Recently, the New York City Board of Health passed a law requiring restaurants with more than fifteen locations to publish the calorie count of their menu offerings for customers to see. I commend this, and applaud those restaurants who’ve already complied, as begrudgingly as some may have done so. I wouldn’t want to have to go through the extra work to find out what the exact nutritional toll of the recipes on this blog might be, for whatever reason. And personally, I’d be pretty embarrassed if I found out that my recent cupcake recipe, for instance, amounted to 780 calories and 36 grams of fat a pop, like those at the beloved bakery Crumbs.
But then, would they ever be — really?
Even if I tried really, really hard? I doubt it. There are many differences between home cooking and professional cooking, first and foremost being level of skill. But as a commercial enterprise, the bottom line in a restaurant kitchen is to consistently create memorable, really good-tasting food that you’ll want to come back for again.
There are plenty of restaurants that pride themselves on the overall healthfulness of its dishes, but New York is not a culinary capital shy of fat.
Let’s take a quick stroll through nutritional fact land:
-1 sesame bagel with plain cream cheese from Dunkin’ Donuts: 25 grams of fat, 220 calories.
-1 slice of cheese pizza from NYC chain Ray’s Pizza: 25 grams of fat, 613 calories.
-1 chicken burrito with rice, beans, cheese and sour cream from Chipotle: 39 grams of fat, 918 calories
-1 Wendy’s Classic Double with everything and cheese: 40 grams of fat, 710 calories.
-Cosi Signature Salad with Shallot Sherry Vinaigrette (not including the free bread): 52 grams of fat, 683 calories.
That last meal was what an old co-worker of mine used to eat just about every day for lunch — including the free bread. It has no meat, and the dressing really is a vinaigrette. Most people would call this a healthy, light lunch. New York Magazine’s Grub Street editor Josh Ozersky, on Dateline (watch here via Serious Eats), would call it a “sucker salad.”
So how does this enormous fat toll happen?
I call it restaurant magic. Well, for one thing, looks can be deceptive. Not to rat on Cosi or any of the above restaurants in particular, but that salad had its share of cheese and nuts, stuff that, while beneficial in some ways, you’ll want to eat in moderation. But in general, both fast-food and high-brow, chain and boutique restaurants just use a whole lot more oil, butter and fat than one would suppose. The difference between when a home cook makes risotto and when a professional chef does is that at the end of the process, two sticks of butter are missing when the chef makes it. Where did they go?? Magic. There are also not-so-secretive maneuvers, such as when you ask for your morning bagel “lightly buttered,” and it comes with a smear the size of sandwich fillings. A friend of mine once found a glob of unmelted butter in his bowl of (not even cream-based) soup and was so horrified and disgusted that he couldn’t eat anymore.
It seems to me it’s much easier to eat less fattening food when cooking for yourself because for one thing, it’s cheaper, and it doesn’t occur to home cooks to hide a half stick of butter inside soup, or use up half their bottle of expensive olive oil on one night’s pasta. When you pay for the luxury of eating at a restaurant, you’re paying for the extra douses of oil and fat because, after all, they give flavor to foods.
So, even if it might seem obvious that when a person orders a cupcake or brownie, they couldn’t give a hoot how healthful it is, and even now that chain restaurants (only, so far at least) will label calorie counts, the fact is, it can be really hard to tell how healthy your meal is when you’re not cooking it. It’s impossible, really. This is a completely fictional anecdote, but who can forget the Seinfeld episode when Elaine puts on pounds after gorging on fat-free frozen yogurt that wasn’t?
Now, I’m no poster child of healthy living. I have more than a few bad health habits which I won’t go into detail here too much. But just last night, I drank tequila shots, danced barefoot after breaking glass on the floor and chugged home on my bike eating a bag of Combos, if you get the picture. (It wasn’t a pretty one.) But when I’m not under the unstoppable force of tequila (or other, highly stoppable ones), I get a really good kick out of feeling healthy. And that’s the way I prefer to be during and after a meal. I can’t stand the slump of post-greasy meal consumption, and who wants to hang out with someone suffering a big twisted bellyache? At least when I inflict that kind of anguish on myself with something I made, I have no one else to blame.
This also relates to Reason #2: Mystery Illnesses, the unpleasant experience of food poisoning or other unpleasantries due to eating that which is not entirely known from a restaurant, as well as serve a footnote to Reason #18: When you do eat out, things are different… Essentially, what you order and its calories or fat count or bellyache you get in return isn’t always a straightforward transaction, or make common sense.
Yes, this could just as easily happen if I were to cook up a big, huge, greasy slopburger on my stovetop and call it a weeknight’s treat. But… seriously? I’ll stick to occasional weeknight tequila dancing for now, thank you very much.