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Use of recipes in restaurant kitchens

This grew out of a maddening thread about use of shallots, of all things. A number of posters (some claiming to be chefs) claimed that they never used recipes.

In the last few years, I've helped my chef friend Daniel Orr (La Grenouille, Gustafanos, etc.) translate his "cheffy" recipes into recipes for the home cook. There is a recipe for every cook on the line. They don't look like recipes that home cooks are used to seeing, but they are recipes. There is no one posting here that has the cooking chops that this guy does.

That said,his local restaurant has "Sous Chef Sunday," where the youngsters get to strut their stuff. They usually do an amazing job, but diners coming in are advised that the usual menu is not what's available.

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  1. As a home cook, I rarely use recipes as anything other than suggestions. But then my usual cooking philosophy is "make something edible with what's in the house." This can lead to some unusual dishes, but they're not really reproducible. If I were running a restaurant, OTOH, I'd follow recipes (and insist my line cooks do as well) for regular menu items because it would bring some consistency to the kitchen: if people keep coming to Chez Tardigrade for my renowned dishes they should get what they expect.

    A local Indian restaurant I frequent seems to go with the free-form cooking method, at least for lunch dishes. Items can be staggeringly good or mediocre depending on the chefs' moods that day. They're inexpensive and close, so I put up with it: if I were going to a more expensive, highly-rated place for dinner I'd expect the standard dishes to be consistent with what reviewers reported.

    1. I've never seen/known a restaurant that did follow recipes. Seems absurd to me to think otherwise.

      1. I see both sides of the coin.

        Baking is chemistry and science - you really do need to follow recipes cuz once it is on the oven, it is in the oven! And using something like Ruhlman's Ratio, I still consider that a recipe.

        That said, there is a thrill and a joy, looking at ingredients and seeing what can happen.

        Then the other other side is - if you have a restaurant, and you promise the same dishes that taste the same every day - even if you don't work off a written recipe - you've trained all your cooks with the unwritten one, so they know what to do. It's just in heir heads, not on paper. Still counts : )

        My Dad was all of the above. He was a short order cook through college, so he could cook 4 different dishes at once for us, on the fly, and have them all come out done at the same time. He was also a great dish inventor. But he also loved a good recipe so that, if you were trying a cuisine you'd never tried before, and there was no other chef there, you could still do it.

        1. Yes, restaurants use recipes. Do all? Probably not.

          I would "guess" that most do, though.

          1. We have recipes but they aren't like the ones in a cookbook, it's hard to explain but it's more about racing a consistent end goal than using exact amounts

            6 Replies
              1. re: c oliver

                In the one I'm in now plus many others I've had the pleasure of working in. I've been in a couple that used exact recipes. Then again I'm on the hot side pastry is a whole different breed of animal

                1. re: mrbojangles447

                  So if usually a dish is cooked with, say, a clove of garlic, then it's alright do bump that up by any amount just because?

                  1. re: c oliver

                    It depends. If the clove is small or getting old more may be needed. Use you're best judgement. If it calls for one clove then putting in a pound isn't the best idea. Salt would be a better example. In most kitchen recipes salt won't be written down our it will say to taste

                    1. re: mrbojangles447

                      This is no different than written recipes for the home cook that involve similar types of judgment -- most obviously recipes that instruct to "salt to taste" but also recipes for baking bread that provide guidance as to required texture and instruct, e.g., to add more water if the dough is too dry, or more flour if too wet. Even a recipe that calls for 3 cloves of garlic or 3 potatoes involves judgment by the cook as the cook might decide to adjust those amounts if the cloves of garlic or potatoes are unusually large or small.

                      1. re: masha

                        Exactly. There may not be a written recipe our any form of quantity on a recipe but we still use them. A chef whoop says he doesn't use a recipe is usually referring to the idea that he's made the product so many times that he doesn't need the recipe anymore.

            1. Any chef that claims to not use recipes is only lying to themselves.

              1. Went to our fave place for dinner last night. I asked the owner/executive chef about this and he looked at me like I'd (further) lost my mind. He couldn't believe any restaurant doesn't. And he's been in the biz at least 20 years I'm guessing.

