Keep it fresh!
Written by James Careless
No matter how big or small your restaurant is, freshness really counts
when it comes to ingredients. To make the best possible pizza, you need
to start with the highest quality tomatoes, herbs, cheeses, meats and
|Carmine Accogli, owner and operator of The Big Ragu in Toronto, counts on fresh ingredients to deliver premium taste to his customers.
“As a chef, I can’t imagine not working with fresh ingredients,” says
Carmine Accogli, owner and operator of The Big Ragu in Toronto. “We run
an authentic Roman trattoria-pizzeria. Without fresh ingredients –
especially basil – we couldn’t deliver the same taste to our customers.”
Frozen, canned or pre-made industrial ingredients just can’t compete.
“Fresh ingredients have a taste, feel and aroma that nothing else can
match,” says Tony Sabherwal, president of Magic Oven Franchising Inc.,
which has five Magic Oven locations in Toronto. “There is a real
difference between eating an apple that you have just picked from a
tree and an apple that has travelled 5,000 kilometres and been
preserved in nitrogen.”
To be able to judge how fresh ingredients are, you need to have a
first-hand understanding of freshness. For those who have years of
experience in the restaurant business, or grew up in a family where
cooking and freshness were valued, this knowledge is second nature. But
for those who don’t have such advantages, education is necessary.
Such an education is not something that comes from a book or website;
to understand freshness, you need to get out to farmer’s markets, the
Ontario Food Terminal or other provincial equivalents, where possible,
and anywhere else that fresh produce and meat can be found. One
shortcut: If there is a restaurant in your area with a reputation for
freshness, give them a call and ask to pick the chef’s brain. Chances
are that he or she will tell you where to find fresh ingredients. Other
possibilities include local food clubs, food conventions (for the
industry and the general public) and respected restaurant/hospitality
schools. If in doubt, find someone who knows, and ask!
This said, all of us have a basic idea of what fresh is. We can
recognize the feel and smell of a fresh tomato, the texture and bright
scarlet of fresh meat. But this can’t be done on the phone.
“You need to go the food terminal yourself and get your senses
working,” Accogli says. “There is no substitute for deciding on
freshness yourself, and no better way to get your suppliers to respect
what you need and what you will – and will not – accept.”
Getting freshness from your suppliers
Unfortunately, not everyone is in the position to handpick their
ingredients daily. Take John Curtis, the corporate executive chef for
ClubLink Corporation, Canada’s largest owner and operator of
high-quality golf courses.
Curtis values freshness, but he is not able to visit the Ontario Food
Terminal personally. So he ensures the freshness of his clubs’
ingredients by building relationships with suppliers he can trust. He
does this on an ongoing basis, because suppliers come and go in the
“The place to start in finding worthy suppliers is by talking to other
restaurants and hotels in your area,” Curtis says. “Who do they work
with? Who do they think offers the freshest products?”
Once Curtis has a list of potential suppliers, he personally
investigates their facilities and procedures, to see how committed they
are to freshness.
“You want to see the quality and cleanliness of their warehouses and
trucks,” he says. “You also want to see how their people feel about
their work. Do they take pride in offering the freshest products? Does
everyone care about keeping their produce and meats in the best
possible condition, and delivering them as pristinely as possible? If
you can’t personally pick the produce you are receiving, then you need
to be able to trust the people who do so on your behalf.”
Even after you have identified good suppliers, it is vital to keep a close eye on their deliveries.
“You should never be afraid to send products back if they do not meet
your standards,” says Sabherwal. “I would rather tell my customers that
I’m out of eggplant, than to serve them eggplant that isn’t up to par.”
Curtis agrees: “Your suppliers need to know that you will only take grade A ingredients, and that anything else just won’t do.”
This being said, it is vital to not just demand the best from your suppliers, but to give the same to them as well.
“You cannot overestimate the importance of human relationships in this
business,” says Accogli. “You need to let your suppliers know that you
value them, by treating them well and paying your bills on time. I
pride myself on this, which is why I can count on my butcher sending
over a small $40 meat shipment if I need it.”
Storage and quantities
The downside of freshness is that it doesn’t last that long, even when
you follow the specific rules for storing fruit, meat and vegetables
for maximum life. The problem is that even the best storage cannot
truly preserve freshness.
“I bring in fresh ingredients at least three times a week,” says
Sabherwal. “And I only bring in what I think I will use in one to two
days. Better to have to buy more fresh goods to keep up with demand,
than to have them sit too long in your walk-in and lose flavour.”
For those fresh goods you do store, try to leave them unprepped as long
as possible. In other words, don’t cut and chop your vegetables until
just before they are needed. Otherwise they will be less fresh than
they could be.
The power of freshness
Does finding fresh ingredients require a lot of work? The answer is
“yes,” but the effort pays off by delivering better-tasting products to
entice your customers and keep them coming back. In contrast, customers
know when ingredients are not fresh – from wilted lettuce and foam-like
tomatoes to flavourless meat and too-chewy dough – and they don’t
appreciate the experience. On a fundamental level, it tells customers
that you really don’t care to serve them the best . . . and that’s the
kind of insult that will motivate them to dine elsewhere.
“Freshness is paramount,” Accogli concludes.
James Careless, an Ottawa-based writer, is vice-president of TJT Design
& Communication. He has worked in the restaurant trade doing
everything from food prep to management. His foodservice writing
credits include Canadian Hotel & Restaurant, Restaurant Hospitality
and the Ottawa Citizen.