What makes restaurant food taste so good?

Shallot Tatin

Have you ever eaten at a restaurant and tried to replicate the meal at home, but felt it was missing something that you couldn't quite pin down? You may have wondered why you weren't able to recreate the flavors you remembered. Asbury Park Press tackles this question in an article fresh from the Jersey Shore.

Maybe it's the fact that restaurants often use more salt than home cooks, or maybe it's because you didn't invest in a culinary school education. But perhaps it's something else. Anthony Bourdain thinks it could be as simple as a single ingredient. He believe that shallots can solve many problems of home cooks. Writing in Kitchen Confidential he says ""You almost never see this item in a home kitchen, but out in the world they're an essential ingredient...Shallots are one of the things - a basic prep item in every mise-en-place - that make restaurant food taste different from your food."

Since he's written that book shallots have become much more mainstream, but there are other secrets. Chef Mike Jurusz, owner of a South Seaside Park restaurant, thinks one key component is heat. "The hotter the equipment, the better, and it is the key to cooking and getting things done fast, like a quick sear or a fast sauté to lock in the flavors," he says.

Other chefs look at the restaurant meal through a more romantic light. "I think the restaurant experience is more sensory," said Marilyn Schlossbach, owner of several Jersey Shore restaurants. "In a restaurant, someone else is handling the preparation of the meal, which allows you to relax with your companions and enjoy the bigger experience." So maybe it's not the ingredients or the preparation; it's the atmosphere.

We've received a lot of help in making restaurant-quality meals with the plethora of chef-driven books that have hit the shelves in recent years. Do you use these books help you recreate restaurant meals, or do you have other secrets?

Photo of Shallot Tatin from BBC Good Food Magazine

7 Comments

  • bhasenstab  on  2/4/2015 at 8:44 PM

    I tend to agree with Chef Mike Jurusz. A few years ago we renovated our kitchen, and installed a pair of 24-inch Blue Star ranges. Most, though not all, of the burners are capable of 22,000 BTUs. It required a few months of adjustment, and a tilt toward stainless steel and cast iron cookware (away from anodized aluminum) to get the results we wanted. But that high heat has made a notable difference in what we can do. Many dishes now approach restaurant grade. I highly recommend big, commercial-grade stoves, if you have the option.

  • veronicafrance  on  2/5/2015 at 3:36 AM

    Hmm, shallots are one of those items I always have in the veggie rack. It's like having onions, garlic, and lemons on hand. I think Jurusz has a better theory. I cook on a gas hob with (unfortunately) bottled gas and it doesn't have the oomph to do those fast sautes. I tend to avoid cheffy books because they don't really have a handle on what it's like cooking in a small domestic kitchen and their dishes are usually far too time-consuming. For example they assume you have vats of demi-glace hanging around, or various items of specialist equipment. I make an exception for the Roux brothers, who wrote a lovely book about French country cooking, based on the kind of dishes their mum used to make.

  • slimmer  on  2/5/2015 at 9:59 AM

    That carmelized onion or shallot dish in the picture looks yummy. Where can we find it?

  • darcie_b  on  2/5/2015 at 6:26 PM

    Oops - thought I had included the link to the recipe. It's there now.

  • TrishaCP  on  2/6/2015 at 4:47 AM

    To heat and salt, I would another ingredient- butter. I think restaurants use a lot more butter than most home cooks, especially when cooking meats, poultry, and fish.

  • TrishaCP  on  2/6/2015 at 4:48 AM

    Sorry, I would "include" another ingredient.

  • Foodycat  on  2/6/2015 at 5:39 AM

    I agree with Trisha! More butter, more salt, more cream. And I think higher-quality stocks. Home cooks tend not to have well-flavoured, freshly-made stock on hand.

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