Authenticity Part 2: Culinary Gimmicks and Restaurant Shenanigans
I have to say,
having been a chef for about 30 years now, one of my biggest pet peeves is culinary gimmicks. These are one of the things, that makes my soul cry. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll hold my hands up and say there are some… some very few ones that actually make sense, but even the half decent ones (arguable) have a shelf life. Can you remember the last time that you needed to rush to a bakery to get a cronut? No? I didn’t think so. I’d even say for the most part, I’d avoid anywhere now that sells cronuts. Do you remember those days? That fever pitched insanity to get croissant pastry deep fried? There was worldwide psychosis over these… actually kind of delicious pastries. Culinary Gimmicks are The Pokémon go and Fidget Spinners of the food industry.
Here's a few gimmicks that have actually existed:
And as I type these words, hypocrisy is flooding out of every orifice of my body. Because I have been there. I HAD to do what I could to stay in business in the market I was in. My Montreal bagel and smoked meat shop would nail it certain markets. Auckland, New Zealand didn’t get it so much. There’s not much of a frame of reference for smoked meat made from scratch, or hand made bagels. This was and is a market dominated by hype, and the forever “NEW THING YOU MUST TRY”. Very few places in these kind of markets survive without that kind of mass media and social media acceptance and well, daily marketing. Who cares if your product is good? Well a few people, but not enough to keep you afloat. You need social media on your bandwagon, with instagrammable photos and eye catching content so that
everyone can profit off of your hard work and razor thin margins.
If I sound bitter about it, it’s probably because I am. When you set out making artisan products, you do it as a labour of love. All of your history, your passion, the essence of your being goes into your product. Calling it a product is even hurtful. It’s a part of you. I left my home town of Montreal years ago, but it’s a part of me, and I was so home sick, I decided to create my own small microcosm of home by selling my food that was such a fabric of my home town and me, it is unquestionable. That had it’s success, but was not keeping the business where it needed to be… so I started selling burgers, and fried chicken and ribs, and pretty soon turned into a reasonably typical North American restaurant in food offer, but not it quality. I still made everything from scratch, right down to the cheese curds for my pout
ine…. This by the way is insanity, but I did it because I wanted it to be awesome.
The day it hit home, was when I put my first burger on as a lunch special, and there was a queue out the door. I was grateful of course for the loyal hordes coming through the door, but one of my senior cooks, turned to me with a tilted head and a raised eyebrow and said… “Well how does it feel becoming a burger joint?”. It didn’t stop there, as soon as you are onto a good thing, everyone copies you. So just doing good quality stuff doesn’t count… you need to make it bigger, flashier, more photographable, more ridiculous… and I did and people came. To be totally honest, it was bullshit. But that is marketing. If you sell it, people will come. I think I’m part of those breeds of chefs, who think that if passion, knowledge, quality and love are part of what you do, it should be a winner. Those were the days before social media unfortunately.
Pretty soon, I had a winning formula, that was doing well and we could not keep up with the volume. That’s when the copycats really hit in. I had a competitor that literally copied a large part of my menu, right down to the presentation. These were dishes that I had worked on for quite a while, recipes that I’d developed. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s a hard pill to swallow when you’ve put everything you have into something, and someone comes along a steals it, for lack of a better word. But I suppose I did a fair bit of shopping around for ideas, albeit far from home, and borrowing ideas to create a new thing. But that’s just how the cookie crumbles these days. Have a look below for some of the laughable lack of imagination from one of my competitors. Also on display is my grasping at catchy food ideas to get people in for the gram.
The guys at Franc's were quite aggressively surprised that I had taken issue with their menu and presentation choices. The restaurant game is not for the faint of heart... or for those with morals.
I have an exhaustive list of culinary gimmicks that annoy me.
I tackle a fair bit of this in my video on my channel about ‘Burger Bullshit’. Have a watch. Some of the success of this particular gimmick comes down to clever marketing by a seasoned professional in the game. I’m talking about smash burgers, if you aren’t across this, by all means have a look at my video, but there is nothing new here.
Smash burgers are thin quickly cooked burgers. That’s it. Don’t go looking for more of an explanation than that. Tom Ryan, is the founder of burger chain smash burger, With a Ph.D. in flavor and fragrance chemistry, and is the man who’s culinary genius has brought us the inventions of the McGriddle and Stuffed Crust Pizza. If that is not a top-level bullshit pedigree, I do not know what is. Essentially Tom has managed to convince us that cooking a burger properly is revolutionary… and people buy it. When I posted that video, it turned out to be my most popular video by far in the time frame that it has been up. What I wasn’t expecting was the level of vehemence that was going to come my way about it. Sure, it’s meant to be an over the top, ridiculous video with a surrealist sense of humor that you get or don’t get. I was just having a laugh and entertaining myself to be honest so just went for it. I would send friends clips while I was editing it, and ask… “do you think this is too much”? Or “have I gone too far”? And they agreed I did… so I Stuck with it and gave the finger to common sense and being conservative.
But my gimmick loving crowd of New Zealand DID NOT FIND IT FUNNY. I actually had my video removed and I was banned from a popular New Zealand food page for posting it. Certain foodie groups have bought into the smash burger gimmick hook line and sinker! It really threw me back. This was my first time getting beaten up online for a silly video. But they really beat me up. And it took me a while to realise that if you’ve bought into something, like the gimmick lovers, your natural reaction is to defend it, and not to admit that you are wrong, or worse! You’re more likely to come out swinging than to admit that you are following a gutless marketing program. So that is what happened. I was kind of upset at first, but now find it really interesting and love dissecting the reaction that I did get. Again, have a watch if you haven’t seen it. I should take this moment to clarify, that I am not referring to ALL of New Zealand here! I don’t want to be getting more hate mail!
Next in my series is a “salty” video of me dismembering the use of Himalayan salt blocks as cooking tools. I did a fair bit of research into this, and I kept coming back to the same tenuous marketing script extolling the virtues of Himalayan salt in cooking…. Or lamps? Both seem to have similar supernatural properties no matter how you use this lump of salt.
Essentially you cook on a hot slab of salt to impart the special magical Himalayan minerals into your food (for $40 a slab… $40 for a slab of salt). My mind has a hard time comprehending why you couldn’t just season your food by sprinkling it with this miraculous salt and impart, far more effectively the special minerals…. Well the short and blunt answer is, you can and cooking on a salt slab is a stupid and ineffective way of cooking food, that has been sold to you by the Himalayan salt slab marketing interests. Again, watch the video.. I go into a fair bit of detail here. I do agree that as far as salts go, Himalayan pink salt is actually filled with lots of minerals and is a great cooking option compared to cheap table salt. That isn’t what I have an issue with. It’s the gimmicky use as a cooking tool that riles me up along with how overblown it’s life changing properties are marketed.
What I will come back to that I mention in both videos is: Stick to the authentic, real, tried and true culinary methods of cooking food. Stick to the basics, and master the basics and you will never go wrong. Stop trying to follow gutless, stupid gimmicks hoping to find that magical cooking experience that millions of professionals haven’t found…. But that guy on the internet with a catchy video has. If it looks like bullshit and sounds like bullshit… It probably is complete and utter bullshit…. Just saying. Be authentic.