Everyone has had the experience of going to one of their regular restaurants, looking forward to having their favorite dish there, only to find that when they tucked into it, something wasn’t quite right. If it happens once in a blue moon, all may be forgiven, although it certainly won’t score the restaurant any points. If it happens with any frequency at all, the party’s over, and that formerly normal haunt will be demoted to “a place that has really gone to the dogs.” The customer might not be sure about exactly what wasn’t up to snuff with the food but, as food-service professionals, we have to know. First to make sure that it never happens to begin with, and then to be able to fix it if it does. On the other hand, how about when a regular customer comes in, orders a meal, and is pleasantly surprised at how good it is? Again, whether or not he or she can put their finger on it, they are either going to be thinking, “Wow, this is the best food I’ve ever had here!” or, “I’ve never noticed how great this place is, I’ve got to come in more often.” Either way, the restaurant (and the customer) wins. Let’s look, specifically, at what might cause food quality to suffer in a customer’s eyes and, conversely, what we can do to improve our food in ways that will get their attention.

There are two basic categories of things that determine the quality of the food a customer experiences on their plate. One category is the actual products that we purchase; the other is how we handle those products between the time we receive them and the time we serve them. First, let’s consider the products themselves.

The most obvious thing that a typical diner will notice is the “center of the plate,” the meat or seafood that we’re serving them. It’s the easiest place to make a good impression, but it’s also the quickest way to destroy your food cost or change your signature dish into something no one will want.

In deciding what kind of beef to purchase, the two main things to consider are the cut and the grade. The cut describes what part of the animal the meat comes from. The grade describes how much marbling, or intramuscular fat the meat contains. One cut is not inherently better than another, but different cuts definitely work better than others for specific cooking techniques. Cuts like tenderloin, New York strip, rib eye and t-bone are the most tender and can be cooked quickly, over high heat (as in grilling and sautéing.) Cuts like short ribs, brisket and chuck eye roast are also great, but need long, slow cooking over low heat (as in braising and smoking.) Using the right cut for the right dish will help insure things come out the way you want them to, and for a sensible cost. The same brisket that could be turned into the word’s best barbeque would make a tough-as-shoe-leather grilled “steak.” Conversely, if you used tenderloin to make your barbeque, it would be the world’s most expensive, tough and flavorless example of the dish. The grade of the meat is important, too. While Prime has more marbling than Choice (and, hence, more flavor and juiciness), and Choice more than Select, choose your grade for a certain dish carefully. Prime is also the most expensive and may not be warranted in a particular situation. Use the grade your customers expect, and will pay for. It might be a good idea to use Prime or Choice for your entrées, but Select for thinly sliced beef on a sandwich at lunch, for example. The main thing is, understand which cuts and grades make the most sense for the dishes on your menu. Then you won’t make the mistake of choosing ones that won’t work as well as what you’re already using, or will cost more than they are worth. You will also know how to improve the quality of your offerings, if that’s your goal.

With fish, the two main choices are fresh or frozen. There are some high-quality, individually vacuum-packed portions of certain fish available, like yellow fin tuna, but overall, using fresh products will result in better food. Fresh fish is also more expensive and perishable, so it requires more care in handling. Switching from frozen to fresh, if you can deal with the extra effort, will absolutely raise the stature of your cuisine. Going in the other direction will probably be the kiss of death to your seafood sales. Also be aware that not all fish are created equal. While rotating between tuna and swordfish, or snapper and redfish on your comparably priced specials will work, substituting tilapia or catfish for any of the above would not.

Be aware of the practical differences between options of shellfish, too. For shrimp, using frozen products is perfectly acceptable. Fresh shrimp is hard to come by, and no one really expects it all year round. Canned oysters are very convenient and work fine in things like bisques – unless your customers are used to you using fresh. The same is true with dry packed scallops versus cheaper varieties. Everything is relative. The higher quality product will always have a better texture and flavor. It’s a question of what your clientele expect and are willing to pay for. It would be a mistake to trade down, but trading up, especially if you make sure your waiters are using the improvement as a sales tool, might be a very welcome change.

The vegetables a restaurant serves are one of the easiest ways to tell how serious it is about food. While frozen or canned products might work in your establishment, using fresh vegetables, nicely prepared, will definitely be a cost-effective way to up the ante of your food quality. A lot of people who don’t like vegetables really just don’t like bad vegetables. I am not saying that canned or frozen products have no place in a kitchen (frozen baby peas, for example, are usually better than what’s available fresh), but it’s unlikely that you would upset any customers by switching to fresh if you’re not already doing it. I’ve had a lot of people over the years tell me how shocked they are that they like oven-roasted fresh beets. Compared to the only beets they have had previously, which came out of a can, there’s no contest. By now, it’s obvious that I’m of the mind that switching from fresh generally isn’t such a good idea, nor will it win any new fans to your restaurant.

