The Tragedy of Ersatz American Restaurant Food

A month or so ago, in the main dining room of the last cruise I'll ever take, I was offered a chocolate souffle.

The problem was, it was fake.

If you've ever had a real souffle, you know what it's supposed to be like: an incredibly delicious dessert with a weirdly perfect texture, halfway between liquid and air, that trembles and collapses with the first plunge of your spoon.

Sadly, this ersatz souffle was essentially a hypersweetened chocolate pudding/mousse mixture with a thin layer of what appeared to be cake batter poured on top of it. At least it was warm.

And not only was the souffle itself fake, but the entire rhythm of the souffle-ordering process was phony, as our waiter went around the table before dinner asking which of us would like the souffle, so he could "put the order in ahead of time." Thus was preserved the fiction that our souffles would be hand-made in advance for us.

I was more mad at myself than at the cruise line for this hilariously fake dining experience. I should have recognized the logistical impossibility of real souffles being lugged up from the ship's galley and heaved across the main dining room to you and 900 other guests at the same time. It doesn't matter how much you embellish the fiction by taking orders in advance. This ersatz "food" was quite clearly manufactured days--if not weeks--ahead of time.

But here's what's worse. I actually overheard people in that cruise ship dining room say they thought this phony souffle--not made, but rather shelf-stabilized, frozen and loaded onto the boat along with their suitcases--was absolutely amazing.

There are at least two distinct levels of tragedy here.

The first one is just a simple reality. When you sit down at almost all high-volume restaurants, the idea that your dinner entrees are actually "made" for you is a quaint fiction.

Instead a restaurant supply company--perhaps Sysco Foods, some other food service company, or the restaurant chain's parent company--prepares, plates and freezes most of the food, puts it on a truck, and ships it to the restaurant.

Sure, these foods--in all their oversalted, hyperpalatable and shelf-stabilized glory--might be customized a little bit with a fresh sauce, a side dish, or seasonings added by the restaurant staff. But make no mistake, most restaurant food is mass-produced, institutional food.

Foods are made this way because they have to be. Feeding thousands of customers in chain restaurants, on cruise ships and in high-volume restaurants presents immense logistical challenges. The restaurant and its workers need to have a good chunk of their work done in advance. Then, they can just add a couple of minor final touches before that food gets into our bellies. And thanks to consumers being willing to consume this food, it's quite a profitable business.

A better question, however, is whether it's worth our money to purchase restaurant experiences like these.

But there's a second distinct level of tragedy here, and it's particularly depressing when I think about my ersatz souffle. Imagine an unsuspecting diner who never had a souffle before, and this was his first one. What happens someday down the road when he gets a real souffle? An actual souffle that's good? There's an entirely good chance that he will prefer the phony ersatz souffle, or even think that the ersatz souffle was the real thing and this real souffle isn't.

It's getting to a point where the average American diner cannot tell the difference between food prepared in the ersatz style and food actually made at the place at which they are eating. Hey, the next time you visit a Chile's or a Cheesecake Factory, look around. People prefer ersatz foods!

Here's the point: we here in the United States do a bang-up job at manufacturing perfectly uniform, shelf-stabilized food that can be served in massive volumes. And manufactured food, when considered within its genre, doesn't have to be bad. Heck, I like an ice-cold Coke once in a while, and I would die without my beloved Cool Ranch Doritos.

But don't try to fool us into thinking these are actually foods. And that's the real tragedy of high-volume restaurant food.

One final thought: Serving a bad souffle isn't a crime. Serving a phony souffle isn't a crime either. But serving a bad, phony souffle to an audience that doesn't know that they're being served a bad phony souffle... well, if that's not a crime, it should be.

When you go to restaurants, go small. Go local-owned and owner-operated. And try to order food that was actually made there, not purchased flash-frozen from a restaurant supply company.

Otherwise, why eat out?

Readers, what are your thoughts?

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Anonymous said...

I know you won't say which cruise line, but it apparently was a mass market one (900 diners) - other cruise lines have far superior food. (less customers, higher fares)

& shame on you for taking a cruise for the food... That's like flying to Paris to eat at Chez Ronald.

Sally said...

If you're looking for ersatz food, look somewhere other than The Cheesecake Factory. Or, at least ask to have a peek in the kitchen. The majority of the food served there is made on site from fresh ingredients. Desserts are made in a central location and shipped to restaurants, and I think salad dressings, sauces and maybe soups are as well. There are cooks at the Cheesecake Factory who really know how to cook; not just reheat.

gharkness said...

I can only presume you are having trouble coming up with a topic today. "The last cruise you will ever take?" People are standing around just waiting for you to express a wish so they can fulfill it (well, that may be a bit hyperbolic), and you complain about the FOOD?

Perhaps your expectations were set by some marketing hype. You would have been better off checking out the various cruise message boards for the real information.

In any case, surely you could find **something** good about the cruise? I cruise 3-4 times a year and have learned what to ignore (yes, there are some things that aren't great) and what to enjoy. But other than being very glad someone else is cooking and cleaning up, I don't expect the food to be over-the-top.

NMPatricia said...

