Archive for June, 2010

No More Fishy News

Today the FDA with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stepped up their inspection procedures of fish from the Gulf of Mexico. In the ongoing leak that seems unwilling to abate,  the Feds have decided to act in a precautionary vein and not as an after-the-fact procedure. They increased seafood testing inspections and initiated precautionary closures. This latter approach should take the worry out of the water as the suspect fish will not reach the food supply.

NOAA began fishery area closures over a month ago and continues to make adjustments as the spill trajectory changes. The current federal closure entails 32% of areas known to be affected by oil either on or below the surface as well as areas projected to be affected within the next 48-72 hours. As a further precaution, they created a 5-nautical mile buffer around the known locations of oil. They are working to protect the seafood at the docks and at the processors to help prevent tainted products from ever reaching the marketplace.noaaworldlogo

As of this time they have taken over 600 samples, of which 400 were sent to NOAA’s Seattle testing laboratory for chemical analysis. Meanwhile the FDA has set up a hotline for fisherman and consumers to report and stay updated on the ever-growing fish and seafood matter. Some states have instituted temporary closures for saltwater fish, crabs, and shrimp. Most of these actions are considered precautionary and everyone at this point concurs that the fish we find in restaurants and markets is perfectly safe for consumption. The industry has been hard-hit by fear so we should not abandon its efforts.

As consumers we need to keep abreast of these posts and trust the vendors from whom we purchase our fish and seafood. Now is not the time for anyone to get sloppy with this issue. Honesty and appropriate analysis must be the only routes for those who want to maintain a diet of fish.

It is our world.

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Children’s Menus: NO

With all the talk about childhood obesity and the abysmal state of the School Lunch Program, restaurants need to step up to the plate and fill it with healthier options for families with young children in tow! How many times do we need to see the choices limited to mac ‘n cheese and chicken fingers/tenders? Enough.

Sure if we take young children to a restaurant, we can order from the regular menu and just fork over the additional funds to get our children to eat healthier meals. We can tell them this is a great restaurant with an expansive menu that has nothing like chicken pieces; go ahead–good luck with that approach!

Restaurant dining needs to mirror the healthy eating habits we incorporate into our regular, at-home meal regimen. We need restaurants to support our inroads and develop good-looking plates of foods that are not merely grease-soaked remnants from a large frozen food package. We deserve better options. Occasionally, we stumble across such an example: A restaurant that creates a platter of 3-4 sides, and I don’t mean French Fries, mashed potatoes, and macaroni! Or, a restaurant that offers a roasted chicken, child-sized portion instead of the dreaded fingers or tenders. An underlying issue is price. Little people should not be charged big-people prices. Give them less, but make it edible.

Of course, ethnic restaurants such as Asian, Mediterranean, and South/Central American solve the problem with so many acceptable family-style dishes that no one ever needs to consider a child’s menu. Sharing is the norm and helps make dining a familial adventure.

If you’re going to keep a children’s menu, make it palatable, affordable, and presentable. Children deserve the same high quality foods you want your adult guests to enjoy. If restaurants treat young guests well, they will quickly suggest a particular restaurant for the next family outing. Time to be smart business people. Young children hold the sway.

Sure the crayons and the draw-on placemats are nice, but we are really going out to eat as a family for a meal we cannot make at home or do not have the inclination this evening to prepare.We want to be wowed and enjoy ourselves and not get all frustrated by the high calorie count and the limited options. Skip the drawing options; upscale the sense of place.placemat

C’mon restaurants, wow us and our younger diners! It can save all of us from increased, unnecessary calories. Maybe more restaurants need to eliminate the so-called, special children’s menus. Let dining out be the special treat!

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Managers Who Manage

Restaurant dining seems to elicit no shortage of responses, often more in the negative than the positive column. Someone did not like this; the food was too hot or ice cold. No one came by to check on us. The litany goes on with many complaints echoed on food listserves with screams about lack of compensation. Should servers be penalized for every mistake from the kitchen? Should the chef waltz out and check on every diner? What is the role of the manager and must he compensate every irate diner or minuscule incident of displeasure.

NO, NO, and NO. Yes, we are eating in the equivalent of someone’s home when we dine out, but we need to be good guests, too. The definition of manners becomes eroded when guests make unreasonable demands or when managers overstep their boundaries and speak rudely to wait staff. Nothing far-fetched about these incidents; all occur. Holding everyone in check is really the responsibility of management and no one needs to know the secrets of training, just the end results: A smooth operation with everyone playing an appropriate part.

