A couple of weeks ago, through the agency of a friend, I ended up spending the evening in a commercial kitchen preparing food. The restaurant was closed for business that night, but had a full kitchen going for the dozen or so people who turned out to try their hands at being chefs. We all cooked various portions of a four or five course meal. Thats me at the left in my chefs attire chopping scallions for garnish for one of the dishes.
Sad to say, but this wasn’t the first time I’ve ever labored in the back end of a restaurant. Both MD and I are very familiar with those duties. One of the truly bad moves of my financial life was investing in a franchise restaurant years ago. I still dont know what came over me, but whatever did, it cost me a lot of money. I distinctly remember how it all happened. I was sitting in the kitchen of our house in Little Rock going through the mail and came upon a magazine buried in the pile. I dont remember now what magazine it was, but it had an article on hot new restaurant concepts. One of the hottest, and one that was taking Dallas by storm, was a Mexican restaurant franchise called ZuZu. ZuZu Handmade Mexican Food, to be exact.
I read the article and inexplicably reached around behind me, picked up the phone and dialed the number to get more info. (A phone call, I might mention, that cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars before it was all over.) The person on the other end – a honcho from ZuZu corporate office in the Rolex Building in Dallas – painted a wonderful picture of restaurant ownership, and before I knew it, MD, our eldest son and I were headed to Dallas to see a ZuZu restaurant in the flesh and try the food.
The food was dazzlingly good – all fresh, all handmade. We tried just about everything and didnt find anything that we didnt love. And much of it was low-carb, to boot. Our eldest was just out of college and looking for something to do and our middle son was going to graduate soon. After discussion with them, we decided to take the plunge. Bad, bad, bad mistake on many fronts, but we learned a lot. And thats about the best face I can put on it.
The kids all went to Dallas and underwent the training program. MD and I purposely avoided learning how to operate the cash register or do anything in the front of the house. We had a large medical practice in Little Rock (a relatively small city) and didnt want to be doing a pelvic exam or a rectal exam on someone in the morning, and then greet them that evening wearing a ZuZu hat and a big smile with For here or to go?
Consequently, whenever things went crazy – as they always do in the restaurant business – MD and I got dragooned into working the back of the house where we could do our part yet stay out of sight. One day during the first couple of weeks of being open was particularly memorable. MD and I both had presentations to make to a large medical meeting in Seattle, but the day before those presentations, we were scheduled to be on CBS The Early Show and the day before that on the Sally Jesse Raphael show. I was busy putting together my slides for the medical presentation while MD was working on patient charts when we got the call. MD headed to the restaurant while I stayed at the office and finished my slides. By the time I got to the place, it was a true hellhole. MD was surrounded by piles of dirty plates, glasses, pots and pans and was deep into catching up on the dish washing so I jumped in and started prepping by chopping tomatoes, limes, onions, cilantro, you name it. As soon as the dish washing was caught up (which took over six hours), MD started helping me prep. I was on a roll with all the stuff I was slicing and dicing, so she grabbed the peppers that I hadnt gotten to yet and began.
As closing time approached, we began preparing the stuff for the next day. In doing so – and I dont remember now how I did it – I burned the bejesus out of my hand and had an enormous half-dollar size blister pop up. After closing, MD and I got home and got into bed to get a few short hours of sleep before our 6 AM flight the next morning. As we lay there recounting the day and wondering about our sanity for ever embarking on such a folly, MD said that her hands were starting to burn. In just a few minutes, her hands were on fire. She had been chemically burned by the juices from all the peppers she had prepped, and, like a sunburn, it had taken a few hours before she started feeling the effects. She jumped up, held her hands under the cold water for about five minutes, then slathered them with a cortisone cream we had at the house. She came back to bed and worried all night that her hands would end up red and grotesquely swollen by the morning, and that she would have to appear on national TV with lobster hands along with her husband with his giant blister. What a nightmare!
Her hands were okay by morning – a little red, but nothing all that noticeable. I still had the enormous blister I was trying to keep intact so that the skin would act as a dressing, but I figured I could probably keep it out of sight of the cameras. We caught our flight, went on with Sally Jesse that afternoon and the CBS morning show the next day without incident. Then it was off to Seattle for that gig.
In addition to our labors on the above-mentioned disastrous day, MD and I have both washed thousands and thousands of dishes using the commercial dishwasher, which has a lot of hands-on effort that goes along with it. It seemed that it always fell to me to do the prep work. Ive sliced and diced rosemary, cilantro, garlic, onions, tomatoes and peppers by the car-load lot. ( And along the way I developed pretty good knife skills without sacrificing any of my fingers in doing so.) So the two of us have spent plenty of back-breaking time in the bowels of a commercial kitchen.