Interesting that you have stimulated these comments thus far. And I, who rarely leave a comment (but faithfully read) am prompted to comment.

First of all, if what you ate tasted good, it doesn't matter what it is called. If the crime is massed produced, so be it. As you said, you eat Doritos. It is, what it is. I think more to the point is what is in it. Second, thanks (or no thanks) to your column, I have come to trust next to no one in terms of prepared food. How can I know in any restaurant, really, if the stuff hasn't been preprepared somewhere else? I go to great lengths at home to ensure our really clean diet. But once I go out, I abandoned all hope. I do eat local and at small restaurants. But beyond that...

gharkness said...

Oh and please let me add one more thing:

"But there's a second distinct level of tragedy here,"

Really? Not knowing about food is a tragedy?

Sorry - the mind boggles that you actually consider this a "tragedy." In contrast, I just bet the Haitian earthquake refugees (for example, but that's not the only one) would be thrilled to get some of that "ersatz" food....or any food at all.

Daniel said...

Really interesting comments so far. Obviously I've touched a nerve--I'm just not sure what nerve. And let me also say, I'm grateful for all comments, even the ones that rake me over the coals.

A few thoughts in response:

Anonymous: Let me be clear, I actually liked the food on the cruise. My issue was that the ersatz souffle was passed off as a real souffle.

gharkness: I'm sorry you didn't enjoy my topic or my choice of words today. And in the future, I'll try to use the word "tragedy" in fully approved instances only.

NMPatricia: you make an excellent point. If mass-produced ersatz food tasted bad, no one would buy it or eat it. As to your second point, the exact same phenomenon has been happening to me. My views on restaurant food have evolved a lot over the years that I've been writing CK, and if I do eat out, I eat almost exclusively at locally-owned/owner-operated small restaurants too. It's not to say it's right or wrong, it's just that to me, there's more value there. There are many, many other readers here who would say the same.


Matt @ SpoonMatters said...

Interesting thoughts, and of course, I too would recommend a different cruise known for a better eating experience. Having been inside the kitchen of a major cruise ship, and seen the ingredients, I know that not every line relies on prepared meals.

But as you mentioned, your main issue was with something being passed off as more than it was, and that is something I almost assume in certain restaurants. Take customer expectations (this cruise MUST offer souffle, or we much have fresh scallops and lobster) and the cruiseline will do their best to meet those assumptions as closely as they can.

That said, I do not go on cruises for the food alone, and at the end of a cruise, even on my absolute favorite ships, I still regard the food as being just ok: enjoyable while onboard, but nothing I couldn't get at home.

Melissa said...

*Scratching head*

Point: missed.

You know I hear you, Dan. Loud and clear.

Anonymous said...

Good post.

Laura said...

What struck a nerve with me is - I don't consider eating at Cheesecake Factory or the like to be the norm. Those are places I avoid like the plague. Maybe it's just that there is such an abundance of restaurants in New York, but even when I travel (which I do four days/week per business), I usually eat in the local restaurants - not in chains. If you eat at a chain, of COURSE your food is crappy and pre-made. But I think most people are smart enough to understand that.

Then again, I would also note that based on my one cruise experience, I wouldn't consider most of the passengers on a cruise to be the brightest bulbs ;) And I agree that the food was hardly noteworthy (I was on Celebrity).

Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple said...

I totally agree. I don't eat out much. I will admit to stopping at Chez Ronald on vacations. When we do eat out, almost all of the places are local. They may be local chains, but for many of them, you can see the chef buying at the farmer's market.

Whether it be a very fancy meal or a simple sandwich, burrito, or pizza, local is the way I roll.

chacha1 said...

All I'm gonna say is that when you can get a "souffle" (which nowadays is actually some permutation of the chocolate lava cake, a.k.a. half-baked pudding cake ... doesn't sound so good when you put it that way) in the freezer case at the grocery store, you OUGHT to be prepared to view the "souffle" on the cruise ship with a healthy degree of skepticism.

And by "you," Dan, I mean "consumers." Not actually You = Dan. But I'm sure you got that. :-)

Having said that, there is an actual, authentic, collapsible chocolate Grand Marnier souffle to be had at Arnie Morton's steakhouse in Beverly Hills. The creature is not extinct!

I am completely on board with the essential complaint. If it's a lava cake, CALL IT A LAVA CAKE. if it's a cheesecake, DON'T CALL IT A MOUSSE.

Oh! Here's a good one. Went to small-chain restaurant at the mall not long ago and ordered their Caprese salad. (Which, as we all know, should be 1. fresh mozzarella 2. fresh tomato 3. fresh basil 4. olive oil 5. balsamic vinegar.)

What I got? A bowl of mesclun with a couple stingy blobs of mozzarella, four halves of cherry tomato, Italian dressing, and OLIVES! It was a travesty, I tell ya.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you, Daniel. If you are a mousse, don't pretend to be a souffle! I'm easily offended at what many places try to pass off as risotto, just because I love real risotto! Food lovers unite!