                2 Replies
                1. re: c oliver

                  to add to your point, c oliver:
                  one of the restaurants on my regular rotation has every major component of every dish premeasured and portioned out before the restaurant opens for dinner service.
                  there is no way they could turn out that many dishes in the evening and be consistent without doing this.
                  for some costly ingredients, (i.e. scallops) the portions are weighed. for other ingredients, such as some greens, it looks like they are using volume measures.
                  in any case, every scallop dish that the kitchen generates comes out the same down to the size of the lemon wedge that is squeezed over the dish right after plating. it doesn't even matter whether or not it has even been prepared by the same cook.

                  1. re: westsidegal

                    Thanks for sharing those details. I think it's plumb silly to think that professional chefs in restaurant situations wouldn't be using recipes.

                2. Disclaimer...I'm not a pro.

                  But reproducibility of a dish is critical to a restaurant's success. I cannot imagine that a good restaurant allows variability in their dishes.

                  Maybe the QC is done with a printed recipe. Maybe there's a chef who tastes the sauces and checks the plates before they go out to ensure uniformity.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: sal_acid

                    Yep. Somebody decided that it needs one tsp of something, not two, a cup not a half cup. Ad libbing is going to make some very unhappy customers.

                    1. re: c oliver

                      Amen...I've terminated one employee in my 15+ year career for doing as she pleased and not following recipes.

                      I've also written my own recipes and made my own cookbooks for the restaurants I've owned.

                      Any other restaurants I've managed, all had recipes that you were expected to follow...to the letter.

                  2. Back in my restaurant days, I worked everything from McD to three-star French. I never saw a recipe. It was 'show one, do one, teach one'.

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: mwhitmore

                      So at McDonald's when someone ordered a cheeseburger you could just do whatever you wanted? You could put as much ketchup as you wanted and omit the pickles if you wanted to? How about a couple of extra meat patties? Why not; there were no recipes right?

                      1. re: mwhitmore

                        A recipe does not need to be in writing, any more than a "story" does. Oral instruction as to the ingredients, amounts, and procedures constitutes a "recipe." The whole point of a franchise/chain like McDonalds is the consistency of the product. Those instructions may not be in writing but there is definitely a set way that each product is supposed to be cooked. That's a recipe.

                        1. re: masha

                          Whick is the point I, at least, am trying to make. A recipe isn't by any means written all the time.

                          1. re: masha

                            That is exactly my point. There may not have been a recipe for the cheeseburger similar to what you will see in the latest Bobbby Flay cookbook, there is still a recipe in one format or another.

                            I worked at Burger King in high school and we had these little diagrams above the work station that detailed the ingredients and construction of each menu item. It was a recipe.

                            1. re: jpc8015

                              Well, if *by definition* every cooked dish is made to a recipe, there is no point in having this discussion. Yes, a recipe could be oral rather than written. But to me, a recipe has ingredients, quantities (we never had cups or measuring spoons in any kitchen I worked in*), cooking procedure, and approximate timing instructions. At McD, I watched the old grill guy work a batch of burgers. Then he watched me do a batch. When the time came, I did the same for the new grill guy. At the Frenchie, I started on the vegetable station. The old veg guy moved to the fry station to my right, and kept an eye on me, giving me helpful hints until I got the hang of it. Meanwhile, the chef was on the sauté station on my left. I watched him make 100+ Veal Francese before I got to touch the sauté pan. At no point did anyone spell out quantities, technique, or timing for me. If you nonetheless consider that to be the same as opening a cookbook and following instructions, then we have different definitions of what 'cooking from a recipe' means. (*I'm sure Pastry did, but I never worked there.)

                              1. re: mwhitmore

                                Everything you just described is, to me, a recipe. No different than your parent or grandparent teaching you by example.

                                1. re: c oliver

                                  Then we have different definitions. I agree that it is like learning by watching grandma make biscuits. 'A little of this, a pinch of that, until the dough has the right texture, feel it!' Which I also do not consider 'cooking from a recipe'.

                        2. "Sous Chef day" sounds like an excellent idea. Seriously good experience for the chefs and the food will be a fun experience for customers. I think we should all start encouraging our own local restaurants to adopt the idea.

                          Do chefs follow recipes? I'd very much like to think so, particularly at the medium range place and up. You pay that sort of money because they consistently deliver a product, night after night, whether or not Chef is in the kitchen or having a day off.

                          1. I'm pretty sure my favorite Thai place has no recipes. Ordering is a crapshoot since nothing tastes the same from day to day. But! I've never had a dish I didn't enjoy so I keep going back. Plus, it's entertaining :)

                            6 Replies
                            1. re: Hobbert

                              I would say that they still have recipes, it just may be that their recipes are not as precise as others. A handful of this as opposed to a cup of this. If their were no recipes you could order yellow curry and come out with phad thai.

