Food just tastes better at restaurants than when we make it at home. Not always, of course. Restaurants can’t offer the multisensory, Proustian vibes of associating a particular dish with a warm and fuzzy memory that can make an otherwise undistinguished, homey dish feel like the best thing on earth. No, I’m talking about the high-end restaurants, the sort the cookbook of which you’ll buy because it’s fun to browse through, but you’re unlikely to actually try to make a dish. And if you do, despite diligent efforts and a reasonably-intelligible recipe, it just doesn’t taste the same. Ever wondered why?
I had the good fortune to spend some time with Janez Bratovž, chef of the JB restaurant in Ljubljana, to help him with his next cookbook, and so the question of how to “translate” his masterful dishes, which frequently feature foams and powders and glazes and the sort of elements that I, as an amateur, untrained and often lazy home cook, imagine I couldn’t possibly make, into recipes. Turns out there’s an inherent problem to overcome. As the chef explained to me, the main difference between his dishes made at the restaurant, and the same dish when even he makes it at home, is in the equipment.
There are professional kitchen tools that make the preparation process faster, easier, less labour-intensive, and with a more consistent outcome. “There are five tools that you’ll find in any serious, high-end kitchen,” he told me. Here they are.
A kitchen robot that weighs, chops, blends, stirs, sautés, and steams, all in one metal jug. Digitized, it walks you through pre-programmed recipes (or your own), and can be programmed to automatically finish your dishes. It’s brilliant, for instance, for risotto, which requires constant stirring. Instead of hovering over the pan for twenty minutes, stirring slowly and regularly, the machine does it for you. While the sales pitch for home users is that you can make entire meals in one container (and I did love the minimal cleanup), in practice proper chefs will use it for more specific projects.
This tool is indispensable for making sauces and soups, saving a great deal of time and, most importantly, the hands-on attention of his staff. While there is one established name-brand for kitchen robots, it is prohibitively expensive for most home cooks, though some cheap rivals are newly on the market.
Of all the dishes for which the restaurant, or store-bought version, seems to inevitably taste and look better than what we make at home, perhaps ice cream is the most obvious culprit. When ice cream or sorbet is first made at home, and eaten straight away, it can be lovely. But make a bit extra and pop it in the freezer for later, and the end result is often disappointing.
A freezer blender is essentially a super-powered blender that purees frozen ingredients without heating them up, with surgical precision. Frozen ingredients are essentially shaved at high speed, 2000 rpm, in the case of the original freezer blender, in a process they have patented, but which other companies imitate with similar results. This is done in a sealed container pressurized at 1.2 bar. It takes just 20 seconds to produce a single portion of, say, gelato, and the texture will be precise and literally inimitable at home.
A machine to vacuum seal plastic bags is put to numerous functions in a busy restaurant kitchen. The most obvious is preserving foods—vacuum-packed organics, cut off from oxygen, will last far longer than their bagged or plastic-wrapped, vacuum-less equivalents. For that reason, alone, it is a key attribute.
Serious kitchens are seriously into sous-vide, a technique of cooking vacuum-sealed proteins in water heated to a consistent temperature (like a steak cooked at 80 degrees for four hours, before being de-bagged and quickly seared on each side, to serve). Thus, a vacuum machine is used for both cooking and keeping fresh.
Dough Rolling Machine
For any restaurant that offers its own pasta or bread, a machine to roll the dough is a no-brainer. Home chefs who have toyed with making their own pasta will know that, while pleasurable and craftsman-like, the process is fiddly. Bread, likewise, must be kneaded and rolled, which is fine on a warm Sunday morning, with little else to do. But in a hectic professional kitchen, absorbing so much of the attention of the staff is not a feasible approach. A machine for working dough is an indispensable boon.
Many of the most enlightening conversations with JB involved his simple explanations of how chemistry affects food. Take, for example, how freezing and defrosting can result in textural problems with foods. If you freeze a protein, like fish, conventionally, then the freezing process is slow. The fish began at room temperature, and slowly cools to the temperature of the freezer.
Organic matter largely consists of water, which crystallizes during the freezing process. Freezing slowly results in large crystals, which can damage the organic matter, causing the frequent problem of defrosted foods—that their texture is different and less pleasurable than their never-frozen equivalents. To avoid this, food professionals prefer “blast” or “shock” freezers.
These very quickly drop the temperature, so quickly that the water in the organic material transforms into much smaller crystals, which are less likely to result in an altered texture when the food is eventually defrosted to cook. Blast-frozen foods, once cold, can then be transferred to a conventional freezer—it’s the speed of the freezing process that’s key. JB has a secret technique, learned from a Japanese fish specialist, of breaking down and preserving whole fresh fish and blast-freezing it, such that no one, not even fellow chefs, can tell that the resulting dishes contain fish that ever saw a freezer.
Should the Michelin Guide continue to award stars to Singapore's hawker stalls? Do Singaporeans really care what the Red Guide says about their favourite street food? Singaporean food writer Evelyn Chen shares her point of view.