I remember when I first started my position as Executive Chef at a new property and I was in my initial three month observational phase where I took notes on how things were being done in the kitchen and formulated a plan on how to improve the quality of food. I remember looking at the burger. It was a frozen patty on a store bought bun and came with french fries that were also store bought and frozen. Based on my training and better practices I knew what I needed to do. I immediately got in samples of fresh ground beef and signed on with a local bakery for a fresh brioche bun to be baked and delivered daily and toasted on the grill to order. I switched the method from cooking the burgers on the flat top to the char grill. I added a grape tomato to a skewer and stuck it through the top of the burger for a garnish element. I made sure that we shaved the onion paper thin because that's the way it should be. We began testing recipes for house made ketchup so we didn't have to use that processed stuff anymore, you know, as a favor to our guests. I changed out the fries for hand cut fries that we did in-house and finally, balance was restored.
One night, a couple of years later, my wife and I had a "date night" opportunity and decided that we wanted to go out for a really good burger. We went to a popular local burger joint downtown and knew we wouldn't be disappointed. I kept it simple and ordered a double cheeseburger with a fried egg on top and, of course, a side of fries. It was honestly the best burger I'd had in a very long time. Everything about it was perfect. The bun was soft and really compressed down perfectly to provide the ideal ratio of bread to patty. The caramelization on the patty came through and the proper fat content was evident in the glorious dripping of juices that rolled down the back of my thumbs as I took each bite. The fries were seasoned perfectly and crisp from the beginning of the meal to the end as I happily dipped them in an alternating pattern of ketchup and mayonnaise. It really hit the spot and when I think about it, I can still taste that burger as if it were yesterday.
I remember going to work the next day and while expediting dinner service I was watching my grill cook while she prepared a burger and I realized something. The burger that she was making, the one that I set the standard for, barely resembled what I had regarded as one of the best I'd ever had. It was a pre-formed patty, not hand pattied. This burger was cooked on a flat top griddle. It was on a store bought bun that was not toasted. It had previously frozen store bought fries and I kept (happily) dipping them in Heinz ketchup. The onions on the burger were haphazardly diced, not shaved paper thin with the utmost care. And there was no garnish!!! How was it possible that there was such a disconnect between what I had been preaching to my team and what I knew I really loved myself. I knew that this burger joint was wildly successful and loved by so many in the area. I have never made house made ketchup for myself or family at home. I have never really loved house cut fries and my preferred burger bun for my own backyard grill outs is a Potato Bun. Do we care too much what our colleagues in chef whites think about our decisions and allow that fear to drive our decisions? I would venture to say that the only real critic that we should be concerned with is the one sitting in the dining room and paying the bill.
This is what drives me as a Chef. The basic satisfaction of pleasing the people in the dining room is why I signed up for this. Not for approval or validation from my peers. A key ingredient to the "Be Better" philosophy is to be open minded and critical of your own convictions. Be adaptable and be able to admit that everything you do can be better. Once you view something as being at its best, you have just decided that it will never improve. That is when others begin to pass you by.
So here are some questions to ponder. Shouldn't our food be a reflection of our best experiences? If a dish at your restaurant isn't as good as the best version you've ever had why has the development of that dish stopped? If you think you can get the best burger anyplace in town other than your own kitchen, what's the point? Instead of saying "they have the best pizza, shouldn't we be saying that we have the best pizza? Now I am well aware, maybe even more than most, that food is a very subjective thing, so the word "best" is one of controversy. What is considered the best to some, may be considered sub par to others, but that is a topic for another blog post. For now, I encourage you to be open minded. Be honest with yourself. Follow your instincts and always work to be better.