Tag Archives: cooking

They Don’t Make It Like That Anymore

This Foodie Friday I am going to run the risk of sounding like the grumpy old man I’m slowly becoming. Rather than admonishing you all to get off my lawn, I want to share the sentiment I had a week or so ago as I fired up my smoker. My smoker, or as it’s lovingly known, “The Beast”, was made by the New Braunfels Smoker Company at least 20 years ago, How do I know that? Well, that’s today’s food and business thought.

The Beast is made of heavy steel that’s quite thick and it weighs well over 100 pounds even without my usual load of meats inside. As I was cleaning up the old Rancho Deluxe to get ready for its sale, the smoker was one of the very few things that I was adamant about saving for the move. Why was that, especially when I also gave away or junked a Caja China and two other grills? In a sentence:

Because they don’t make them like that anymore.

The New Braunfels Smoker Company was sold to Char-Broil 20 years ago. Almost immediately, the quality of the products went downhill, and this was especially noticeable on the gauge of the steel. The steel was thinner and didn’t hold heat as well. When a rust spot developed, it was difficult to sand and paint it without almost going through the area that has rusted. The products were similar in design and name, but that was about all that was the same. The bbq forums, home to serious meat smoking aficionados like me, were deluged with negative comments and, more importantly to the business, better alternatives to what had been a superior line of smokers.

This is something from which any business can learn. We’re always under pressure to improve our margins. Some folks look to cheaper materials, other to cheaper, less-skilled labor, and still others to cutting customer service. Sometimes we just skimp on quality control. While margins might improve, there is a strong chance that revenues will decline as the customer base figures out that “you’re not making it like that anymore.” As an Apple user, I recently switched to a Chromebook because my Mac OS isn’t as smooth and there are glitches that were never an issue before. For you cooks out there, Pyrex changed their formula and “new” Pyrex is not as good. Recent Craftsman tools, once the industry standard, are now made in China and aren’t nearly as good. I can go on and I’m sure you can as well.

If you’re successful, resist the temptation to cut corners. People notice (so does your staff). Don’t be part of a conversation that claims you don’t make it like that anymore.

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Techniques, Not Recipes

It’s finally Foodie Friday again and something I cooked last week sparked a thought. I was trying to find a recipe for a dish I liked and found several versions, each slightly different. The one thing that they had in common, however, was how they were prepared. The process of pulling the dish together was nearly identical in every example. Each used a few common terms to represent techniques: saute, fold, and others.

A cook sautees onions and peppers.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This reminded me of a very basic thing I heard a long time ago: it’s learning techniques that matter, not learning recipes. One of the world’s culinary masters, Jacques Pepin, wrote a book decades ago called “La Technique” which is an encyclopedic look at everything from boning out a leg of lamb to making garnishes out of fruit. As a cook, learning technique is what frees you up to explore food and create your version of anything. It’s a process that never ends, by the way. Despite my years in the kitchen, I’ve only learned to sous vide and to use a pressure cooker in the last couple of years. Both techniques have become skills I use on a regular basis now.

Of course, this thinking doesn’t just apply to cooking. If you play a musical instrument, you’re probably aware that you spend an inordinate amount of time learning everything from how to hold the thing, the proper fingerings to produce certain notes, and what notes are in which scales. As a guitar player, I learned patterns, bends, and hammers as well. Once you understood what each of those techniques produces, you were freed up to make music: YOUR music.

Business isn’t any different. The problem, however, is that many folks don’t take the time to understand that they must learn technique before they can make their own music or create their own food. They try to produce the recipes that make for success in business without having the skills required. Without those techniques, the results will take far longer, if they’re achieved at all. Moreover, it’s nearly impossible for them to make their own music.

Which techniques? Analyzing, communicating, synthesizing, negotiating, budgeting, and presenting are good places to start. There is another dozen I could add to the list, but You get the point. In the office or in the kitchen, having an understanding of the basic techniques which underpin business or cooking, respectively, is a critical element in your success. Otherwise, just trying to duplicate someone else’s recipe will be the best you can do, and even that might be a long slog. Make sense?

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All Kitted Out

There is a relatively recent phenomenon in the food world which is our topic this Foodie Friday. I’m talking about the explosion of companies offering food kits. Blue Apron, Plated, Hello Fresh, and others have been joined by Amazon in offering up boxes of already measured and portioned ingredients along with the recipes that tell the cook how to combine and cook everything to create a meal. For busy people, not having to shop for ingredients or to research and think about recipes is a godsend. That said, there are several things I find wrong with meal kits and they just might be helpful as you think about your business as well.

I’ve tried Blue Apron. The food was pretty good and the quality of the ingredients was better than I expected. Not having to shop or to think about what I was making (once I’d chosen the meal from the website) saved time. That said, a less experienced cook wouldn’t really have been able to save much time. You still need to chop vegetables (although I know some kits have them pre-chopped – not great for flavor or texture!). You still need to be able to interpret the recipe and follow the instructions (which contain cooking terms inexperienced people might not quite grasp). And they’re not cheap: $10 per meal per person is generally a lot more than most people spend per portion on home-cooked meals.