Using fresh herbs versus dried is something to think about. They are not really interchangeable, but nor is one always better than the other. For dishes like long-simmered tomato sauce or Cajun gumbo, dried herbs absolutely have their place. But in other situations, like trout meunière or pico de gallo, fresh is the better way to go. If you plan on making any changes to your recipes in terms of which type of herb to use, understand whether or not you would be doing it to improve the food, or to make things easier for the kitchen. If it’s only the latter, at the expense of the former, reconsider. The same goes for fresh garlic, whether purchased peeled or whole, over garlic powder. If you buy your fresh garlic peeled, just make sure you don’t use it after it’s past its prime.

Making stock from scratch instead of using soup base is something that sets the tone for a lot of what goes on in any kitchen. Depending on your menu, fresh stock can either be a nice touch or a necessity. If you do a lot of reduction sauces or soups, for example, it’s a necessity. If your typical sauce is a cold chutney or horseradish cream, fresh stock might not be the best use of your time. Either way, if you are using fresh stock now, don’t be tempted to switch to soup base for the convenience or reduction in costs. It will be noticed, even if people don’t quite know what they’re noticing, and it won’t be seen as an improvement.

Although there are a lot of good, ready to serve desserts available, there’s an attraction to freshly made items that can’t be denied. If you’re serving “home-made” pies and pastries now, changing to frozen fare won’t be seen as a change for the better by anyone in your dining room. Although it may be tempting from the point of view of labor costs, it probably won’t result in any net gain after considering lost business. It’s too easy for customers to buy similar pre-prepared desserts at the grocery store that you might serve, for them to think it’s worth the extra trouble and cost of getting them from you. It’s important to give them a little something that they can’t get at home, and desserts are an easy place to do it. Dessert is also the last thing a guest has, so it often makes a more lasting impression on them than what came earlier in the meal. Even if you don’t have a pastry chef, there are lots of “chef friendly” desserts like crème brûlée, flourless chocolate cake and bread pudding that most kitchens can turn out with a little effort. Even taking baby steps, like switching from non-dairy whipped topping to whipped heavy cream, will get your customer’s attention.

Last but not least, size matters. Before you decide to reduce the portion size of anything on your menu, know your clients well. If it’s a question of less arugula on your salads for the ladies who lunch bunch, you’re probably OK. If it’s one less French fry on a platter when your core clientele are college students, watch out.

Along with the products you choose, the other basic category of things that will have the biggest influence on the quality of the food you serve is what you do with those products once you get them. There are three parts to this category: care in handling and storage, seasoning and application of heat.

First, let’s look at handling and storage. One basic concept to make sure your staff is aware of is the importance of keeping various foods at the correct temperature. Seafood is a very obvious example, and not to be taken lightly. It doesn’t matter if you are purchasing the best quality whole snapper available, if your cooks aren’t treating it correctly in terms of temperature, from the minute it comes in the door to the minute it goes out to the table, your guests may very well be experiencing less than perfectly fresh fish. This will be something hard for them to miss or forgive. Have good procedures in place in terms of receiving, butchering and storing. Also realize the importance of always keeping your fish and other seafood cold, unless it’s being cooked or served. Devise systems to insure this, and make sure they are being followed. Check your coolers and freezers regularly to see that they are functioning properly. Coolers should be kept between 36 and 40°F, and freezers at 32°F or below. Keep your coolers and dry storage areas neat, organized and clean. This will make it easier to rotate your stock and to see that everything is adequately wrapped, covered, marked and otherwise stored. Not only will this help to keep up the quality of the food you serve, but it will improve your food costs in terms of waste and over-ordering as well.

Next, let’s consider the importance of consistent seasoning. Although ideally, everyone in the kitchen should be able to season a dish correctly, it’s a very good idea to make sure that there is always someone, a chef, sous-chef or kitchen manager, frequently tasting every dish for seasoning and critiquing the work of those who did the seasoning. There are a few areas to be aware of. The most basic is salt content. No matter how beautifully a dish was cooked and garnished, and no matter how much work and care went into what was intended to be an exquisite sauce, if the whole thing ends up tasting like a pretzel, all was for naught. Make sure everyone with the authority or even just the opportunity to add salt to anything is trained in the art of moderation. It’s easy to add more salt, but very difficult when, after the fact, someone asks you to add less.

