Kristina's Blog: Eating Out Makes for Better Eating in
Posted: Sat 12/17/2011 12:30 PM
A server asked if she could help me and I told her I needed to speak with the chef, that it was an emergency. After a little convincing, the chef finally appeared in front of me. I stood there in complete awe. He stood there in complete confusion. I wanted to wrap my arms around him and just hold him. But I resisted. Instead, I said: “I need to know the exact ingredients in this dish.”
With a concerned look on his face, he replied: “Are you okay? What foods are you allergic to?”
“Sir, I am allergic to anything you need me to be allergic to in order for you to give me the exact ingredients in this dish.”
Long pause. Then I continued, “Seriously, you don’t understand. The curiosity will keep me up all night, standing in my kitchen, chopping and mixing and trying to figure this out. I will never sleep again. My kids will suffer for this. Please, sir, HELP ME!”
One would assume that at this point the chef would have called the men in white coats to escort me out of his restaurant, but being a chef, and therefore probably as obsessed with food as I am, he laughed and disclosed his “secret” ingredients. That man will always hold a special place in my heart.
That wasn’t the first time I went out of my way to get “top-secret” information from a restaurant chef, and it certainly won’t be the last time. The fact that I’m passionate about getting people to cook doesn’t mean I’m completely against eating out. It’s nice to leave your home every once in a while and eat in a different setting, as long as you’re not abandoning your poor kitchen all the time. It’s kind of like parenting – you should spend most of your time with your children, but there’s nothing wrong with getting a babysitter every once in a while and taking a little break from parenting to enjoy a different atmosphere. Getting away for a few hours will probably re-energize and re-motivate you to be an even better parent. Same goes for cooking.
I have a rule, which I rarely break. When I’m eating out at a restaurant I almost always order something I haven’t made at home but looks intriguing enough that I’d definitely want to figure out how to create myself. Sometimes it’s an entire meal that’s new to me, and other times it’s just one little component, like the sauce or the combination of flavors that sparks my curiosity. There is a lot to learn from eating out. I get so excited about a dinner date with my husband that, if he reveals ahead of time where he’s taking me, I immediately get on the internet, search the restaurant, find the menu, and start analyzing it. I pay attention to every word and every little description, reacting with an “ooooo” and an “ahhhhh” and an occasional “Hallelujah!” If one particular menu item looks really interesting, I go back and read it over and over again, as if I missed something the first time. I am completely enthralled! Then once at the restaurant, I ask questions about the ingredients (and if the server thinks I’m asking for health reasons, so be it – as long as I get my information). One of the more recent meals I tried during a date night with my hubby was a side dish with pan-fried lentils that were tossed with crispy ham and a sweet sherry glaze. This was so different from any lentil dish I’ve made at home. I’ve never tried pan-frying lentils before. And I’ve never combined them with a sweet sauce. I devoured this dish, almost completely, but I managed to leave just enough to take home, so that I could study it a little further. The next day, I came up with my plan of action and after a few tries, my pan-friend lentils tasted almost exactly the same as the ones at the restaurant. It’s since become one of my favorite dishes to serve with chicken or fish (or even to eat alone for lunch). In fact, a lot of my favorite dishes were inspired by eating out.
Go ahead, take a break from cooking every once in a while to eat out, but use restaurants to your advantage. Let the menu inspire you, educate you, and get you thinking about combining ingredients in ways you haven’t yet tried. Feel free to ask your server (or even the chef) questions, and if the menu includes a lot of details, ask to take one home (most restaurants have to-go menus). But remember, giving your kitchen a break does not mean completely abandoning it. Always give more love and attention to your stove than you do to any restaurant.