Let’s play out a recent situation. A four-top was finished with lunch. No one had stopped by from the time the plates were put down and the end of the meal. The server came to clear and saw that one guest had not eaten the protein in the center of the plate atop a field of salad greens. Shall I wrap that up she inquired? No, no thank you, was the reply; I did not care for it. Plates were cleared. Nothing further was said. Table conversation continued while awaiting the check.

Then the smart process went into play. Within minutes a sparklingly dressed young man, white shirt and tie, asked if he could join the table. He very calmly wanted to hear what was the problem with the dish. He immediately said the item had been removed from the check, although no one asked for that to happen, but he wanted to know what they had done wrong. Overcooked? Undercooked? Heavily seasoned? He was genuinely interested in discussing the process of preparation and the end result. Very smoothly handled.salmon

Aha: Training at its best. The server knew what to do. The manager had the personality and skill to communicate, and the guests left impressed. This was not high-end dining but a casual, mid-tier chain that understands its part in the restaurant universe.

Not that difficult, but that important. Many could learn from this little one-act play. The lines are not that difficult to understand. A smooth operation means everyone knows his part.

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Love These Studies

Every once in a while I feel obligated to share some health news with you. Like with the positive effect of certain beverages. Wine mostly tops my list but a new study should interest even more people as researchers in Spain believe they have found a positive link between moderate drinking (not just wine but other alcoholic beverages, too) and a decreased risk of getting Alzheimer’s. Everyone believes the study is still in its early stages of suggesting positive lifestyle changes and caution that drinkers who also smoke may negate the positive effects from the alcohol.wmc_home_glass

An interesting side-note is that women seemed to fare better with this beverage link than their male counterparts. Just a few weeks ago we found that women are increasingly the largest purchasers of wine in this country but still are often ignored when a wine list is presented at a restaurant. Maybe someone will start to note that women are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about wines and are not afraid to walk into a wine store or order wine in a restaurant. Have you noticed that wine stores are hiring more women! Pay attention, restaurants!

A beverage at a totally different part of the spectrum has demonstrated positive results as well. Not that long ago we discovered that coffee drinking counted as part of our daily hydration endeavor. Now a study demonstrates that tea which had been considered a dehydrating beverage actually rehydrates better than plain water as it provides the positive, heart-healthy antioxidant effects.

Just one more bit of health news to ponder today. Again we look at the heart-health link and this time we toss out much of what we previously considered about the dangerous factors in dairy food contributing to higher cholesterol and possible weight gain. A new Swedish study demonstrates the opposite result between dairy foods and cholesterol. Again, women fared better than men; this time with improved heart-cholesterol numbers. Women who consumed the most milk products had an improved cholesterol profile.

If one study says go to the right, an author awaits to disprove the notion. That’s a possible end result of the dairy-cholesterol link. Call me a skeptic!

As with all studies, these are beginning pieces of welcome news for lifestyle changes and improved health benefits.

Stay tuned.

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Fish and Seafood Updates

The ramifications from the Oil Spill are numerous. Maybe one would not be far off if they said, they were impossible to tally as new situations arise daily. One fact is certain: The economic impact on the citizens of the state and nearby states (lost wages, tourism dollars) will reach record amounts. Again, almost incalculable.

As for consumers who favor fish and seafood as mainstays of their diets, then there are several additional issues. First of all, concern for the fishermen and concern about food safety. Alot has been written on both subjects and how perilous the existence for many fishermen was already. Some have become Internet savvy and figured out how to sell directly to the consumer. Smart move and logical strategy.fishingpier_web

Yet, when one studies the numbers of fish and seafood that start life in the Gulf, then the problem takes on an even more pervasive tone; one with greater impact for legions more individuals. Take a basic example, tuna, as a fish few people would even associate with these Gulf waters, but in reality, almost all species of tuna spawn from this region. Think about that and recognize how little we really know. How massive this problem is to our food supply and its direct impact on many of the foods we take for granted.

Surely, we expect pricing changes. Hopefully these will be market-based spikes, not those set by gougers looking for a quick profit. In many states, there is already a limited supply of certain fish and seafood. For shrimpers, it is a casualty almost immeasurable. The watermen, a dwindling profession nationwide, are feeling more than a pinch; more like a tidal wave of continual bad news.