                                1. re: jpc8015

                                  On Sunday I ordered cashew chicken and got something with red curry paste and those tiny little ears of corn. There were cashews on it, at least. I've ordered it here before and it's been completely different- more like cashew chicken in every other Thai place. Sometimes the yellow curry comes with pineapple, sometimes with potatoes. It makes no sense but it's good and I'm not allergic to anything so I just let it happen.

                                2. re: Hobbert

                                  We had a similar experience with a neighborhood ma&pa Thai place. Sometimes he cooked and she ran the front of the house, and sometimes they reversed roles. What came out of the kitchen depended upon which one was cooking (and he was the better cook). It may still be that they used recipes -- in the sense of a standardized ingredient list and techniques -- but they each had their own for the same named-dish.

                                  1. re: masha

                                    That's probably what the issue is there. It makes it kind of fun :)

                                  2. re: Hobbert

                                    The Chinese place we don't go to is like that. OK one time... very not OK the next. Even the frigging dumplings vary. Clearly different ideas of the same dish. Hard for me to find this charmingly quirky.

                                  3. I cooked professionally in good restaurants after graduating from the CIA. I don't remember seeing many recipes except notes from cooking school and apprenticeships here and in Europe. Baking & charcuterie were a different story. They are more precise. Recipes are more or less committed to memory and are subject too constant tweaking based on the "condition" of the ingredients on that particular day. You never see measuring spoons in restaurants.

                                    7 Replies
                                    1. re: zackly

                                      "Committed to memory" is still a recipe, isn't it? And somehow I'm guessing that the folks who work for Thomas Keller and his sister/brother chefs don't do a whole lot of tweaking. As has been said here, from at least mid-range on up, diners want that reproduceability that only a recipe gives.

                                      1. re: c oliver

                                        By tweaking I meant adjusting quantities, seasoning, cooking times etc. to get the end results you are looking for. One day the tomatoes and carrots might be very sweet, the next not so much so. You need to be able to adjust "recipes" every time you make them to end up with a consistent product. That's the sign of a good cook, being able to scramble. I always say I'd rather be good every day than great one day & mediocre the next.

                                      2. re: zackly

                                        So if there are no recipes what do you do when one cook thinks there should be cream in the chicken Marsala and the other cook does not think there should be cream? Is it just a crapshoot for the diner as to what will end up on their plate on any given night?

                                        1. re: jpc8015

                                          Cooks were not allowed to improvise. They do what the chefs train them to do. It's his/her show.

                                          1. re: zackly

                                            If there is no improvisation allowed then the cooks are following a recipe.

                                            1. re: jpc8015

                                              True, but like I said there are no measuring spoons in kitchens. You learned by observing and as a chef it was my job to closely supervise until I was confident a cook could make a dish.

                                              1. re: zackly

                                                The existence of recipes is not dependent on measuring spoons.

                                      3. The more I read this thread spun off from the one last night it seems a matter of perspective as to who is following a recipe.

                                        As having been a cook, owner and every other position in a restaurant I can say with 100% confidence not all restaurants (non-chain) use recipes.

                                        Now by this I will use myself as an example, I have never followed a recipe for a dish. Will I read recipes to get ideas or inspiration, yes. But no "Chef" (not claiming to be a Chef myself) wants to admit to following someone else's recipe. So with that said, most Chefs will improvise on certain recipes or techniques to add their personal signature to any dish. In my opinion that is not following a recipe. Again my opinion.

                                        Once he or she has put their unique signature on a dish do their subordinate cooks follow that signature/recipe, absofuckinglutely to a "T". So from that aspect yes restaurants, cooks, sous chefs DO follow recipes.

                                        The visual I get when some one speaks of following recipes are of open cook books or index cards spread out with exact measurements and step by step directions. You will find this in chains, in proprietary binder books, complete with finished product plated presentation, but not in many independent restaurants.

                                        So after reading these threads I declare this argument a draw, chefs and restaurants DO and DO NOT use recipes.

                                        Chowteam lock this one up, all has been settled on this topic! Thank you, good night!

                                        20 Replies
                                        1. re: jrvedivici

                                          But jr, these threads are so much more fun when you can have the same argument over and over and over and over with the same people! :-D

                                          1. re: jrvedivici

                                            " I have never followed a recipe for a dish."...Bullshit.