Similar to salt, is spiciness. While a certain amount of heat in the form of black pepper, chili sauce or roasted chilies is often welcome and appropriate, know your market. What passes for mild in Texas might be considered incendiary in Vermont, and what some in Vermont would consider to be extra-spicy might have people reaching for the Tabasco in Texas. Again, it’s a lot easier to add than to remove.

Another important part of seasoning is the acid/fat balance. This is more important in Western food (as in European) than Eastern (as in Asian.) The concept is most easy to see in things like a vinaigrette or beurre rouge. In both of these two sauces, the success lies in the correct balance of acid and fat (vinegar and oil in the vinaigrette, red wine reduction and butter in the beurre rouge.) When you taste something and it tastes “too vinegary”, think about adding a little fat, like olive oil, butter or cream. If it tastes “too rich or flabby,” try adding an acid like balsamic vinegar, lemon juice or lime juice, depending on the flavor profile you are trying to build.

Speaking of “flavor profiles,” once you feel that your kitchen has gotten the basics of consistent salt, spice and acid/fat balance down, the next step is building more interesting, complex flavors for your guests to enjoy. One way to do this is to think in terms of distinct profiles for different styles of food. For instance, if you have Asian influenced items on your menu, some of the basic flavors you will be working with are ginger, garlic, scallions, soy, sweet, sour, spice and maybe toasted sesame. Think about the dishes in terms of these flavors and figure out how adding, subtracting or adjusting them might help make it more satisfying for your guests. Another example would be Italian food. Although, like Asia, Italy covers a lot of territory and styles, some helpful generalizations can be made. Think in terms of garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, Parmigiano-Reggiano, porcini mushrooms, pine nuts, fennel and basil. While these generalizations may do a disservice to many regional specialties, they can be a good way to start down the road of offering more interesting flavors in your dining room.

Last but not least, is the application of heat. One of the easiest things for a kitchen to get sloppy about over time is how they actually cook the food. The answer to how to prevent this is: training and supervision. The most basic, but nonetheless serious, error is either over- or under-cooking something. Even if a guest might not notice that a sauce isn’t as perfectly balanced as it was the last time they were in, they will certainly notice if the pasta is crunchy or the seared fish looks like sashimi. One possible culprit to look out for when over-cooking rears its ugly head is to see if the cooks are holding the product back in some way after cooking it (even partially) before serving it. The rib eyes might very well be coming off the grill medium rare but, if in an effort to “get ahead,” the grill cook is stockpiling a few cooked ones ahead of time and keeping them warm, by the time the guests get them, they’ll be medium well. It pays for someone with experience to observe just how each station is actually being run, and to make adjustments as necessary. Another frequent problem is serving food cold when it should be hot. Again, having someone who’s been around the block a couple of times observe and analyze how the kitchen and wait staff are coordinating their efforts is always time well spent. Realize that this is not a one-time event. It should be an ongoing part of every restaurant’s procedures.

Another important way to insure consistently high quality food is to have the cooks be well trained in terms of the basic cooking methods they’ll be employing. Methods like frying, grilling, roasting, searing, poaching and braising are all popular for a reason, but good and bad examples of all of them abound. Make sure that, in your restaurant, only great examples can be found. Some of the methods are easier than others to master, but all have tried and true procedures that, when followed, will yield good results. When grilling, keep the grill very hot, very clean and well oiled. The items being grilled should have no moisture on them, but be lightly coated in oil. Nice, dark brown grill marks should be the goal. When searing, the items being seared should be patted down with paper towels just before adding them to the pan to remove all moisture from their surface. The pan should have just enough high-heat oil (like canola or safflower) to coat its bottom. Before adding the items, the oil should be near or just at the smoking point. This will insure a golden-brown surface without overcooking the product. The right technique will make the difference between beautiful, perfectly seared sea scallops, for example, and white, rubbery blobs. Great braised dishes like osso buco, beef stew or pot roast can be some of the most popular items on a menu, if done well. Searing the meat before braising it will improve the color and flavor of the final dish. Then long, slow cooking (usually longer and slower than most cooks give it) will yield a dish with an amazingly rich taste, and melt-in-your-mouth texture. As obvious as this sounds, be sure to have someone on your staff that is accomplished in any of the methods the dishes on your menu will require, then see that he or she trains and supervises the staff that will be producing them.