Why not to order your filet mignon well-done
A reformed cook divulges some secrets of the professional kitchen.
Do you ever wonder why food tastes so much better at a restaurant than at home? Why that simply seared Dover sole tastes so creamy and sweet? It’s not just that the supplier provided fresher and higher-quality fish than available at the grocery store or specialty shop. Odds are that the big difference is in the preparation.
While you may use a little olive oil in your sauté pan, your average professional kitchen will use butter—and lots of it—not just for slicking the pan, but for basting, glazing, and saucing. All that butter adds to the wonderful flavors you are paying for, but it also can make a supposedly good-for-you food not so healthy after all.
When I was working in one 5-star hotel’s formal dining room kitchen, my daily prep included clarifying 6 pounds of butter for a 2-quart bain-marie used at the sauté station. At the end of service a few hours later, it was almost always completely empty. And this was only for one of the stations involved in plating a meal.
What chefs do to make food taste delectable may not always agree with a heart-healthy diet. Here are a few tips you can bring to the table the next time you dine out with your family and want to keep your diet in sound shape.
Sleuth Your Sauce!
Try to avoid sauces that are described as “creamy” or “buttery” — or that you know will contain a lot of fat, such as an Alfredo sauce. Harder to figure may be the contents of unusual preparations or sauces you thought you knew. You may have thought you were saving fats by not ordering the meaty ragú sauce for your pasta, but what do you do when the marinara is made with a stick of butter? (I am not joking about that!) An Asian-style sweet-and-sour glazed monkfish sounds healthy, but that small amount of glaze may contain ¼ cup of sugar alone.
An informed customer is a happy customer: ask your waitperson about the ingredients in the sauce for a dish you are considering. Most staffers will be happy to oblige. By being savvy about sauces, you can balance the scales to a healthier meal.
The biggest surprise for me at the grill station was how certain orders were prepared. If a 4-top ordered 3 prime rib specials medium-rare and one filet mignon well-done, that thick, lean filet went into the deep-fryer. (Again, this is a common practice.)
The cooks are thinking two things: one, that filet will take 45 minutes to cook to well on the grill, while the prime ribs only need finishing time. Throwing it in the oil speeds up the cooking time. The second thing they are thinking is that the person who orders a well-done filet will probably not be able to taste the difference (the deep-fry also provides a less dry steak).
Ask the waitstaff how your meat or even fish is prepared. Even if the menu lists an item as “grilled,” it still may be basted in butter while on the grill and then finished with maître d’ butter (compound/herb butter). The compound butter melts into the top of the meat, making its use unknown to the unsuspecting diner. Information is power. And watch the béarnaise sauce: egg yolks and clarified butter are the base to this tarragon-vinegar sauce served in many American steakhouses.
Filling out your meal with veggies is generally a healthy plan, but find out how they are prepared. Even steamed vegetables may be finished with butter, and sautéed veggies are usually doused with a few ladles of clarified butter. Grilled or griddled veggies may be cooked on the same flat-top that is used for meat, so some extra saturated fats may make their way into your seared zucchini slices.
A fresh greens salad may also start out innocently enough, but curly endive with a poached egg may be tossed with fresh bacon grease to round the taste up to chef’s standards. Ask about how your salad is dressed and if you can order the dressing on the side. A dressed salad may be tossed with two ladles of dressing, while only one ladle will go into the small boat on the side. Drizzle half of that on your salad and toss to coat the greens—it will probably be enough for most palates.
What You Can Do
Some simple choices your family can make eating out that empower your commitment to healthy eating:
- Don’t let your kids overload on the bread and butter basket. Allow them to have one slice and opt for olive oil, if available.
- Let the kids have one drink of their choice, then have them drink water. Otherwise, your waiter might keep refilling their non-diet soda, if that’s what they are having for example, making it nearly impossible for you to keep track of your kids’ sugar consumption while at the restaurant.
- Stop eating when you are full and encourage your kids to listen to their tummy as well. Most restaurant servings are much larger than you would eat at home—your kids don’t need to clean their plate. Bringing home leftovers gives you a wonderful lunch the next day!
- Don’t catch the dessert bug. If a server can get one person at the table to go for rich dessert, odds are everyone else at the table will follow suit. Discuss with your kids ahead of the restaurant visit what your expectations are regarding dessert. Maybe they can share one dessert and the parents share one. Model what you would like them to do – order some sorbet or mixed berries so the kids can follow your example.
- Whatever you do, don’t make anyone feel guilty or berate yourself or the kids for an indulgence. No one wants to be at the table with the person who goes on and on about how they shouldn’t be eating this or how bad they are being. Let everyone make their choice and then try to manage the impact of the meal using the tips above. Savor every morsel together – it’s a positive family experience, including trying to keep the meal a little healthier. There’s no sense in dining out with the whole family if you can’t truly enjoy it together.