Earlier this year, my access to the Cooks Illustrated archives and Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything convinced me that I could, in fact, cook everything. And when it comes to pasta, potatoes, fish, chicken, and a few fancy things like risotto, I’m not half bad. In July, inspired by this confidence, I undertook a more ambitious project—French fries.
Turns out that although my recipe made it sound so easy, French fries are definitely an eating-out food. The bland result of my experiment was only the latest in a series of restaurant-food failures, which have revealed to me a near-universal truth: there are some foods always better left to restaurants. Period.
DIY-favorite recipes hold a special allure for me. As a Chicagoan, I hurt for an Italian beef sandwich or deep dish pizza a good eight months out of the year. So when AllRecipes.com tells me I can get a crusty Italian bread roll melting under a mountain of tender, wafer-thin slices of beef slow-cooked in wine, spices, and its own juices for eight hours, and all I have to do is throw the ingredients in my Set ‘N Forget and watch old Simpsons episodes for a whole afternoon, I’m there.
But my Italian beef did not stir up fond memories of a hot, dripping bag of Portillo’s beef and sweet peppers. I love my little slow cooker, but it pales in comparison to the vat seasoned with years of built-up grease and gravy at Johnnie’s Italian Beef. And without an industrial-grade slicer, I couldn’t get my brisket melt-in-your-mouth thin.
You just won’t get your favorite restaurant foods right in your kitchen—your recipes don’t call for you to be as liberal with the salt, you don’t have all the right equipment, and you’ll probably drop a lot of money on special ingredients before you fail. And, well, you’re just a cook. The good folks at Johnnie’s Beef, Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, and anyfries U.S.A. are chefs. There’s a reason they own restaurants and you don’t.
You won’t get your food on the table as fast as they will, either. With rising time, the dough for my deep dish pizza took me half a day. Producing the humble French fry involved cutting russet potatoes, rinsing off excess starch, chilling them, frying them in oil, draining them, and then frying them again. My fry cook skills being a little remedial, the total potato-to-tummy time was nearly three hours. And they still didn’t beat the Safeway-brand sausages I paired them with.
Then there’s the politics-and-sausage factor—you don’t want to see how your favorite foods are made. It turns out that Chicago pizza masters achieve that flaky, biscuit-like crust with lots and lots (and lots and lots) of fat, most of it butter. My recipe called for nearly a quarter-pound of butter and more than four tablespoons of olive oil for two small pizzas—and that was just the dough. When I finally ate my grand experiment—no Gino’s East, but it was all right—I had to drink a lot of heart-healthy red wine to compensate. And French fries? Those get fried twice in two quarts of greasy, golden (not to mention pricey) peanut oil.
There are exceptions to the rule, and most home cooks are steak- and burger-capable. But for the most part, restaurant foods belong in the restaurant, no matter how good that recipe for potato gnocchi sounds. And god, does it sound good.
Sitting in my bookmarks, I’ve got this killer recipe for mole, a savory Mexican chocolate sauce that you can drizzle over shredded pork or chicken. I really want to make it, even though it will require several hours over two study days. But I’m resisting the urge to go buy all 20 necessary ingredients, including Mexican chocolate, two kinds of chiles, and almond butter. I’ll be back in the City of Big Shoulders soon enough, where, for a reasonable price, Rick Bayless will do it better.
Find out Molly’s thoughts on politics and sausage at firstname.lastname@example.org