The real issue I have is that you’re trying to change habits. How so? Many people dread going to the supermarket but most of the better cooks I know relish shopping. I know that many supermarkets now offer a service where you can shop online and the store will fill your order either for pickup or delivery. I’ve never used them because I’m picky about produce and I’m always looking for opportunistic specials to plan a menu around. That experience is taken away with these kits. You can’t keep them either. Like many folks, I’ll buy ingredients and when my plans change, I can freeze the proteins for later. That doesn’t really work here.

The people who don’t cook don’t do so because they either don’t know how or they don’t like it. They find recipes with more than three steps complicated (these kits often are a lot more). They’re slow – I can chop an onion in under 30 seconds. It might take an inexperienced cook a few minutes. They don’t have tools that make the jobs easier: sharp knives, the right pots and pans, a decent stove, etc. Meal kits don’t solve any of those things as they try to change people’s habits.

Pay more, save time shopping, and worry less doesn’t solve the basic problem: people don’t like to cook and this is an expensive program that doesn’t solve that problem. In addition, you’re adding another issue: managing the subscription online. And customers seem to be finding that as well. Blue Apron reported that customer retention is their number one issue. Business Insider reported that:

According to a new poll by Morning Consult and Money Magazine, 49% of respondents who canceled a meal kit service cited the cost as the biggest reason for their cancellation…Not liking the recipes (13%) and unavailability in their area (15%) were the second biggest factors for those who canceled their service and those who have never tried a meal kit service.

As we try to solve consumer’s problems we need to be sure we’re actually doing so, and doing so in a way that doesn’t create other problems. I’m not sure that meal kits meet that test. You?

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No Water, No Friction

Foodie Friday, and today we’re going to have a think about what microwave ovens can tell us about our business. I don’t know about you, but I use my microwave all the time. I tend to have a fair amount of leftovers around and it seems that my morning coffee gets cold before I can finish it. Both get a quick warm-up in the microwave. But let’s think for a moment about how a microwave actually works.

A microwave is less of an oven than it is a radio transmitter. The thing heats food by causing water molecules in whatever is being heated to vibrate as it sends out electromagnetic radiation. As they vibrate, the molecules rub against one another and it’s the friction that causes heat. If the thing being hit with the radiation contains no water (glass, ceramic, etc.), there is nothing to vibrate and, therefore, no heat created. That’s why the part of the bowl or plate you’re heating up that’s above/outside the thing being heated stays cool (at least until the heat from the food spreads outward). No friction means no heat.

I like to think of a business that way. A big part of what we want to do as businesspeople is to eliminate friction. We often talk about “frictionless” transactions. Business, after all, is built upon transactions between two parties, usually a buyer and a seller. It takes something – marketing of some sort, generally – to get some momentum going towards the conclusion of the transaction, but once that’s happened our job is to remove any impediments that create friction as the deal moves towards a conclusion. It can be a long line a the checkout, it can be unknowledgeable salespeople, it can be a lack of inventory. In short, we want to keep everyone “dry”, since no water means no friction, right?

Ask yourself what “dampens” your process. Where are the friction points? When the deal microwave is switched on, what begins to vibrate and create the heat that too often accompanies a deal?

Microwave ovens aren’t ideal for all forms of cooking but they excel when they’re used properly. Understanding how they work helps us use them appropriately, and we can take advantage of their speed and efficiency. Applying the “no water, no friction” thinking that makes a microwave work to our businesses can help us do the same thing there.

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Burgers And Dogs

It’s Foodie Friday, and we’re heading into what I hope is a long Fourth Of July weekend for you. At some point, hopefully, your plans include firing up a grill of some sort and cooking some hot dogs and hamburgers. Simple? You bet, but this is a weekend for leisure time and not getting all sweaty in front of a grill. Besides, you never know when your crew will get hungry, and burgers and dogs can be ready in no time. And what meal could be more All-Amercian (even if both foods come to us from German origins)?

It wouldn’t be the screed if we didn’t use the simplicity of burgers and dogs as a jumping off point for some business-related thought, right? As I was musing about that, it came to me that there are, in fact, a lot of possibilities with either of those basic dishes, even if you’re not stuffing your own hot dog casings or grinding your own meat for the burgers (I do the latter; the former is well beyond my patience). Think about the almost endless variations on the hot dog. I used to patronize two very fine establishments who were renowned for their extensive takes on various dogs. You can change up the meat (all beef, beef and pork, etc.), you can change the dressings and roll (compare the classic Chicago dog with a classic Detroit Coney Island, a chili dog and onions), but the thing is still a boring old hot dog (not).

It’s the same with burgers. I have a few different burger books in my cookbook collection, and while the dressings, meats, and buns vary a lot, it’s still some form of ground meat shaped into a patty and grilled. Heck, you can even taste the difference (if you’re brave) between a simple burger from McDonald’s vs. one from Burger King (cooking on a grill vs. a griddle). It doesn’t take much to change the dish.

