Monday, 10 March 2008

'Save For Well-Done'

Allow me to set the scene...

It's about an hour into a busy evening service and the hustle and bustle is really in full swing. An abundance of glorious kitchen sounds can be heard in collective chorus - Head Chef singing out the orders, plate after plate hitting the pass, oven doors swinging open and closed, knives clack-clacking on boards, the 'tssssss'... as fish skin meets la plancha and let's not forget the curses, as fingers are cut and palms are burned. But once in a while this harmonious flow will be interrupted as the boss calls out those two words that any chef worth their salt should rightfully hate:

"Well done!"

No - he's not holding up the service to congratulate you on your performance. He's actually asking you to take an expensive and beautiful piece of meat and cook it until it's rubbery and grey all the way through. Which is why, on the rare occasion when it happens, I can't help but cringe with disdain as I hear Head Chef Arnau call "termina con entrecot a point plus".

I honestly don't know who I feel more sorry for - my good friend Michael (the poor sod who'll have to overcook the thing), or the ignorant customer who really thinks that's what a steak is supposed to taste like. Having said that, it does bring a smile to my face as I recall a certain chapter from Kitchen Confidential in which Anthony Bourdain describes one of the many tricks of the trade we insiders know as 'Saving for Well-Done'...

"'Saving for well-done' is a time-honoured tradition dating back to cuisine's earliest days: meat and fish cost money. Every piece of cut, fabricated food must, ideally, be sold for three or even four times its cost in order for the chef to make his 'food cost percent'. So what happens when the chef finds a tough, slightly skanky end-cut of sirloin that's been pushed repeatedly to the back of the pile? He can throw it out, but that's a total loss, representing a three-fold loss of what it cost him per pound. He can feed it to the family, which is the same thing as throwing it out. Or he can 'save for well-done' - serve it to some rube who prefers to eat his meat or fish incinerated into a flavourless, leathery hunk of carbon, who won't be able to tell if what he's eating is food or flotsam. Ordinarily a proud chef would hate this customer, hold him in contempt for destroying his fine food. But not in this case. The dumb bastard is paying for the privilege of eating his garbage! What's not to like?"

Wait a sec... I think I know what thoughts might be brewing inside your head right now. But come on, would I really be so stupid as to reveal all if the cowboy tactics Bourdain described so eloquently were employed in our kitchens at Comerç 24?

You'll be pleased (but hopefully not surprised) to know that it's quite the opposite in fact, as I myself found out not so long ago when Michael revealed the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about "a point plus".

What actually happens when an entrecot is requested "a point plus" (or worse still the dreaded "a point plus plus"), is this. The meat is put onto the grill as per normal, taken off while still red in the centre as per normal, rested for a few minutes as per normal, sliced as per normal, warmed gently under the salamander as per normal, fanned out on the plate as per normal...

OK, you won't have had to pay attention too closely to have noticed that the preparation so far hasn't differed one iota from how we serve our standard entrecot.

But ssshhhhhh, here's where the secret comes in. At this point we take a blowtorch and - yes you guessed it - run it over the surface of the meat so quickly that the only effect is to make a pink steak look like a well done one. So it arrives at this customer who sees it and thinks "Ah yes, it's been sliced and I can see that it's grey inside, just how I like it". Our entrecot dish is designed with the intention and, better still, our waiters recommend that each slice be eaten whole in order to obtain the full delicious effect of the flavour and texture. So the customer, none the wiser of course, is oblivious to the fact that this apparently well-done steak he's eating is actually still a tender and juicy medium steak inside.

So there you have it. We care so much about food that we'll go so far as to cheat the customer in order to improve their dining experience - without them ever knowing. Until now that is...

Postscript - Congratulations are in order for Michael, who more than proved himself while running the Plancha section in recent weeks and has now been made chef de partie. You know what I'm going to say, don't you? Well done Michael! Well done mate, you thoroughly deserve it!

13 comments:

Helen said...

How anyone could ever eat a piece of steak well done is totally beyond me. They don't deserve to eat a steak in the first place if they are just going to over cook the damn thing! Why not order something else? I love the blow torch trick though, very good. The only thing is they will never know that they do like their steak succulent and juicy red inside after all! I have steak cravings now....

ArC said...

Just curious: don't these well-done customers notice that the well-done at C24 is way juicier and tastier than anywhere else?

Trig said...

Helen - I feel just the same as you do. Although I must add it's not exactly red inside. I admit we do give it just a few moments longer under the salamander than we would for our normal entrecot, so it's a light pink when it hits the plate. All I can say is that if these 'well-done eaters' get addicted to rare steak then that's their problem, lol.

Andrew - I doubt they're complaining. The beef we use is of an exceptionally good quality, as are all of the fish and meats on our menu.

Thalia said...

Aidan, I'm quite horrified at this patronising activity. You probably don't know this, but pregnant women are forbidden from eating meat which isn't cooked through due to the additional dangers of parasites and food poisoning which can kill the baby in utero. SO if you are doing this to a woman, you may be risking the life of her unborn child.

