Question: Why does restaurant food taste different from what I make at home?

I didn’t make this. It is the work of gastronomic wunderkind, Grant Achatz.

It is beautiful.

It probably tastes like the best day of your life.

Can I make it? I can make a lot of things, but that? Probably not.

Why? Because I’m not Grant Achatz.

That doesn’t mean that food that you make at home can’t taste great. It can probably taste better than what you would get in most restaurants. But it is true. There is a difference.

And I can tell you exactly what it is:

And it ain’t no fancy degree.

1. You might not be cooking with enough salt.

Undersalting, like smoking, is a really hard habit to kick. Salt is flavor. I think that’s the first thing they teach in cooking school. I think that’s why most everything I taste out of culinary school kitchens is way oversalted. That doesn’t mean that you should go way underboard. But you’re probably using way less than what they use in restaurants. So go ahead, salt liberally. Use about double what you normally would, but taste as you go. You’ll notice that there is a threshold, an actual moment when your food goes from tasting good to tasting really, really good. It is pretty much right at the point just a little more salt is a little too much.

2. You might be cooking with the wrong salt.

Does the canister in your kitchen read, “Morton’s”? Does your salt come out in a shower of cube-shaped crystals? Then you are cooking with the saltiest salt on the planet. Not all salt is created equal, so I urge you to get yourself some Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt now.

3. You might not be cooking with enough fat.

You’re probably using nothing compared to what they use in restaurants. So go ahead! Butter up!

4. You might not be cooking with enough real fat.

Low-fat? No-fat? You should say, “No way.” Cooking with low-fat and no-fat products is just asking for gritty, watery food.

And don’t even get me started on fake butter.

Real food is real satisfying. So what it has more fat? Just eat less of it. It’s probably still better for you than the food that they had to overly process in order to take the fat away.

5. You might be cooking with too many ingredients.

Most things really do taste best when the least is done to them. My big pet peeve is cooking with tons and tons of dried herbs. First of all, it just makes your food look like moss. Secondly, it hides the taste of whatever it is you are cooking. Less is really more.

6. You might be over-cooking it.

You don’t actually need a thermometer. Make a really tight fist. Now with your other hand poke the fleshy part of your fist between your index finger and your thumb. That bouncy hard resistance that you feel is what a super well-done steak would feel like if you poked it. Open your hand and make a super loose fist. Touch the same part. That’s what really, really rare feels like. Now, aim for somewhere in-between.

7. You might be over-marinating.

You want mushy meat? Because that is what marinating for too long does. Makes. Meat. Mushy. Doesn’t matter how much “flavor” you think it adds. Mushy meat is gross.

8. You’re probably not making the same dish 60+ times a day, every day.

And thank goodness for that!


Essential Equipment: Good Cutting Board

Here is another post in which I bully you gently persuade you to make better and more esthetically-pleasing choices in the kitchen.

You need a good cutting board.

I am always amazed by people — good, cooking people — who get by with shitty cutting boards, or (gasp!) no cutting board at all.

My mother, for example, is an excellent cook. However, whenever I cook in her kitchen I am always at a loss for why she doesn’t have one.

“Mom!” I sputter while wielding her very expensive, full-tang Wüsthof and gesturing at the pebbled glass “counter-saver” in her kitchen. “Really? No, really?”

Why should you have a good cutting board?  Why should you care?


1. It doesn’t flatten out the edge of your nice knife and keeps it sharp for longer.

2. If you don’t have a nice knife, it makes your okay knife feel like a better knife.

3. It gives you a good work surface. Watch any episode of any of Jacques Pépin’s cooking shows. See those neat little piles of celery, onion, and carrots that he always has sitting in a cool row? That, my glorious Friend, can be you.

4. It really does make life easier.

Okay. So what should you NOT buy?

1. Don’t buy glass.

2. Don’t buy those horrible bendy plastic sheets shaped like cut apples or tomatoes.

3. Don’t buy one of those gigantic wood blocks made up of cubes of end-cut pieces of oak, weighing 30+ pounds. You’ll never like using it because it is a total pain to clean and move around.

Buy something that makes cooking an enjoyable experience for you, something that will ultimately enhance your experience of cooking. My mother despises cutting up vegetables. But if I had to whack away at carrots and onions on a piece of glass with a heavy knife that was getting duller and duller by the second, I would really hate it too.

