10 Restaurant Secrets to Creating an Incredible Meal

Bring the restaurant experience into your own home. See pictures of easy weeknight meals.
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A restaurant meal is a special, often celebratory experience. With many people trying to cut expenses these days, commemorating an achievement with a night out at a restaurant might not fit into the budget. But life's special moments should be honored and enjoyed with good food and good company. The tips, advice and secrets in these pages will help you create incredible meals at home, so that you can mark those milestones both big and small.

10
You Have to Break Some Eggs

Breakfast isn't just the first meal of the day; it's often the first meal we learn to cook and the first meal we teach our kids to cook. Cooks differ (and sometimes argue) about whether to add milk or water to the beaten eggs to make a fluffy omelet. So which is right?

According to Rick Tramonto, chef and owner of Osteria di Tramonto in Chicago, neither. He imitates his grandmother, who added "a pinch of baking powder to the raw egg mixture." Then, Tramonto makes sure that his pan is hot and "whisks the eggs enthusiastically just before pour[ing] the mixture into the pan."

For a three-egg omelet, use a 7- or 8-inch (17.78- or 20.32-centimeter) non-stick or well buttered pan. The omelet needs to slide easily around and out of the pan. When half of the omelet is on the plate, use the edge of the pan to fold the other half over and enclose the filling in a neat half circle.

Practice and confidence are two more essential ingredients for creating an incredible omelet. So get cracking and break some eggs!

9
Fresh is Best
Fresh ingredients always yield better quality food.
Fresh ingredients always yield better quality food.
Photo courtesy of Heather Kolich, 2009

The Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., built its 30-plus year reputation on the wholesome goodness of fresh vegetables and herbs grown in the Moosewood Restaurant kitchen gardens. The owners of Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C., believe that the success of their restaurant lies squarely in the freshness of their ingredients, purchased at the local farmer's market from reputable growers within a 50-mile (80.47-kilometer) radius of the market.

If you can't grow your own fruit, vegetables and herbs at home, your next best bet is to find a local farmer's market. How does locally grown produce differ from what you can buy at the supermarket? Produce grown for sale in grocery stores is often bred for its ability to withstand the rigors of shipping rather than for its flavor. It might be picked before it's ripe so that it doesn't spoil in transit. The folks who grow food to sell at farmer's markets can wait until the produce is fully ripe before picking it. This ensures that it has full flavor as well as better vitamin and nutrient content than produce picked before its peak. Local growers also offer regional and seasonal items that aren't available at chain stores.

8
Prepare Ahead

"You will be most successful . . . if you carefully read the recipe all the way through before you start cooking or baking," advises Ben and Karen Barker, chefs and co-owners of Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C. They also suggest that you have all of your equipment and ingredients organized and in place before putting the heat to your pan.

This doesn't necessarily mean slaving all day in a hot kitchen. At the Magnolia Grill, most prep work is done the day before the dish is cooked and served, but you can start mentally preparing even earlier than that. Familiarize yourself with the steps involved in your recipes and estimate a time schedule for the main entrée and each of the side dishes. Figure out when you'll need to start cooking each dish so that they're all ready at the same time. And make sure you have the cooking tools and cooking space you'll need for each offering.

For physical preparation, peel and chop vegetables, marinate meat, separate eggs, et cetera the day before your event. Before you cook, go ahead and pre-measure ingredients and line them up in the order you'll be adding them into your dishes. This approach streamlines the cooking process and eliminates the crisis that occurs when you suddenly realize you don't have enough of some critical ingredient.

7
Respect the Meat
To keep the juices in, don't cut or poke the meat.
To keep the juices in, don't cut or poke the meat.
Jamie Grill/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Chefs at Morton's Steak House recommend that you purchase beef that carries a USDA quality grade of "prime" if you can find it or "choice" if prime isn't available. Prime beef comes from young, well-fed cattle and has more marbling -- the threads of fat that lace through the meat to add flavor and tenderness -- than other grades of beef. Most of the extremely small percentage of beef that earns a prime grade is sold in restaurants or hotels. Choice graded beef is still tender and flavorful, and it costs less than prime beef. "Select" beef is leaner and drier than the higher grades. Most select cuts should be marinated or cooked in moist heat.

