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Use of recipes in restaurant kitchens

pikawicca Feb 25, 2014 04:41 PM

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. t
    tardigrade RE: pikawicca Feb 25, 2014 08:12 PM

    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. c oliver RE: pikawicca Feb 25, 2014 08:47 PM

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

      1. h
        happybaker RE: pikawicca Feb 25, 2014 09:13 PM

        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. JayL RE: pikawicca Feb 25, 2014 09:35 PM

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

          I would "guess" that most do, though.

          1. m
            mrbojangles447 RE: pikawicca Feb 25, 2014 10:27 PM

            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: mrbojangles447
              c oliver RE: mrbojangles447 Feb 26, 2014 07:42 AM

              In your restaurant?

              1. re: c oliver
                mrbojangles447 RE: c oliver Feb 26, 2014 03:20 PM

                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
                  c oliver RE: mrbojangles447 Feb 26, 2014 03:24 PM

                  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
                    mrbojangles447 RE: c oliver Feb 26, 2014 03:54 PM

                    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
                      masha RE: mrbojangles447 Feb 26, 2014 04:22 PM

                      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
                        mrbojangles447 RE: masha Feb 26, 2014 04:30 PM

                        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.

            2. j
              jpc8015 RE: pikawicca Feb 26, 2014 07:36 AM

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

              1. c oliver RE: pikawicca Feb 26, 2014 07:44 AM

                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
                  westsidegal RE: c oliver Feb 26, 2014 11:22 AM

                  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
                    c oliver RE: westsidegal Feb 26, 2014 12:35 PM

                    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. sal_acid RE: pikawicca Feb 26, 2014 07:47 AM

                  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
                    c oliver RE: sal_acid Feb 26, 2014 07:49 AM

                    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
                      JayL RE: c oliver Feb 26, 2014 11:21 AM

                      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. m
                    mwhitmore RE: pikawicca Feb 26, 2014 08:14 AM

                    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
                      jpc8015 RE: mwhitmore Feb 26, 2014 08:21 AM

                      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
                        masha RE: mwhitmore Feb 26, 2014 08:32 AM

                        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
                          c oliver RE: masha Feb 26, 2014 08:39 AM

                          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
                            jpc8015 RE: masha Feb 26, 2014 08:48 AM

                            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
                              mwhitmore RE: jpc8015 Feb 27, 2014 06:34 PM

                              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
                                c oliver RE: mwhitmore Feb 27, 2014 06:41 PM

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

                                1. re: c oliver
                                  mwhitmore RE: c oliver Feb 27, 2014 07:32 PM

                                  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. h
                          Harters RE: pikawicca Feb 26, 2014 10:14 AM

                          "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. h
                            Hobbert RE: pikawicca Feb 26, 2014 12:38 PM

                            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
                              jpc8015 RE: Hobbert Feb 26, 2014 01:17 PM

                              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
                                c oliver RE: jpc8015 Feb 26, 2014 01:47 PM

                                Last sentence = never said better.

                                1. re: jpc8015
                                  Hobbert RE: jpc8015 Feb 26, 2014 01:54 PM

                                  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
                                  masha RE: Hobbert Feb 26, 2014 02:04 PM

                                  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
                                    Hobbert RE: masha Feb 26, 2014 03:31 PM

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

                                  2. re: Hobbert
                                    sal_acid RE: Hobbert Mar 1, 2014 09:43 AM

                                    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. z
                                    zackly RE: pikawicca Feb 26, 2014 01:48 PM

                                    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
                                      c oliver RE: zackly Feb 26, 2014 01:53 PM

                                      "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
                                        zackly RE: c oliver Feb 26, 2014 02:06 PM

                                        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
                                        jpc8015 RE: zackly Feb 26, 2014 01:55 PM

                                        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
                                          zackly RE: jpc8015 Feb 26, 2014 01:59 PM

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

                                          1. re: zackly
                                            jpc8015 RE: zackly Feb 26, 2014 02:12 PM

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

                                            1. re: jpc8015
                                              zackly RE: jpc8015 Feb 26, 2014 02:26 PM

                                              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
                                                jpc8015 RE: zackly Feb 26, 2014 02:29 PM

                                                The existence of recipes is not dependent on measuring spoons.

                                      3. jrvedivici RE: pikawicca Feb 26, 2014 02:49 PM

                                        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
                                          linguafood RE: jrvedivici Feb 26, 2014 02:52 PM

                                          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: linguafood
                                            linguafood RE: linguafood Feb 26, 2014 03:13 PM

                                            See what I mean?

                                          2. re: jrvedivici
                                            jpc8015 RE: jrvedivici Feb 26, 2014 03:05 PM

                                            " 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
                                              jrvedivici RE: jpc8015 Feb 26, 2014 03:16 PM

                                              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
                                                masha RE: jrvedivici Feb 26, 2014 03:24 PM

                                                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
                                                  c oliver RE: masha Feb 26, 2014 03:32 PM

                                                  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
                                                    jrvedivici RE: masha Feb 26, 2014 03:41 PM

                                                    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
                                                      c oliver RE: jrvedivici Feb 26, 2014 03:44 PM

                                                      Which is absolute point that OP is making.

                                                      1. re: c oliver
                                                        jpc8015 RE: c oliver Feb 26, 2014 03:47 PM

                                                        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
                                                          c oliver RE: jpc8015 Feb 26, 2014 03:56 PM

                                                          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
                                                            jpc8015 RE: c oliver Feb 26, 2014 04:03 PM

                                                            I think it is a matter of misplaced pride.

                                                            1. re: jpc8015
                                                              c oliver RE: jpc8015 Feb 26, 2014 04:19 PM

                                                              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
                                                                jrvedivici RE: c oliver Feb 26, 2014 04:26 PM

                                                                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
                                                          jrvedivici RE: c oliver Feb 26, 2014 04:15 PM

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

                                                          1. re: jrvedivici
                                                            c oliver RE: jrvedivici Feb 26, 2014 04:17 PM

                                                            I was agreeing with you, bud.

                                                            1. re: jrvedivici
                                                              jpc8015 RE: jrvedivici Feb 26, 2014 04:19 PM

                                                              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
                                                                jrvedivici RE: jpc8015 Feb 26, 2014 04:24 PM

                                                                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
                                                      sal_acid RE: jpc8015 Mar 1, 2014 09:47 AM

                                                      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
                                                        masha RE: sal_acid Mar 1, 2014 10:02 AM

                                                        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
                                                      pikawicca RE: jrvedivici Feb 26, 2014 03:24 PM

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

                                                    4. h
                                                      harryharry RE: pikawicca Feb 27, 2014 08:09 PM

                                                      love the sous chef sunday thing!

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: harryharry
                                                        PHREDDY RE: harryharry Mar 1, 2014 09:21 AM

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

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