What you SHOULD look for:

1. A wooden board. If you must buy plastic, please do invest in a good plastic board — not that cheap white thing from IKEA that acquires all kinds of nasty stains and smells. The kind that, after a while, starts to leave little threads of nylon in your food. The kind that is “dishwasher-safe,” yet comes out of the dishwasher weirdly warped and partially melted. Don’t buy that kind of plastic board.

2. Buy a board that you can put really hot things on with impunity. I can’t tell you how many times my cutting board doubles as a hot pad or a trivet, or the number of times that I have had to carve, plate, or garnish something hot on it. Note: you can’t really put hot things on a plastic board, even if the manufacturer’s label says you can.

3. Don’t buy a wooden board that is too hard. Some are really dense. You might as well cut on glass. A lot of people like bamboo because it’s nice and cushy.

4. If you get any board, get one that’s big enough so that you can do work on it. Sometimes I’ve seen friends try to carve a chicken on a board the size of a chick.

5. Get a board that looks good enough to double as a nice presentation board for cheese and salumi if needed.

If you buy a wooden board, please do take care of it.

How to take care of your wooden board:

A good wooden board is an investment. Maintain it well, and it will last you for years and years, getting better over time. If it’s a particularly expensive board, and the work surface side is really beat up, you can always sand it down and be proud of your newly toned arms and your good-as-new board.

All brand-new wooden boards look nice and shiny from the thin layer of factory-wax that they spray on them. Do they stay that way on their own? Sadly, no. After washing or wiping your new wooden board several times, you will find that your board is no longer slick and bright.

So what do you do?

You have to seal it by moisturizing it. Why? Keeping your board well-maintained serves a multitude of functions. First of all, it prevents the board from dying out and cracking — which really makes for a more hygienic board if you think about it. Secondly, it makes your board water-resistant — which is also more hygienic as it is unlikely to absorb any liquid. This will prevent something from growing in or on it, like mold. Third, a well-maintained board doesn’t warp and stays flat. Flat, even surfaces are much safer to cut on.

Most people use mineral oil, a neutral oil that will not get rancid over time like olive oil. It’s cheap, it works. You smear a thin layer all over your board. Don’t forget the edges. Let it sit overnight. With a paper towel, wipe off the excess oil in the morning, and you are on your way to good board maintenance.

Lately I have been using this stuff called Boos Block Board Cream. It’s amazing, and lasts longer than any oil treatment. It’s like body butter for your cutting board. It weirdly leaves my hands silky smooth too.

Yikes, this all sounds like a lot of work! I don’t have a whole lot of time, how often do I have to do this moisturizing business?

More often in the beginning, and less so as you go along. But really, board maintenance only takes about a minute and is really worth it. Now I rub my board down every four or five weeks or so. Sometimes more often, sometimes less often depending on how much I have been using it. Do it at night before you go to bed. It takes about one minute. Then, clean it up later. This also takes about one minute.

Once you get in the habit of it, you will find that you don’t even think about it anymore.

Remember: Don’t leave your wooden board in standing water. Don’t scrub it with rough scouring pads. Don’t put wood in the dishwasher. Peer-reviewed research has been done that shows that wood is naturally antibacterial, so don’t kill yourself trying to “disinfect” it.

For more cutting board maintenance, I refer you to the John Boos boys.

Cookware Recommendation: Cast-Iron Skillet

“Believe me, you could get by without me. You could keep on keeping on with your light-weight, dinged-up thing with all that Teflon coating flaking off in scales. But you would be a fool to dismiss my superior heat distribution and non-toxic non-stickiness for that. Come on, I dare you. Go on, fry me!”


• Get the 12-inch skillet, 2-inches deep. You won’t regret it.

• Most cast-iron sold nowadays is pre-seasoned, but you will probably find that you will need to reseason it from time to time.

• If you can find some great, greasy, vintage cast-iron at a garage sale, buy it!

• Yes, there are lids. Tempered glass, oven-safe ones. Hooray! Buy them here.

• Ever exfoliate with a sugar scrub in the shower? Notice how nicely moisturizer gets absorbed by your skin afterwards? Your pan likes scrubs too. Seared on crud got your cast-iron surface sticky? Heat your pan over high heat for a minute or two. Sprinkle a teaspoon of salt on your pan with about a teaspoon of vegetable oil. Using an old rag, scrub. Wipe out the salt from your pan. Buff it with a clean corner of your rag. Let cool.