It’s a new café in your manor; you feel like supporting it with your custom and you order something simple - a slice of ham and cheese quiche with a garden salad. It’s not just altruism– you’re hungry too, but when the food arrives and you begin to eat, any sense of the philanthropic evaporates real damn quick.
See, the quiche is crap, the pastry overworked and tough. There’s too much egg in the mix; giving it the consistency of the painted rubber tofu made for restaurant-window displays. Flakes of dandruff would have more bite than the cheddar cheese used, and the ham is processed rubbish – uber-salty cubes the colour of dead Barbie dolls. A very frugal hand has added seasoning and the little flecks of herbs are of the dried, old-cut-grass variety.
Equally devoid of merit is the salad. It comprises an indifferently mounted display of near-white iceberg lettuce leaves hacked into submission, slices of sleepy, watery tomato sporting black spots but no flavour, and fridge-dried slices of cucumber and onion. The dressing on this failed tuck-shop fantasia is so bland that you wonder if the cook ever passed the acid test. The meal is technically edible, but only just.
OK, let’s rewind. You pop into the new café on the block keen to support their fledgling endeavor and when you order a piece of ham and cheese quiche with a garden salad and start eating - mmmwwahh! – you know you’re in for a treat.
The properly short pastry is the work of an alchemist; pure culinary gold just melting in your mouth. The filling is as light and fluffy as angel’s kisses, and seasoned just so. The ham is off the bone, each little piece a pearl of smokey flavor. The herbs in the filling are fresh and there’s a herb sprig as a garnish to demonstrate this fact. This isn’t quiche – it’s a wedge of heaven.
The salad; a colorful, comely thing, looks good enough to eat – and it is. Crisp garden greens, constellations of bean sprouts and toasted seeds, luscious, blemish-free tomatoes and fresh shavings of red onion and fennel romp in this sangfroid orgy. And everything is bedewed with a nirvanic mist – a citrus spiked dressing possessing the perfect bite. This lunch is not just edible – it's flawless.
Bless the cook who has made this meal, for they understand quality. The ingredients: fresh salad fixings, decent ham; even the crunchy surprise of toasted seeds are the first part of what defines quality. That the cook can make proper pastry and salad dressing, understands what a quiche filling really is, and knows not to use less than fresh salad makings is the second. Last but not least is the attitude of the cook. Training and experience are essential but it's not just the doing – it’s getting off on the doing, that elevates a meal into the realms of good quality.
Quality, at the very least, means that your meal should resemble in every sensory way what the menu says it is, and then in a very personal way, it should also fulfill your expectations. It’s a tricky thing, a balancing act, but quality must satisfy these stated and implied needs.
For the diner, the key to understanding quality is experience and knowledge – as in eating out lots, whether at restaurants, food markets and bistros, or at the homes of friends and relatives who love to cook and eat. It ain’t abstruse. You can grasp, and understand, quality with the repeatedly experiencing it. And what’s really cool is that this appreciation requires zero thinking or intellectualizing. Until you talk about it that is.
So it’s imperative for culinary industry professionals, both front-of-house and in the kitchen, to eat out and be customers. These pros must check out what’s going down (throats) in their town or city. I was once part of an informal club of catering waiters and chefs all lucky enough to get nights off sometimes, and keen to deepen our relationship with quality. New, high-end eating establishments were our usual destination, with the occasional well-mooted bistro or café thrown in.
Convening over aperitifs, cocktails and nibbles here, we’d go and have the main event with selected wines there, then move elsewhere for dessert and liqueurs, sometimes kicking on to a specialty bar for a session with assorted varieties and preparations of one particular drink. It was not uncommon for us to spend $150 a head, or $240 in today’s money. Sadly, we couldn’t claim all this eating out as research, but the sheer pleasure of sharing exquisite food and drink with fellow explorers, and learning about quality, was totally worth it.