How to Make Restaurant-Quality Food at Home, According to a Chef
No reservations required.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time in the kitchen these days. Preparing three meals a day every day requires creativity, and I’ve been putting in endless extra effort into upping my cooking game. I’ve even been branching out into different recipes that I would normally go to restaurants for, like comforting Vietnamese Pho or steakhouse-style Parm-Butter Steak Frites.
Sometimes, despite my best efforts, my recipes fall slightly short of my expectations. Why is it that, despite following instructions to a T, these dishes somehow taste just a little better when eaten out at a restaurant? I turned to Jordan Grosser, executive chef and partner at San Francisco joints Stag Dining Group, Derby Cocktail Co., and Cerf Club, for a few tips on how to take home-cooked meals to the next level. With his advice, there’s no reason why your food shouldn’t be as tasty (if not more) than restaurant fare. So put out the linens and light a candle, because your dining room is about to become the hottest new spot in town.
Buy Quality Ingredients
When asked for his top tip for making restaurant-quality meals at home, Grosser doesn’t hesitate. “The simple answer is buy good ingredients, which might be what you hear constantly, but it makes a huge difference,” he says. High quality, organic produce, fats, and seasonings can transform even the most basic dishes into menu-worthy meals.
Salt is one example of something we use in almost every dish, yet rarely give too much thought in choosing. “Diamond Crystal Kosher salt is the most popular restaurant standard for most U.S. kitchens’ all-purpose usage,” says Grosser. “Maybe more important is having good finishing salt around, like Maldon sea salt, Sel Gris, or Fleur de Sel. These particular salts, when used last minute to finish dishes, add not only a wonderful pop of flavor but a surprisingly and pleasing crunchy texture to foods.”
You can think of high-quality oils in much of the same way—you don’t need to necessarily cook with the top-shelf olive oil or butter, but use it at the end to bring out the best flavors of your dish and maintain the integrity of the product. “Drizzle your salads, pastas, and soups with a favorite flavorful EVOO, walnut, or hazelnut oil. Spread really good butter on bread or a piece of steak just before serving, or melted into a sauce at the very end of its cooking time,” says Grosser.
Invest in the Right Equipment
According to Grosser, there is only one piece of kitchen equipment that every home chef should own: A high-performance blender. “Almost everything else can be done by hand,” he explains. “I wouldn’t want to have a kitchen without one, home or restaurant.”
"This is a constant struggle in any kitchen at home or in a restaurant,” Grosser explains. “In restaurants, there are many people with so many different personalities, all cooking together.” No matter where you are cooking or how many helping hands you have, he suggests four things to always do in a kitchen to maximize efficiency:
- Prep all your ingredients ahead of time for a recipe. “Building a 'kit' for your recipe is a great way to stay clean and make sure you don’t miss anything. Weigh, chop, slice, measure everything so you can pay more attention to cooking.”
- Keep your workspace clean and tidy, and clean as you go. “Trash cans are generally all around kitchens to help aid in this process. It is a very good practice to keep a container or bowl on your workspace to clean up scraps and debris as you work without having to move around.”
- Organize your food and cooking equipment. “Knowing where everything is at all times will make your days behind the cutting board way more efficient. I have worked in kitchens where it was possible to be yelled at for going into or out of the walk-in empty handed.” The idea is to plan well enough so that you’re not wasting time opening the refrigerator to grab one thing, or taking things out of the pantry one-by-one.
- Plan ahead to reduce waste. “I would say that while learning to cook well is important, maybe more important is to learn to mitigate waste along the way. Good composting, recycling, and waste management is important, but a step before that is utilization of product.” Pickling is a great technique to use up vegetable scraps, and can be done easily at home with ingredients you likely have on hand: vinegar, salt, water, and whatever fresh herbs you have lying around from other recipes.
Consider the Umami Factor
Umami can be translated as “pleasant, savory taste” and is integral to taking recipes from so-so to unexplainably good. Grosser’s favorite secret ingredient? Fish sauce. “No anchovies for marinara or Caesar dressing? Fish sauce. Can’t figure out what to season your soup with? Fish Sauce. Your bloody mary needs a little something extra? Fish Sauce!” he raves. Followed by a cautionary reminder: “Definitely note that if you overuse it, the fish flavor can ruin a dish just as easily that it can flavor it, so stick to small quantities.” Other ingredients that can add an umami boost to recipes are tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, parmesan cheese, or miso paste.
Sometimes, Simple is Best
Don’t feel the need to get fancy. Sometimes, the best food is the less-refined, nostalgic foods of our childhood. Made with good ingredients, these simple recipes can be as enjoyable, or more, than a five-star meal. “I have made pizza at home so many times already since the shelter-in-place started. This dates back to my mother making English muffin pizzas as a kid for the family,” Grosser shares. “An easy pizza sauce recipe is your favorite can of tomato paste with equal parts by volume water to thin out. Season with salt, black pepper, dried oregano, parsley, and basil or even just an Italian seasoning blend. That’s it. The end result is a good balance of sweet and acid but with a very condensed tomato flavor. It is very rudimentary from a culinary standard. Should I be embarrassed? No—it’s delicious.” Simple, satisfying, and made with pantry staples? We can get on board with that.