On mediocrity

Some weeks ago I was making a delivery into a commercial kitchen, outside of normal operating times for our wholesale, and the chef says "sharpen your pencil, mate." I have heard this a million times before, over many years in this business. It is said that Winston Churchill  asked of a lady "Would you sleep with me for a million pounds?", to which she answered in the affirmative. Then "Would you sleep with me for five pounds?", which brought forth "No, what do you think I am?". To which he replied "We have already established the principal, now we only need to haggle about the price!". 

We regularly talk to industry students in a group setting, and I find that the emphasis of what we pass on is about the quality of ingredients. A good chef knows where to source, and look out for, great product. Good chefs will come in and have a cheese, or olive, or charcuterie, tasting to decide what they will be using.

Many years ago, new to the business, we purchased some Parmiggiano Reggiano from an Italian importer, who failed to tell us it was reject product - it had crosses stamped all over the rind! We have since learnt that you get Parmiggiano Reggiano in varying quality from different sources. The same goes for Parma Ham - in some instances, up to some very high percentages, according to whom you are to believe, the ham is being produced from imported pork, from as far as Hungary, Albania and elsewhere. The point of this is that the only way to assess a product is by tasting it! Yes, that thing that good chefs always do, and lazy chefs don't bother about.

Somehow many new start ups begin using only the finest ingredients, and they will be really busy for the first few months. Then the owner calls the chef in and complains about "food costs!" Next thing you have the same menu laced with second rate ingredients! The owner wonders why less customers are coming through the door and so the downward spiral goes.

Now, you are probably thinking that I am pushing the expensive stuff to make more out of it. You are so wrong - the first thing is about perception - the best product is not always the most expensive. It will mostly never be the cheapest either. The essence of product selection starts with the proviso that the chef actually cares. Then product knowledge and skill play a part. Rely on the knowledge and care from your providore. Be it meat, fish, fruit and veg, cheese, charcuterie, dry goods, or whatever other ingredients you are working with.

Every day there are places serving top class food at all levels, and yet sadly far more serving mediocre slapdash offerings...

"There is always someone who is prepared to be cheaper and nastier" (this applies to all fields of endeavor) and "the bitter taste of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of a cheap price has disappeared" - these statements encompass a lot of what I have been trying to convey.

When a customer asks for Prosciutto, our response is always to ascertain what they will be doing with it - wrap around Melon or Fig needs the very finest, such as Parma or San Danielle. Wrapping a chicken breast, or fish is often better using a Prosciutto Crudo, or flat Pancetta. And so it goes when selecting product - always use the best you possibly can, and choose appropriately.

It is not hard to find the best, all it needs is a little care and attention. The most expensive is not always the best. Take polenta, for instance, we sell New Zealand polenta, which is not GM either, for less than Italian polenta, and the quality of our homegrown product is superior!

We sell the finest Blue Stilton for the same or less than high profile New Zealand blue cheeses!

So the message of the day is to take the trouble of finding the best ! You will be rewarded in the result of your endeavors. Steer clear of mediocrity - it advances nobody.