocer's freezer?

                                    5 Replies
                                    1. re: Sparkina

                                      It's only a rip off if it says on the menu "Housemade" and you can definately say it's not. The point is that there is a market for restaurants heating & serving prepared foods which is why these places are in business. Take a place like Sonic drive In; yes, it's fast food so people go in knowing that everything they serve is frozen. Does this stop the place from being packed? If people wanted to cook, they wouldn't eat out. Does dessert constitute a whole dish? Unless a restaurant has it's own bakery, most of them these days purchase many, if not all, of their desserts frozen to serve. You dont see them making their own caramel or chocolate sauce to garnish your cheesecake with when it's just as easy to open a can.. You don't see the majority of chain ice cream shops making their own ice cream before your eyes but yet there are lines out the door even if the prices are three times what you'd pay at the grocer's. People know they can buy Breyer's but they still want Coldstone.

                                      Just because one might see a Sysco truck in the parking lot does not mean the food is not from scratch. I've worked in restaurants forever; suppliers deliver fresh foods as well, but if a restaurant serve large numbers of guests, it's nearly impossible to make everthing from scratch. The only way to guarantee a home made meal is to make it in your own kitchen. Soon people will be expecting restaurants to grind their own flour or keep cows behind the building.

                                      1. re: Cherylptw

                                        You do have a point there, but by the same token, how hard can it be to bread some, say, mozzarella sticks or onion rings, or assemble potato skins? I bet many of the mozz sticks at restos are from a box.

                                        1. re: Sparkina

                                          I've made potato skins from scratch, and I wouldn't want to do so in bulk for a restaurant - you have to pre-bake the potatoes, let them cool, hollow them out, grate and shred the toppings, prep and bake. People aren't going to be willing to wait half an hour for their appetizer to be reading, and prepping the ingredients means estimating how many people will order them that night.

                                          1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                            Got a bit of insight into this when I made Morue à la Savoyarde from a bistro cookbook. Simple dish, but a chore to make: refresh the salt cod, cut up and fry; parboil potatoes, slice and fry; slice and fry onions to golden brown. Combine all in a gratin dish, season to taste, grate Comté cheese over all, then run through a hot oven ten minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve. Lot of work for one little (but delicious!) dish … and then I realized something: it would be dead easy to prep and assemble a whole bunch of these in the morning, put them onto a cart, and roll'em into the walk-in. Anyone with any cooking skills at all could do this. And then for service you just run each order through the oven and garnish, maybe a twelve-minute process. And this is the difference between a good simple home-kitchen dish and a good simple restaurant dish.

                                            I'll still make it, though. Maybe in the morning, next time …

                                          2. re: Sparkina

                                            It's not hard at all but again, time is better spent on other parts of a menu rather than breading mozzarella sticks when you can find perfectly good frozen sticks in quantity from a supplier at a fraction of the labor cost. The last place I worked definately used frozen mozzarella sticks because we spent our time making sauces, fabricating meat and baking all our bread from scratch.

                                      2. There was a very nice little restaurant in our town, very plain down-home food but all prepared from fresh, except for things like soups - those came from cans displayed openly on the counter, so you could see what kinds they had. The owner, son of the founder, kept it going through the '80s; one of the last times I was in there he was having a talk with one of the older employees, and looked very unhappy. Shortly after that a friend who still lived there said it'd been sold. The last times I was there was in '99, for our 40th HS reunion, and that was where our banquet was held; I had breakfast there that day as well. It was ghastly. The story I pieced together was that the new owners had thrown out all the old recipes, hauled off most of the kitchen and installed a big freezer and microwave ovens, and fired anyone who'd been there more than a few years. The only stuff that really gets cooked now is done on the grill or in the frying basket, and the staff for the most part is either clueless or openly bitter. I'm just glad Mrs. O got to have a few meals there before it got killed, stuffed and mounted.

                                        1. We ate at a "nice" independant place with white tablecloths and had what I.m sure was straight from the MW oven. One of the tell tale signs was the uneven heating in the meat. It was supposed to be a grilled plate and there were no signs of grilling.

                                          You can get anything you want at
                                          http://www.sysco.com/products/food_be...
                                          http://www.sysco.com/products/chef_ex...

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: wekick

                                            Wekick, I consider Sysco to be the cancer of the restaurant industry. Once they get inside a restaurant, all hope for good food is lost.

                                            1. re: Leper

                                              The chef ex link has the "organic/natural" food. It is scary. I suppose you could fix something palatable, but I know that some of the places where I live are touting local and it is anything but.
                                              I always say know your farmer if you are buying direct but I guess you better know your chef too. I saw somewhere on their website they have charcuterie.

                                          2. I would guess that chain restaurants work with a lot of partially prepared foods. Think pre-mixed bagged salads, purchased salad dressings, bread ordered from a bakery, pre-chopped vegetables that just need to be dumped in the steamer, pre-made frozen pizza crust, pre-made spaghetti sauce, etc. I would also expect a lot of the appetizers to be pre-made, particularly dips and anything that gets deep fried.

                                            With franchises I think it's also a part of keeping the food consistent by reducing what's under the control of the individual restaurants.

                                            1. Except for waitressing in college I've never worked in a restaurant but maybe that's why home food is better 90% of the time. Maybe that's why we check Chowhound before we plunk our money down in a restaurant.