Jeremy Leinen, CEC, Executive Chef of Dunwoody CC, encourages club chefs to make from scratch what they can consistently make well.
The idea of being a “scratch” kitchen is something most chefs strive for, but we are typically limited in some way or another. To be clear, especially in the club world, nobody is likely to be truly 100% scratch. Something is coming out of a can somewhere. After all, even if you insisted on it, where would you get quality fresh tomatoes year-round for making truly scratch tomato sauce? That’s just one example, but there’s certainly plenty of others.
If a chef were to set their sights on being a truly scratch kitchen, what would it take? There’s some key follow up questions here. What defines a truly scratch kitchen? Does that mean nothing comes from a can? You mean I can’t even buy Dijon mustard, so I have to make my own mustard? We have to make our own mayonnaise, too? Does “scratch” mean we make all bread in house? Even sandwich loaves? Are we grinding all spices in house? What about deli meats, are we making all of those? Does this mean all tart shells have to be made in house? Are we buying fresh clams and picking the meat for clam chowder every Friday? I could go on and on, but this proverbial rabbit hole gets deep very quickly.
Clearly, there must be a practical line in the sand we can draw that defines what a “scratch” operation is. Things from a can are ok, but we buy tomatoes to make sauce. We’re not buying finished products, aside from basic condiments like ketchup and mustard. After all, the purpose of being a scratch operation is quality and freshness. Ultimately, there’s the idea of being a truly 100% scratch operation, and then there’s the reality of it. Even when I was at The Greenbrier and I was just a minion in a large kitchen brigade, we still bought tart shells and sandwich loaves. It’s possible to make all of these things, sure, but what would it take?
Practical and possible are two very different things. From what I understand, mammoth sized casino hotels in Vegas typically make all tart shells and danishes from scratch. How? Besides having very large culinary teams, a part of their operation is essentially a production factory complete with large dough rollers, conveyor belts, and more. Pieces get made as part of an assembly line then boxed up on site and frozen to be cooked and served later, almost like they bought it. Obviously, this isn’t feasible in most operations. Aside from the equipment necessary to operate like this, it would require a large staff working 24/7 and storage space most of us can only dream of.
There is another way, but it’s also not likely a great fit in clubs. If you decided to be a purely ingredient driven menu—farm to table in its truest sense—you might be able to pull this off. I staged at Heartland Restaurant (St. Paul, Minn.) in 2012 to get some exposure in what “farm to table” really means. Many restaurants like to say they’re farm to table, but not very many actually live it the way Chef Lenny Russo and his team at Heartland did. To the best of my recollection, they didn’t serve anything they couldn’t source locally, which they defined as from the state of Minnesota. They didn’t buy convenience products like pasteurized egg yolks, or mayonnaise, or many of the other things a lot of us use every day. Even their cooking oil—grapeseed oil—was from a local supplier, if I remember right. I’m sure they took some liberty with buying spices and salt, but that was about it. I can’t stress enough that when Chef Russo said “farm to table” he meant it. I don’t really remember seeing cans, so there were only tomatoes a few months out of the year when local ones were available. They got whatever the farmers had, which meant they didn’t know what some of the menu was going to be for the night until they saw what showed up.
In this type of model, “scratch” was just part of the deal. Requiring local, and therefore scratch, also precludes many everyday type things from being served regularly. Those of us in clubs probably realize this wouldn’t last more than a couple of days before being told to “fix it.” Club members want what they want, and don’t often care when it’s in season or the ethics involved in sourcing it.
This all circles back to a key question of “What does scratch really mean?”
I’ve often heard club managers or GMs speak of a desire to be “more of a scratch operation” without getting very specific about what they mean by that. This line of conversation typically speaks to a lack of quality, and not really an issue of wanting to make more items in house (though not always).
To that point, I’ve also heard the argument made that whether we made it in house or not doesn’t really matter if it’s not perceived as being better by the members. At the end of the day, quality is what wins, or, more importantly, perceived quality is what wins. Sometimes a chef’s perception of quality and a member’s can vary greatly and be a source of frustration for chefs. At some point we all have to choose what to make and what to buy, so it’s only logical to focus on making what we can make well (and consistently) and buying what we can’t.