The business point is this. Even if you’re in a very crowded space, your business can distinguish itself. You do this by becoming a brand – something that is instantly recognizable for the promise to the customer it contains. You can do this through great service, great value, smart marketing, or any other number of ways.  What makes a Chicago Dog unique are the sport peppers, the poppy seed bun, and the celery salt. What makes you unique? How does your vision differ from all the other people in your business area?

Enjoy your Fourth and your cookout. Just remember that even if it’s plain old burgers and dogs, you’re the secret sauce that can make everything unique, both on the grill and in the office.

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Opening A Can Of Mistrust

It’s Foodie Friday and I want to talk about a widespread fraud this week. If you cook Italian food every so often, you might have been a victim of this common deception, and of course, it has implications for your business (or else why would I bring it up here?). I’m talking about the lies told by many companies about what lies within a can of tomatoes labeled as “San Marzano.”

If you’ve been to Italy you’ve tasted the difference in what they have there vs. what we commonly use here, and one of the biggest differences is the true San Marzano tomato. Grown in the volcanic soil that surrounds Mt. Vesuvius, these plum tomatoes are protected by an official designation – DOP – which certifies that they are the real deal. Many other types of products receive this stamp which certifies that they are locally grown and packaged in the specific region according to strict standards – balsamic vinegar and mozzarella di bufala are two of the best known along with these tomatoes.

If you walk through your local supermarket, you will find many cans labeled “San Marzano” and yet there is a high likelihood that they are nothing of the sort. 95% of the tomatoes sold here as San Marzanos are fake, at least according to the person who certifies them. If you see crushed or diced San Marzanos, they’re fake, since true ones are only sold whole. If they are grown in the US, they’re fake. If it doesn’t have the DOP seal and the seal of the consortium that sells them, they’re fake. Some unscrupulous packagers put a DOP-looking seal on their cans; some don’t even bother, knowing that the words “San Marzano” are enough to confuse shoppers.

Why do I raise this? First, it bothers me that so many retailers are complicit in perpetuating this fraud. You wouldn’t see a legitimate store knowingly selling fake Dior bags or knockoff golf clubs with high-end labels. Why do supermarkets allow this? Can I trust that the wild-caught fish you’re selling at the fish counter isn’t farm-raised? Second, some fairly big time packagers engage in this, which calls into question what’s in the cans of other products they produce. Are those really organic peas or are you just charging more for the same stuff that’s in the non-organic cans? Lastly, and most importantly, it reiterates the point we’ve made often here in the screed. The most important thing any business gets from customers is trust. Losing that trust can be fatal, no matter how good your service or pricing might be. Knowingly perpetuating a fraud on your customers is way over the foul line.

I don’t want to make too big a point about a can of tomatoes. Most shoppers don’t look for San Marzano tomatoes – they buy whatever is on sale. It only takes one customer, however (like me?), who figures out that you’re profiting off of the deception to put a crack in your reputation. That’s not the type of sauce you want to be serving, is it?

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Foaming At the Mouth

This Foodie Friday, let’s talk about foams for a minute. Food foams, that is, and not the thick ones such as whipped cream, marshmallows, or even cake. I mean the foams that have come out of molecular gastronomy and are made out of mushrooms or parmesan cheese or just about anything else. Throw some stabilizing agent (agar, lecithin,etc.) into a liquid, grab the old immersion blender and voila: foam.

Let me give you two prominent cooks takes on them. The first is Gordon Ramsay:

If I want foam I will stick to my bubble bath after the end of a long week. Watching foam sit on a plate and 30 seconds later it starts to disintegrate and it starts to look like toxic scum on a stagnant pool of crap. I don’t want to eat foams. It’s not good.

Then there is Alton Brown‘s take:

Don’t think you can replace cooking technique with throwing a bunch of flavors on top of something. Any more than you can making it into a caviar. Or making it into a foam. If I live the rest of my culinary life without a seeing another foam, I’ll be OK. I’m sick to death of foam. What does foam do? Cover our bad cooking, by and large.

I must admit that I’m not particularly a fan of foams on my plate but I find the above two quotes of interest to us today because each also contains a business point. Chef Ramsay rightfully points out that when customers purchase a product they expect it to perform and endure. If you have kids, you know the experience of toys being destroyed by lunch time on Christmas. It’s almost as if the toy makers never put the thing into the hands of a 4-year-old to test endurance. But many of us have had the same experience with tech toys and other products. We need to build our products and services to last.

The second quote points out that customers aren’t easily distracted. A nicely flavored foam can’t hide a poorly cooked protein underneath it. It’s great that we design digital products and physical products to look nice but consumers value substance over style in the long run. Just as diners order the protein and not the foam, consumers are focused on the main promise the product is making and not on how pretty it is.

Foams add flavor without adding substance. I think we all need a lot more substance in this world. You?

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