Even if you only do this to men, it is not up to you how a customer eats their food, it's up to them. We all know steak is better when it's at least slightly rare, but it's not up to you to enforce this. Let people make their own decisions about food.

Trig said...

Thalia - thanks for your comment, but let me set your mind at rest. As part of my Professional Chef Diploma, I'm fully certificated in Food Safety and Food Hygiene, so I would never do anything that would endanger the health of a customer and certainly not that of a pregnant woman or her foetus, nor work anywhere that took such risks.

I can assure you that you'd be perfectly safe to eat at C24 because we buy only the best quality produce, store everything under strict hygiene conditions and never store food beyond absolutely safe limits.

And when it comes to cooking, we always observe the guidelines for cooking temperatures, including the internal temperatures which different meat types require to reach in order to cook them properly.

I'm sure it would help to allay your fears if I refer you to this page on the website of the Food Standards Agency, the independent body established by the UK Government and tasked with ensuring food safety for consumers in Britain. I'm sure similar advice applies here in Spain. The website explains that you can eat steaks, cutlets and joints of beef and lamb when they are pink or rare, because any bacteria are generally on the outside of the meat so if the outside is cooked, this should kill any bacteria even if the middle of the meat is still pink.

The same page issues a warning to pregnant women about eating sausages, minced meat and other meat products where there is a risk of bacteria developing in the centre of the meat.

I hope that has settled your worries. As for customer choice - that's an arguable point of course, but I'll stick with my position.

grannybuttons said...

I've met several oldies, who grew up in WW2, who still have a passion for burnt toast. I suspect there are flavours in everything; it's just a matter of growing to love them.

I remember reading a long article by legendary American foodie Corby Kummer about 20 years ago on the Southern US love of 'overcooking' vegetables. He quoted one Southern cook: "They aren't 'overcooked', they are 'thoroughly cooked'.

Flavours, they argued, developed in different ways during 'thorough' cooking.

To moan about the loss of al dente is as pointless as complaining about the loss of crunchiness of wheat when you turn it into flour.

I'm not inclined to be snotty about people who want their steaks well done. I prefer mine medium, but I can see how a well-done steak could have flavours and textures that I'm blind to.

There's too much snobbery about 'well done'.

Jeanne said...

Sorry I've been such a stranger of late and glad to see all is still going well in Barcelona! I did have a good giggle when yuo explained how you trick the customers into thinking this is the juciest well-done steak in Spain. I'm a rare-side of medium-rare girl myself, but I do have to agree with some of the other commenters that it's a matter of personal taste. The reason people go to restaurants is so that they can order exactly what they want. You would never get an order for grilled fish but then surreptitiously fry it instead because you think that particular type of fish tastes better fried!

Your Man in Spain said...

Trig/Thalia,

Regarding the issue of raw or undercooked meat and pregnancy. Women are not "forbidden from eating meat which isn't cooked through" nor "can" eating under cooked meat "kill the baby in utero".

What is the case is that medics ADVISE pregnant women to refrain from eating meat that has not been cooked to the correct, safe, temperature. Furthermore, undercooked meats can carry salmonella, e.coli, and toxoplasmosis bacteria. These can cause symptoms like nausea and diarrhea and in extreme cases are also associated with miscarriage and preterm birth.

To avoid these infections, one simply needs to ensure that the meats are well-cooked: red meats to a temperature of 170°F and pork to 160°F.

I am convinced that in C24, being the establishment that it is that hygiene, health and safety is of paramount importance and they are fully aware how all food products need to be treated. WELL DONE TRIG - VISCA BARÇA!!!

Mike said...

Grannybuttons - I can remember the pleasure of eating bread and dripping in the post-war years, but time moves on. Nowadays we understand something about the Maillard reactions that add taste to food when it is cooked at high temperature. So we don't need to burn the toast any more. In fact, a blowtorch is an ideal tool for generating these wonderful flavour compounds.

John said...

Well, it looks like I'll never be eating at your overpriced, snobbish establishment. More than once, I have had to go back to the kitchen and watch the chef prepare my steak. I like it overcooked!

ros said...

Well there's a customer I'm sure you're sorry to lose. ;)

My father ordered my steak well done for me on my behalf when I was a child. I was convinced I didn't like steak for years!

Robert Newton said...

To have a fellow chef who refuses to do a "WELL DONE" steak is extremely pleasing to know....To educate if it means to cheat a little for the better good of the beef...is the best thing to do ever...

Anonymous said...

I am appalled that people can be so snobby and intolerant of people who like their meat well-done! Personally I love the taste of a well-done/burnt steak. If it has the slightest bit of pink, I will send it back. And if a chef is too stuck-up to cook it the way I want it, I will take my money elsewhere. Personally, the sight of raw, bloody meat makes me want to vomit. I have felt this way since childhood and no food snob is going to convince me that uncooked meat tastes good. UGH! Bravo to Thalia and granny for being the only people with any common sense here.


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