Another tip from Morton's: never stab your meat. Piercing the meat with a fork or meat thermometer gives all the juices in the cut a place to drain out, leaving you with a dry entrée. Whether you're cooking beef, pork, chicken, fish or hot dogs, use a spatula or tongs to handle meat, and only turn each piece one time during the cooking process.

If you can't cut into the meat, how can you tell when it's done? Use the Morton's palm test. This doesn't mean holding your palm over the meat to feel the heat; it refers to comparing the firmness of the meat when you poke it with a finger to the firmness of different areas of your palm. Rare steak should have the unresisting spongy feel of the thumb area. A medium steak should spring back when touched like the middle of your palm. Well-done meat will feel firm like the area of your pinky finger.

6
Start Small

Throughout his training and career in many restaurants, including Caesar's Palace, "Chef Jeff" Henderson learned the value of small offerings. "[A]lmost any dish can be refined into a magical little appetizer," he says.

Appetizers are a great way to entertain your guests and build anticipation for the meal to come. Historically, they've been used to stimulate conversation, friendship and appetites. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, just down-size a recipe that you do well and offer it as finger food. Henderson suggests using an espresso cup for soup instead of a bowl, or turning hamburgers into tiny sliders. Be sure to allow plenty of time to linger over the little bite-sized morsels. As the names given them by other cultures suggest, appetizers are more about socializing than slaking hunger.

5
Side Dishes, Not Afterthoughts
Don't forget your vegetables. You need them to stay healthy.
Don't forget your vegetables. You need them to stay healthy.
Photo courtesy of Heather Kolich, 2009

We know we should eat them, but many Americans don't exactly harbor great love for vegetables. Maybe it's because we treat them so badly, dumping a can of beans into a sauce pot or microwaving the life out of frozen medleys. We've relegated vegetables to unappetizing, second-class status.

But veggies are an important part of the meal, and Jamie Oliver of the London restaurant Fifteen (and also TV fame) offers some advice for bringing vegetables back into favor at the dinner table.

"Cook the greens with your full attention," he says. Broccoli, asparagus, cabbage and zucchini should be cooked past the al dente point but not as far as mushy. Oliver's method is to put the vegetables into boiling salted water, and periodically take a piece out and eat it to test for doneness. Then he recommends draining the water out with a colander and placing the vegetables on a clean kitchen towel to soak up the remaining water. While they're hot, season them with lemon juice, plenty of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. For a flavor twist, toss a few cloves of garlic into the cooking water before adding the greens; after draining the water, mash up the garlic and add it to the other seasonings.

4
Season (and Taste) as You Go

According to Chef Scott Conant of New York's acclaimed Italian restaurants L'Impero and Alto, under-seasoning is one of the biggest mistakes cooks make. He's backed up in this assessment by Joey Altman, who cooked for and/or co-owned many restaurants before becoming a television cooking show host, and by the Barkers of Magnolia Grill, whose motto is "not afraid of flavor." All of them advise cooks to season food throughout the cooking process, and to taste it to make sure you're getting the flavor you want.

Conant's secret is salt. He skips the iodized table type and employs kosher, sea and smoked salts. The kosher salt is for cooking because it dissolves quickly in water and doesn't leave an aftertaste. It's good for seasoning meat, too; the large grains make it easy to see how much salt you've sprinkled on. He adds a pinch of sea salt or smoked salt to dishes just before serving.

"My advice is to keep a salt cellar filled with this sea salt near the stove or on the table," Conant says. "Once you start using it . . . you will understand how this easiest of culinary 'tricks' is often what takes a dish from good to great."

Altman and the Barkers are fans of bold and layered flavors. For Altman, this means using combinations of fresh and dried seasonings -- like chili peppers -- to create a deep flavor with nuances you'll notice as you eat. At the Magnolia Grill, layering includes building a meal with complementary and contrasting flavors, temperatures and textures.

