Over at City of Ate Scott Reitz talks about doneness and the (very Texan and San Franciscan) custom to ask diners to cut open their steak and check if it’s done to their demands:
But here’s the rub. While beef certainly displays visual cues that indicate doneness, you can’t see medium rare, because it’s not a color. It’s a temperature (130 to 135 degrees, if you care.) Doneness should be tested when a steak is back in the kitchen with a thermometer, not table-side with a spotlight. I want my steak to rest easily on plate before I cut into it, end to end.
Scott has a point. Why should quality control be left to the diner? After all, isn’t that what makes us cooks and chefs? The ability to cook things to order?
But that’s only part of it. When I asked the same question in San Francisco I received a pretty depressing answer: diners dislike their food to be touched by cooks. And, said the food critic I was talking to, since everyone knows from Food TV that doneness is established by poking meat with fingers, diners seem to be more in favor of testing themselves than letting cooks prod their fare.
That’s of course correct. Unlike Scott’s “thermometer” scheme, I poke my steaks with my finger. Thermometers are slow and hold up service. Even the good fast ones from Taylor or Harold take five to eight seconds to read correctly. A touch is faster and as accurate. And can’t be stolen by a scumbag linecook. It’s all in a day’s work and two decades’ experience. A simple experiment at home is to squeeze one’s ear lobe, poke one’s chin and nose. The difference in “springiness” more or less translates into the feel of a 1.5 inch steak when done well, medium, or rare. After a few years I can touch my steaks when plating and know what doneness they are.
Good cooks know, from mere visual inspection before adding the steak to the grill and from experience with differently stored (we store our steaks below the danger zone, for example, so we need more time in the oven to bring it to temperature. Other places store at higher temps and pull smaller batches to avoid leaving them out above the prescribed time) cuts how long a grill and bake will take. Something in the back of my head keeps nagging me at about the right time, even if I am not consciously looking at clocks. Again, that’s what experience brings and what makes me (and tens of thousands of cooks and chefs) different than our self-proclaimed “chef” impostors and culinary school graduates.
Being able to cook steak right is one of our claims to those sixty cents above minimum wage we so dearly deserve. Relinquishing that control to the diner is not now and has not ever been our choice. Instead it’s a combination of Front of the House distrust and diner de-education, namely their unwillingness to concede that, yes, the people in the back of the house actually touch their food. We still do, but by letting diners do a little Quality Assurance on the table we at least add one more illusion to the elaborate construct of letting eaters think they’re as smart as us about food and as in charge as we are.