But never in an enormous kitchen designed to service a fairly high-end restaurant like the one we found ourselves in the other night. I was eager to see how it all worked.
I learned plenty. For one thing, its really easy to cook in a big commercial kitchen because you have everything at your disposal. And you dont have to dig all the stuff out when you need it – its already there.
If you need to quick chill something, the giant ice bath is right there. If you need to throw an entire tray of stuff into a big fridge, youve got it available without having to rearrange everything so it will fit. If you need to quickly blanch something, there is the giant strainer and the pots of boiling water are at the ready. It really makes cooking much more hassle free than it is at home. And the best part of all is that you have (or at least we did during this event) staff who clean up behind you.
In between my various tasks assigned tasks, I snooped around, and my worst fears were confirmed. Before we get to that, though, let me tell you what Ive learned about chefs. What Im about to say doesnt apply to every chef who cooks, but I would guess it applies to most.
Chefs are not particularly health conscious. They cook for flavor, not for health. If there is a choice between making something taste a little better or making it a little more healthful, taste will win every time. Which is a good thing in many cases because chefs – like most other people – have been brainwashed as to what is healthful and what isnt. Most doubtless believe that saturated fat is unhealthful, but, fortunately, that doesnt deter them from using butter, heavy cream, bacon, and all the other tasty high-saturated fat foods in their cooking. If butter tastes better – thats what they use.
But many things are deep fried and cooked using vegetable oils and shortenings because these products dont impart much of a taste. That was the big advantage of Crisco when it came out: it was pure and while and left no taste the way lard did. Same with processed vegetable oils today, so chefs use the heck out of it.
Part of my job was to make some egg rolls for an appetizer. I filled them with shredded chicken, shredded crab, a snow pea, some ginger and a little salt and pepper. Then I deep fried them. I asked the main chef, who was keeping a watchful eye on all of us pretend chefs, what kind of oil he used in the deep fryer. (The deep fryer, like everything else in the kitchen, is running all the time, and people pop stuff into it all night long when the restaurant is busy.) He told me it was canola oil. I asked him if canola was commonly used in deep fryers; he said that canola was used in every restaurant he had ever worked in.
I was surprised because I wouldnt think canola oil would hold up to a deep fryer. I asked how often they changed the oil – he told me they did so once a week. I made a note to research it a little when I got home.
I knew polyunsaturated fat made up somewhere around a third of the fatty acids in canola oil. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) are the ones most harmed by heat and oxygen, so it really made me wonder why anyone would use an oil containing so many PUFA for deep frying. I just imagined all the oxidized fats in the oil I was dropping my newly made egg rolls into.
(There is a misconception in the minds of most people about what happens to PUFA when they are kept hot and bubbling for a long time as they are in deep fryers. A lot of people think the PUFA convert to trans fats. They dont. It requires heat, pressure and a catalyst to transform normal PUFA to trans fats. What does happen, however, is that the PUFA become oxidized. Then when you eat them, you are consuming oxidized fats that your body has to deal with.)
When I got home after our dinner, I went to the USDA Nutrient Database to look up canola oil to see if I had remembered correctly about the percentage of PUFA. I found the following entry:
Oil, industrial, canola (partially hydrogenated) oil for deep fat frying
When I looked up the fatty acid breakdown, I discovered that this industrial canola oil made for commercial deep fat frying contained almost a third of its fatty acids (27 percent to be exact) as trans fats. Which is why it worked for the deep fryer. During the processing of this oil, most of the PUFA had been converted to trans fats.
I looked at the other canola oils listed in the USDA list and found this one:
Oil, industrial, canola with antifoaming agent, principal uses salads, woks and light frying
Sounds just like what you would want to eat on your salad, doesnt it?
This particular canola oil had just a couple of grams of trans fats per 100 grams of oil, so it wasnt nearly as bad as the deep fryer canola oil, but it still doesnt sound particularly appetizing.
At most of the stations in the kitchen there were containers of a salt and pepper mix and containers of oil with ladles. If frying (not deep frying, but regular frying) were to be done, you threw a ladle of oil on the grill or in the skillet. If you were whipping up a salad dressing, you started with the oil and worked from there. This oil is the industrial oil with the antifoaming agent.