                                            If you have worked in every capacity in the restaurant setting there is no way you could say that with a straight face.

                                            1. re: jpc8015

                                              You are correct, I stand corrected when I worked as a line cook in a chain restaurant I did. My mind set in that comment was as an owner or in charge of a kitchen, that is said and typed with a straight face.

                                              Again based on me description in my other post.

                                              1. re: jrvedivici

                                                The owner chef may not be "following" a recipe by your description but he/ she is developing a recipe. Once the recipe is developed and perfected (whether it is reduced to writing or not), I presume that it is "followed" whenever it is offered on the menu. For example, I presume that, once Thomas Keller developed his namesake method for preparing roast chicken, that is the method used in his restos for that dish.

                                                1. re: masha

                                                  And it's going to be the same every single night. Or as was mentioned above, somebody might get fired. Diners are paying for Thomas Keller's "recipes" and no one else's ad libs.

                                                  1. re: masha

                                                    Pretty sure I covered that;

                                                    "Once he or she has put their unique signature on a dish do their subordinate cooks follow that signature/recipe, absofuckinglutely to a "T". So from that aspect yes restaurants, cooks, sous chefs DO follow recipes."

                                                    Please read my prior post.

                                                    1. re: jrvedivici

                                                      Which is absolute point that OP is making.

                                                      1. re: c oliver

                                                        Which then means that there are recipes in restaurant kitchens. Recipes are the foundation for cuisine. Without recipes every diner would be expected to eat a mish mash of random ingredients thrown onto a plate.

                                                        1. re: jpc8015

                                                          I sincerely wish I could understand why this is a bone of contention for anyone. It seems quite straightforward to me. It seems especially obvious in these days of 'celebrity chefs' who have multiple restaurants possibly all over the world. But even in my little local places, I know that the dish I had and loved last night is going to be prepared exactly the same way next time I want it.

                                                          1. re: c oliver

                                                            I think it is a matter of misplaced pride.

                                                            1. re: jpc8015

                                                              False or misplaced is probably the closest we'll come to an answer. It's, like, what's the big deal?

                                                              1. re: c oliver

                                                                It's just personal perspective, after reading more I see where you and others are coming from. I don't see it the same way, but I respect your and others opinions.

                                                        2. re: c oliver

                                                          C, am I arguing with anyone or challenging the OP in their opinion?

                                                            1. re: jrvedivici

                                                              It just seems absurd to me to make a statement like this:

                                                              "Now by this I will use myself as an example, I have never followed a recipe for a dish."

                                                              Not only is it simply untrue it has an incredible tone of arrogance. Why would there be shame in following a recipe? I would think that a good cook would be able to do it.

                                                              1. re: jpc8015

                                                                No arrogance just clarifying I can only speak of my own experience. I'm not a trained cook I'm self taught, so my ways of doing things may differ. That's all, no arrogance or I would be challenging everything else that's posted. I'm simply sharing my personal experience. Not saying it's the rule or the norm, all I can do is speak for myself.

                                                                You notice how quick I was to correct myself when I realized I misspoke, is that a sign of arrogance?

                                                    2. re: jpc8015

                                                      Its all a matter of definition.

                                                      If a recipe is written down, everyone agrees its a recipe.

                                                      If a dish is learned by repetition and correction then some would say it is not a recipe. But there's a plan to the dish and presumably results are consistent if done right. I'd call that the equivalent of a recipe.

                                                      1. re: sal_acid

                                                        I agree the the latter is a recipe. To put his in context, my husband and I both make various dishes that are of our own creation, which have evolved over time but which are now pretty standard in terms of how they are made (i.e., he has some and I have some). When our son was starting out on his own, he asked us each for the "recipe" for certain of those. They were not written down until that point, but we reduced them to writing at his request -- which in some instances involved actually measuring the amounts of certain ingredients that we would typically just eyeball. The point is, even before they were reduced to writing there was a set methodology and ingredients that we used for each dish -- i.e, a recipe.

                                                    3. re: jrvedivici

                                                      Your "visual" of what a recipe is is quite narrow. Long before most cooks could write, there were recipes.

                                                    4. love the sous chef sunday thing!

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: harryharry

                                                        Isn't a recipe a set of instructions for preparing something specific. (much like a pharmaceutical compound?)