3
There's More to a Meal than Food

At least one restaurant secret is right out in the open. Think about how you feel when you walk into a restaurant. The experience doesn't begin when the food arrives at your table; it begins the moment you walk in the door, with that intangible quality called ambiance. The sight of a well-set table, with a crisp white tablecloth, shining silverware, fresh flowers or glowing candles makes you feel welcomed, expected and fussed-over. The smell of baking bread encourages you to take in deep breaths of enjoyment. Background music helps set the emotional mood.

"At all of my restaurants, the staff and I work very hard to make the meal a wonderful dining experience," says Emeril Lagasse, chef and owner of Emeril's in New Orleans and several other restaurants around the United States. "We pay a lot of attention to detail, we want our guests to be comfortable and to enjoy good wines . . . I want to tantalize all the senses -- sight, smell, taste, and feel."

And when the server finally brings your food to the table, what's the first thing you do? You gaze at it!

"Chefs know that we eat with our eyes," says Joey Altman. "An attractive presentation actually makes food taste better."

2
Break Out the Bubbly

Do you want to create a fun and festive evening? Offer your guests a cocktail when they arrive.

"A well-crafted cocktail sets the stage for an enjoyable evening," says Joey Altman.

It's an indulgence that gives the occasion a special feel and helps people relax. When the toasts are finished and it's time to dine, extend the celebration -- and enhance the flavor of the food -- by including a wine offering with the meal.

"A great food and wine pairing enhances the taste of both the food and the wine," says Greg Harrington, Master Sommelier and partner and Director of Corporate Beverage for New York based B.R. Guest Restaurants. He offers these tips to help you choose which wine to serve.

  1. Wine will either compare or contrast with the predominant elements (sweet, sour, salt and bitter) of the food. If the flavors compare, they'll blend together. If they contrast, each flavor intensifies.
  2. Match the wine with the sauce of the dish. Pair the smoky flavor of grilled chicken with the toasty oak flavors of Chardonnay, but choose a sweet wine if you cook the chicken with a sweet barbeque sauce.
  3. The wine should be more acidic than the sauce or food you serve it with. Otherwise, the wine seems dull and flabby.
  4. Keep the intensity of the wine and the food equal: pair subtle food flavors with subtle wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, and strong flavors with strong wines, like Shiraz.

You can also use wine and liquors to flavor foods directly during cooking. The alcohol burns away, leaving only the taste behind. TGI Friday's uses a Jack Daniels whiskey sauce to flavor chicken, shrimp, burgers, ribs and steak.

1
The Grand Finale
Save room for dessert; it's the best part of the meal!
Save room for dessert; it's the best part of the meal!
Tim Whitby/Getty Images

Ah, dessert! The highly-anticipated closing statement of the meal, desserts and pastries are an art form all to themselves. The folks at Brasserie T in Chicago recommend choosing a dessert for flavor instead of form, but that's easy for them to say. Co-owner Gail Gand is a pastry chef. All of their offerings are gorgeous.

"A pastry chef has to combine the skills of a jeweler, a physicist, a chemist, an artist, a perfumer, and an assembly-line worker," she writes in the introduction of "butter sugar flour eggs," a book she co-authored with her husband and restaurant partner Rick Tramonto and food writer Julia Moskin.

For this memorable finishing touch to your meal, don't be afraid to do what Couch Restaurants at the University of Oklahoma do: Call in the experts. With seating capacity for 750 customers at a time, the award winning, cook-to-order eatery serves about 3,000 meals each day during the school year [source: University of Oklahoma]. But when it comes to dessert, they contract with a local bakery to provide a suite of delicacies for their bakery case that's as irresistible to the eye as it is to the palate.

"We offer many fantastic from-scratch desserts developed in our own bake shop in Couch Restaurants," said Lauren Royston, Marketing and Public Relations Specialist for University of Oklahoma Housing and Food Services, "but when you have a local resource like La Baquette at your fingertips, it makes sense for us to use some of their products to complement our own."

You've worked hard enough on this meal. When it comes time for dessert, let the pros do the heavy lifting. All you'll need to do is serve, smile and accept the compliments.

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Sources

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