As shoppers we can ask at the market where the fish comes from, but the easiest way to allay our potential anxiety is to stay in touch with the daily updates from the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board. Yes, I see the word promotion in its title but this is the good kind of effort; the one that focuses on information dispersal. We need to know and they have a lot to report.

Yes, prices will rise, and numerous chefs will hold fundraisers for their industry, but as consumers we can show our support by not abandoning an industry and a part of the country that needs our support.

Read the daily updates, talk to your fishmonger, and stay with an industry that needs us now more than ever.

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What Does a Reservation Guarantee?

When we make a restaurant reservation, we have certain expectations. We expect to be seated relatively close to the time of the reservation. We expect that a restaurant honors reservations. Sometimes when we have a reservation for a large group, we work out the specifics of the menu with the restaurant in advance. When the order of the universe changes and the restaurant sends a last minute email, as in two hours prior to the intended reservation, denoting changes, miscues are guaranteed!

First of all, not everyone accesses email all day long. Secondly, advanced and agreed upon details should not give a restaurant carte blanche, sorry couldn’t help myself, permission to make significant changes. When a group has been told that lunch hour is extremely busy but they can be accommodated if they preselect an agreed upon menu, then no further discussion is necessary. Certainly, the host should not arrive at the restaurant and be told that last-minute changes were made via email does not guarantee a positive experience. Email has its limitations. Phones still are preferable, but last minute changes cannot be a one-sided proposition: Two parties need to concur.tablecloths

Remember the old adage: The customer is always right. The corollary, not in this case, just leaves a bad taste and results in diners or guests at the table deciding the restaurant does not deserve future business. Word-of-mouth may help or harm an establishment. A bad call is a bad call! Baseball demonstrated better manners than this!

The mild confrontation ended with the restaurant being over-solicitous to everyone at the table, to the point of their being too present. If the service model continues to rankle more diners than any other question on food surveys, then there is a lot to learn from such a poor display of restaurant strategy.

The economy is far from a solid investment at the moment, and restaurants should be thrilled to have group business. They need to show their appreciation and not confuse an otherwise fortuitous venture.

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Chefs to the Rescue

With all the talk about childhood obesity and the dire straits of the school lunch program, the abysmal situation has taken a positive turn. Let’s backtrack a little. The First Lady has been an active, vocal spokesperson for getting our youth off the couches and onto the playgrounds. Michelle Obama has talked repeatedly and eloquently about the obesity problem in this country; that it is killing our future. She demonstrated the importance of fresh foods with the planting of the White House Garden and with her frequent leadership conversations about the importance of eating healthy and being healthy. Look at the Let’s Move program for a start or go thru the archives of this blog to see her commitment to these important issues.

Then there’s Jamie Oliver, the Brit who came across the Pond to teach us how to make changes to what he believes is the killer school lunch program. His Revolution spurred numerous school systems to consider bringing in more local foods and evaluating the foods that currently comprise what our children are given often for breakfast and again at lunch. Many systems are probably breathing a collective sigh of relief that summer recess is almost here; that they have time to make some of the changes that will eventually be mandated.

Then there is the combination effect: The USDA, The White House under the leadership of assistant chef Sam Kass (former personal chef for the family), First Lady Michelle Obama, and the near 1,000 chefs nationwide who have already signed up to contribute their skills and knowledge to the Chefs Move to Schools initiative. Many of these chefs have already visited schools neighboring their restaurants and in other neighborhoods throughout their cities. Recognize the importance of this step. Chefs by nature are very generous in their participation to end hunger (SOS, City Harvest) and in turn they are good fundraisers as their causes often attract members of their community who can put money behind their campaigns.Chefs_Best_Header

Changing the National School Lunch Program has its initial limitations as the Federal Government has been stuck with a third world monetary commitment of under $3 per child per lunch. As Oliver found as he did his quick tour of school cafeterias and brought celebrity attention to this issue, some schools are limited in what they can do as their equipment is minimal while others have what he called impressive kitchens filled with equipment that is not being used to its fullest.

Now what can these busy, hard-working creative chefs accomplish? A lot. Major changes. Just their presence in the schools, their trips to Capitol Hill, and their visibility in the communities can spearhead a campaign to bring about change. With the First Lady championing all aspects of the healthy food campaign, combined with the national prominence of these industry leaders, we will  see changes in the way the school lunch program exists.

