Bummed about that gloppy steak special? While working undercover in the kitchen of an Applebee’s, Tracie McMillan was unsettled to discover the near absence of fresh food. But even high-end restaurants serve pre-prepared foods from suppliers like Sysco, she explains in The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.
In our walk-in refrigerator, the produce takes up a small set of shelves, a stack of four or five roughly six feet wide and two feet deep. Primarily, this space is used for bags of produce already cut up in some far-off processing plant: precut broccoli florets, bags of shredded cabbage and carrots for coleslaw, bags of chopped romaine and baby spinach, shredded carrots, sliced mushrooms.
As far as whole produce, the stuff we cut up ourselves, there isn’t much. I see a box of tomatoes, a few dozen heads of iceberg lettuce for burgers, grape tomatoes, a few sweet peppers, lemons and limes. The meat comes in frozen, but, save for the ribs and fried foods, uncooked; the Cargill ground beef gets portioned into hamburgers from the five-pound packs in which it is shipped. But everything else we have in the kitchen, every soup and sauce, every chicken wing with bone or without (the latter being, essentially, chicken nuggets) comes premade in a bag, often frozen. Even the seasonings come this way.
The lack of produce can be explained easily by one thing: cost, the cost of the produce itself and of the labor it takes to prepare it. Restaurant executives often sideline fruits and vegetables not just because of their high price tags, but because they are harder to store, can spoil and lead to waste, and undercut sales of more profitable items—like processed foods. Produce also gets sidelined because of the “special handling” it requires, which is to say it must be cleaned and chopped before it gets anywhere near the line.
The same economic calculus applies to the overwhelming presence of processed food, particularly preprepared foods like the chicken wings, which need only to be dropped into the fryer for reheating and crisping; the ribs, which come precooked and presmoked, reheated on the grill with a slathering of sauce; and the frozen Triple Chocolate Meltdown cake, nuked by Rico and Hector, thrown on a plate with a scoop of ice cream, and squirted with fudge sauce. None of this requires more than the most basic attention on the part of the cooks. And it saves incredible amounts of time and money. I never get a look at Applebee’s inventory and cost documents, and food distributor data are notoriously hard to come by. But in 2007, Slate reporter Ulrich Boser found that an Angus country-fried steak from Sysco typically yields a five-dollar profit. This kind of faux cooking graces the white tablecloths of high-end restaurants as well as the booths of Applebee’s. Thomas Keller, the renowned chef heading up the French Laundry, was using frozen fries in his kitchen in 2007, and the same year Belhurst Castle, a prestigious spa and inn lauded by Wine Spectator, was serving Sysco’s Imperial Chocolate Cake, defrosted and garnished with fresh raspberries.
For what it’s worth, the cooks I work with know the difference. On one of my first nights in the kitchen, Calixto chatted me up, asking about where I’d worked before, and had I ever been in a kitchen? I said not really, and asked him where he’d worked besides Applebee’s.
Over at Junior’s, he said, indicating a famous Brooklyn diner-style restaurant. And they’ve got a real kitchen over there, not like here.
What do you mean? Isn’t this a real kitchen?
Nah, nah, he said. For onion soup, you cut up the onions and make the soup, he said, closing his eyes in reverie before snapping them back open.
Not defrost a bag of it like here.