Joanne said...

i was forced to go on a cruise to Canada last year for school (no seriously...I was) and the food was exactly as you describe. Awful. And yet. So many people thought it was GOOD. I was so upset the whole time because I just didn't want to eat it and also because I found it so sad that so many of these people thought it was the best thing that had ever happened to them.

gharkness said...

hm. Well. I think you may not be realizing that my "complaint" about your choice of topic or words was in many ways a compliment. The reason I say that is: I have been following you a long time and have found 99% of your content to be excellent. So please don't be so offended!! Everyone has bad days and good days - some times, though, we don't all agree on which are which :-)

So, (if you can bear ONE MORE complaint, and please take it in the spirit intended) you created the ultimate cliff-hanger....WHY is this the "last cruise you will ever take"? As a true cruise enthusiast, I really want to know!

Daniel said...

gharkness, don't worry--like I said, I'm grateful for all comments, even the ones that rake me over the coals. I try to focus on the idea that a reader thought it worthwhile to share his or her thoughts here. If I think about comments that way, I can be grateful for even the harshest criticisms.

(I still haven't figured out a way to be grateful for spam comments about Viagra though. I'm working on it.)

Regarding cruises, what can I say? The cruise was interesting, but the process and format, the activities, the vibe, etc., didn't really resonate with me. I can see why people like it, and it gives people a great way to briefly and effortlessly sample great vacation places. Perhaps this would be a good subject for a future CK post. :)

One final thought: The thing about blogging is, you never know what will resonate with readers, what will strike a chord, what will make them angry, etc. It's one of the great things about writing Casual Kitchen. Sometimes I write what I think is an innocuous post and I get a really strong reader reaction to something I never anticipated. Other times I'm convinced I've written something earthshaking and it goes over like a lead balloon. The thanks, of course, go to my readers--you are the ones who keep me on my toes and who help me keep my writing fresh here at CK.


Laura said...

Hey Dan - if it makes you feel any better, when I posted a retrospective of my cruise (that wasn't entirely positive), I ended up with tons of negative comments from cruise-lovers. They are a vocal bunch! :)

I didn't find the cruise food to be bad, by any means, but it wasn't particularly good, either. It was just fine. I was confused about why people raved about cruise food and gaining weight on a cruise... until I realized that pretty much every time I hit the gym, I had it all to myself. I think people who love cruises tend to prefer quantity of food over quality, and rave about it for those reasons.

As far as it being a good way to vacation, I think it could be fun if you're looking for a relaxing all-inclusive getaway where you intend to just lie around, read, work out, etc. I don't see it as a good way to see new places at all, given how touristy most cruiseports tend to be (and how you don't really have enough time to get AWAY from those cities and into the interesting parts of a country). These days, when I hear that a spot I'm planning to vacation has a cruiseport, I start thinking about whether I really want to go there! Haha.

gharkness said...

(I still haven't figured out a way to be grateful for spam comments about Viagra though. I'm working on it.)

Easy! Just be glad you don't need it! :-)

Nancy said...

I don't know which cruise line you sailed on, but I worked on cruise ships for 10 years, and my ships cooked/baked from scratch.

Because of my occupation, I knew about everyone who worked on board and was welcome in every department. I've personally seen everything being prepared, seen the enormous store rooms (including freezers, refrigerated rooms and butcher's shops). I've watched veggies being prepped, ice being carved and goodies being baked and decorated. I've even gone to the bake shop at midnight to have a slice of fresh bread.

I can't speak for all cruise lines as I've only worked for two. Because of the quantity of meals being served at each sitting, steam tables have to be used. That in itself lessens the quality of food, but much is prepared at the time the order is taken.

I'm sorry your experience wasn't better, but no matter which line, you can't expect a cruise experience to be the same as an intimate restuarant.

Did you find the food to be better at the smaller spots such as the Italian, Chinese, pizza, Caesar's salad spots or the sushi bar? You can watch the actual making of your meal at most of these type spots.

gharkness said...

@Nancy: I don't have your experience, but what you said about food prep on cruise ships mirrors what I thought I knew. It's **at least** 99% freshly prepared.

I have been through the cruise ship kitchens on more than one occasion, and they are definitely busy places!

Anonymous said...

I'm a little late commenting but I agree with the labeling of something as what it's not. It's like my MIL calling margarine (blue bonnet) butter. It just isn't and they aren't interchangeable in many applications.

Especially when lobster tails are being dunked in it. That's just a crime.

Little Les said...

Dan- what an interesting bunch of comments here. My view is that if you want a really good souffle, you have to go to a REALLY GOOD restaurant, and it will NOT be laughably cheap!

One comment included the word "travesty". Perhaps in the future you could use that in place of "tragedy". :)

Janet C. said...

I'm with you Dan - and most restaurants I go to are ethnic - more likely to be owner operated and more likely to not rely on pre made food. Mixed feelings about cruises - not my preferred form of travel but I see the allure, especially for large family groups. Interestingly enough, my brother - in - law and his wife, who is without question the best from - scratch cook I know, LOVE cruises. But I don't think they go for the food. Or maybe they do: the wide variety of food options on board probably make it easier for them to follow their strict vegetarian diet as they travel to diverse parts of the worst