We are talking action.

Thanks, Chefs for lending your expertise to this most important food issue.

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Service, Service, Service: A Restaurant’s Responsibility

No matter how many times we focus on a restaurant experience, no matter how fabulous the food or how beautiful the space, the real “decider” remains service. Somewhere between too much attention and flag-waving to get a raised eyebrow, we expect to receive some acknowledgement of our existence. After all a restaurant is a public space that has invited us to partake of its creative juices. We are not eating out to be intimated, forgotten, or embarrassed. All situations that can occur. We are smart with our dining dollars and know that we do not have to make the same mistake twice. Money does talk.

Nothing rankles diners on surveys more than issues of service. What is most important to a restaurant experience: Service. Overwhelmingly it is the one memory that diners unequivocally share. Many cannot remember the meal details other than comment that the food was good or even terrific, but when you ask for a full accounting of the evening, many start and stop their interplay with some comment about service. No one likes to be treated less than special in someone’s home. A restaurant welcomes you into its home. That’s what the hospitality industry is all about!

So listen up: Do not fawn; nor ignore. Train your staff to recognize the cues from a diner, to read the guest. Training never stops; it is an ongoing restaurant responsibility that impacts significant impressions.

We don’t need a silver platter. We want a service-oriented experience that complements the chef’s creations. chefapron

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Private Label Trust v. Food Wars

It’s no surprise that Costco just reported blow-out earnings. Have you been there recently? The aisles are packed with shoppers stocking up on essential and non-essential goods. For the first time, the company reported it was moving to increasing its food offerings and expanding its private label, the Kirkland brand.kirklandnuts

Costco is one of those companies that exudes trust. When they make a change, consumers often just nod and go along. When a product is not to one’s liking, then the return line welcomes the customer and the product back. It’s that type of company, a consumer-friendly atmosphere, so when they say they plan to expand their food offerings, we say, bring them on. Consumer Reports just added to Costco’s accolades with positive remarks for multiple departments. The Kirkland label has been an impressive solution to deals that were harder for them to cut. Remember they had to play tough guy with Coca-Cola not too long ago and who wanted their products back on the shelves and bowed to pressure: Coke.

BTW, the July issue of Consumer Reports offers multiple shopping strategies. Saving money is still the preferred route.

As an aside to all this attention, food wars are kicking up. Wal-Mart decided it could get more play at the registers by increasing its price cuts (Rollbacks) on name brands to get more customers in the door. A few competitors responded immediately by matching Wal-Mart’s actions. No one wants to be left with high prices as consumers are still scrambling to find the best deals and prices.

Either approach: One winner–the consumer.

Smart shopping’s the buyword!

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A Month of Flavor: June

I always enjoy looking forward into a new month of food holidays. They seem to range from the sublime to the ridiculous as if someone needs to tell us to eat our fruit and vegetables or remember to have dairy products. These are great promotional ploys that are fun to list and contemplate.

Before the enumeration, here are a few special days to note–they come with goodies:

–June 4, National Doughnut Day, a holiday established initially by the Salvation Army to help those in need. Check out Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts for their free offers. (Note that the offers are not identical). Get in line for a sweet Friday.

–June 5, Friendly’s is giving away free ice cream cones.

More of these special freebies as the month progresses.

Combine these single events with month-long celebrations:

National Candy Month. The 16th is Fudge Day! This is from an association that has figured out how to celebrate different candies for each month of the year! They know about our collective sweet tooth!candy

National Dairy Month. Easy to celebrate milk and all the other dairy foods as prices have remained fairly constant making dairy a consistently important, good purchase. FYI, vanilla is still the most requested ice cream flavor!

National Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Month. Seriously, this needs little introduction. We know what we are supposed to eat and how many helpings. Slice up that organic celery now!

National Iced Tea Month. It’s hot and as many people get into the iced cube part of life, tea does not want to be ignored. A vendor at The World’s Fair in St. Louis (1904) took credit for starting this beverage sensation. Why not have it on ice!

National Turkey Lovers’ Month. This concept appeals to those looking for protein substitutes and the Association has been trying to get consumers to consider the product a year-round food, not just one celebrated in November. Lots of recipes and nutritional information on the site including a meal update calculator that helps us be more creative in our menu-planning.

Put them all together and what do you get: Many foods that we enjoy every month of the year!

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