Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hatred of the Chicken Caesar

To the people who order a grilled chicken Caesar while dining out:

For the love of God, fucking stop it!

Sincerely,
Cheffrey


Now, I must apologize for my choice of words here. I'm not normally a big proponent of dropping the f-bomb in my writing (my speech--especially when at work--is a completely different story), but this is an epidemic that lights a fire under me. In our culture of mid-level sit-down chain restaurants like LT McSpiff's or TGI O'Shitsters, we seem to be becoming de-sensitized to the garbage that they try to pass off as acceptable cuisine. But nothing represents mediocrity on the American menu more than the Chicken Caesar.

First of all, the salad isn't even American. It shows up on nearly every Italian restaurant menu--must be Italian, right? Wrong! The Caesar salad was created in 1924 in...Tijuana, Mexico. That's right, one of Mexico's most indelible marks on American cuisine contains no meat, tortillas, or any form of salsa. Yet somehow, nearly every restaurant in this country seems obligated to include it on their menu--even mine. And just as a burger wouldn't be complete without fries, there is always the option of adding on the salad's evil doppelganger: the grilled chicken breast. Is there possibly a more boring cut of meat out there? The breast is handily the most flavorless part of the chicken, and grilling does nothing to enhance the juiciness of a piece of meat that is quite prone to drying out when exposed to direct heat.

In my opinion, people order the chicken caesar when they can't decide on anything else for whatever reason. "Caesar salad with grilled chicken breast...pretty hard to fuck that up, huh?" must be the thought running through these people's minds. But the point is, we don’t care really what it tastes like, only that it tastes like the last one we had, that it’s consistent. McDonald’s learned the effectiveness of that strategy early on. Friends, if you are having difficulties deciding on what to order, I implore you to ask your server for some help. Most people in the food industry are both food lovers and fiercely opinionated (especially at SCK), and will certainly help guide you in the right direction. And do some research! Find a place that looks interesting. Find some regional or ethnic specialties. Google some of your favorite types of food and where you can get them in your city. If you don't recognize the name of a national chain, you're on the right track. As a chef, I take a huge amount of pride in the dishes on our menu and the specials I create. So it breaks my heart to see someone deprive themselves of the dishes that we do better than anywhere else in lieu of something "safe" and "predictable." To me, food is such a sensory experience and has the capability to create some lasting memories. I know of no one who has any memory of a chicken Caesar other than when someone asks them, "What did you have for lunch today."

From my years in the restaurant industry, I've also discovered--to my consternation--some people who believe that they are following a healthier lifestyle by ordering a chicken Caesar. I'm gonna let you, dear readers, in on a little secret. The main flavoring components in Caesar dressing are garlic, anchovies, and lemon juice; but the body of the dressing comes from two sources: egg yolks and oil. Would you like to know what else is comprised of egg yolks and oil? Mayonnaise. That's right, a Caesar salad is little more than romaine lettuce tossed in flavored mayonnaise and topped with parmesan cheese. At least we at SCK up the ante by adding fried okra and cubes of fried grits instead of the standard croutons.

Sadly, I fear that this will be part of the lasting legacy of American cuisine. The amazing food writer Michael Ruhlman writes, "those of us who love food understand it as a fundamental part of our humanity: that the gathering, preparing and sharing of our daily nourishment is the core of our days and who we are. It is at the very center of our culture. And our legacy, the content of that culture, judging from the sheer volume of portions served, is surely the Chicken Caesar, bottled dressing, thickened with Xantham gum." Most of these national chains likely get the same bottled dressing from an industrial food supplier in New Jersey. Folks, the only good things to come out of New Jersey are Bruce Springsteen and the Sopranos. That's it.

I guess I would just like to see a little more creativity and imagination thrown at this lumbering warhorse of a menu item. Ruhlman fired the initial shot on his website, and a few big name chefs were quick to respond. Chris "Guts R' Us" Cosentino conceived a version with a deep-fried cockscomb taking the place of the crouton. Now if someone will make a version featuring crispy pork belly, then I might just be inclined to order it.

I would love to hear everyone else's opinions on this. Am I just some psychotic chef on a futile crusade here? Does anyone else feel that this is too much mediocrity to bear? Please indulge me.