There are a lot of good things to say about dining out in a chain restaurant, and there are a lot of dreadful things as well. Let’s start with the good. Let me think…oh yeah-average, lackluster food and automaton service. Now don’t get me wrong, the service is great in some of the chains, but it is usually because the server is brand new with a personality that hasn’t been tarnished by the banality of the job, is passing through to better things, or a company drone with a 401(k) that is just biding their time until they are fully vested in the company and can one day reprieve themselves from serving the same dull food day after day after day, like a beat cop waiting for the day his pension kicks in.
And then there is the food. You can’t blame the cooks and chefs for the dreary fare that is taken from box to plate and prepared with all the imagination of a factory worker on valium. They bake, broil and grill whatever the corporate goons sitting behind desks 300 miles away decide. And it is usually a trend or three behind the culinary curve. If anyone remembers the great pesto obsession of the early 90’s then you know what I am talking about because it is probably on some chain restaurant’s menu right now.. They don’t create food trends they just copy them, and the chef should not be blamed for that. Most chain restaurants are a great training ground for those just starting out in the culinary field, a boot camp for those out of culinary school who believe they will be an executive chef in Switzerland with a six figure income at a 5 star hotel when they graduate. I know quite a few that ended up at Applebee’s or Denny’s to learn how the real world works because it wasn’t explained to them in school that there are long hours and you might just get your chef coat dirty while waiting for a phone call from the Food Network.
I recently moved to an area in Minnesota that has one of the largest malls in the metro area, and there are chain restaurants far and wide. My wife and I have eaten in our share of them, because it is difficult to find a unique restaurant or bistro, and convenience is always a huge factor. But we are bored and almost in tears to find a place that will excite us and make a distinct impression. After eating breakfast at a place that must have had a job fair at the local trailer park, we both said “enough” and are on a quest to find decent digs at which to eat. Hence I am writing this story to exorcise the demons.
Give me a chef driven restaurant that uses local produce and out-of-the-box ideas in the kitchen, with servers that labor for their tips out of love for the industry and the food. Give me a ponytailed chef with tattoos and a lip ring that has figured out a new way to prepare calamari or a tapenade, and can make caramelized onions and a béchamel sauce without looking in the standardized corporate cookbook. Give me a chef that has worked 12 days in a row, but still comes in to work because this is where they belong. Give me a server that loves their customers and can do their job well without the benefit of the company manuals to show them how. All of us would benefit greatly. Especially the culinary field.