So, the take-home message from my experience is that if you eat in a restaurant you are going to get a lot of oils that you would probably rather not have. At worst, youre going to get a load of trans fats; at best, youre going to throw back plenty of omega-6s. Omega-6 fats are, for the most part, pro-inflammatory, and we get way, way too many of them in our diet as it is. Most of the readers of this blog know how harmful omega-6 fats are in large quantities, so I wont go in to it here. Suffice it to say, however, that the medical literature is full of articles pointing out the hazards of too many omega-6 fats. Then there is the American Heart Association that has inexplicably come out in support of omega-6 fats for heart health (Harris, WS), which advice you can put up on your shelf right beside the advice to avoid saturated fats.
In the 6-Week Cure we wrote about how vegetable oils – at least in lab animals – drive the development of fatty liver. Researchers give rodents large regular doses of alcohol to get them to develop fatty livers. They have found that if they give the rodents vegetable oils, they can accelerate the development of liver disease. If the rodents get saturated fats, however, they almost cant get fatty livers no matter how much alcohol they take in. Does this apply to humans? Who knows? These kinds of studies would be unethical to do in humans, so we cant test to find out. But, the evidence is clear enough in rodents that Im not all that eager to go face down in the vegetable oil.
I suspect that one of the reasons non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is reaching epidemic proportions worldwide is the ubiquitous substitution of vegetable oils for saturated fats every where. When we were doing research for the book, I scoured the literature to find studies in which people with fatty liver disease were treated with diet and found only two such studies. In both of them the fatty livers of the subjects reversed quickly – in just a matter of a few days – when the subjects went on low-carb diets. I suspect that the increase in saturated fat helped things along markedly. And, I suspect the unwarranted avoidance of saturated fats by our bamboozled fellow citizens is one of the reasons there is so much fatty liver disease.
If you prepare your food in your own kitchen, you control exactly what goes into it. If you go out to eat, you lose that control. I suspect most restaurants operate about like the very upscale one I just played chef in, and so if you go to even a nice restaurant, youre going to be consuming stuff you would probably rather not consume. In the old days (when I was a kid, for example), going out to eat was a big deal, and it almost never happened. Everything was prepared at home. Now people eat out more than they eat at home.
According to the National Restaurant Association, more people are dining out than ever, even in tough economic times. On a typical day, restaurant sales in the US average $1.6 billion. The average household spent $2,698 for restaurant food in 2008. Forty percent of adults say that eating out or getting take-out food makes them more productive in their lives. The majority of adults – 78 percent – believe that dining out with family and friends is a better way to make use of their leisure time than cooking and cleaning up.
To the left is a graph from the USDA Economic Research Service showing the increase in the home budget dollar spent on food away from home. It just about parallels the graph showing the development of the obesity epidemic. Im not necessarily making the case that eating out has caused the obesity epidemic, but Im not sure it hasnt played a significant role in it. Especially now that I know what kind of oils restaurants use.
One of the statistics I read while researching for this post was that 73 percent of adults say they are trying to make more healthful choices at restaurants now than they did just two years ago. Assuming this is true, it probably means they are ordering more salads, which seem to equate in everyones mind with a more healthful choice. But if the dressings are made for the salad with the oils used in bulk in most restaurants, its probably not the best thing you can eat where your health is concerned. But I always ask for my dressing on the side so that I can control how much I put on, you say? Thats the big joke among chefs. Its been shown that when salads are tossed by the chef, much less dressing is used as compared to when people ask for it on the side and add it themselves.
The point of all this is that when you go out to eat, no matter how upscale the restaurant, you lose control over what goes in your mouth. Short of bulling your way into the kitchen, you are clueless as to what oils are going into and onto your food. If you eat out a lot, you are doubtless taking in a fair quantity of trans fats and oxidized fats and plain old omega-6 fats – all fats you can stand to do without. The only way you maintain control is if you do the cooking yourself. Plus, youll save a lot of money because its almost always less expensive to prepare it yourself.
One of the best things you can do for your health (and your pocketbook) is to spend more time in your own kitchen.
ADDENDUM: Geez, one post later and I’ve already forgotten about the book list.
Since the last post, I’ve polished off Predictably Irrational, the Kate Atkinson novel and the Shenk book on genius. I’m still working on the others.
I’ve added the following to my list:
I See Rude People by Amy Alkon. The subtitle says it all: One woman’s battle to beat some manners into impolite society. Amy is a friend of mine who writes an advice column, and I can tell you after spending a lot of time with her, that she is unfailingly polite and gracious herself to everyone she meets…except for boors. I’ve dipped into her excellent book numerous times, but now I’m reading it from front to back. I wish I had the gumption she does to confront the rude people I’m (we all are) confronted with daily. With this book, I can do it vicariously. An excellent read.
Naked by the Window by Robert Katz. A book about the death (was is murder, suicide or accident?) of the diminutive Cuban artist Ana Mendieta, who plunged 34 stories to her death in 1985.