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Culinary term of the day – miso

Miso. A simple thing, this aged, pureed soybean paste. And yet, it is quite complex in its own way.

According to the book, “How To Cook With Miso” by Aveline Tomoko Kushi (©1978, Japan Publications, INC, ISBN 0-87040-450-4), miso “contains living enzimes which aid digestion, and provides a nutritious balance of natural carbohydrates, essential oils, vitamins, minerals, and protein”.

Miso is also in integral part of Japanese culture. Not only is it seemingly ubiquitous, it also plays an important role in the harmony that the Japanese follow in food preparation and consumption. It is an important ingredient in the concept of yin and yang in food (that is a subject that is beyond the purview of this article; if you are interested, I suggest that you do some Googling). It also has impact on health, as it can be used as a healing paste, or as a tonic to counteract the effects of too much alcohol or tobacco use.

But we in the West seem to only encounter it as the broth in starter soups at sushi restaurants.

I predict that miso will become a “buzz ingredient” in the near future. We’re already seeing some forward-thinking Western chefs incorporating it in more and more dishes. We’re seeing it incorporated in salad dressings and fish broths. It’s a flavor that hs been recognized as a great carrier for “umami”, the famous “fifth flavor profile” of savoriness. When miso broth is augmented with kombu (a specific type of dried seaweed) and dashi (dried bonito flakes), umami is allowed to bloom, especially when you add mushrooms, another ingredient with massive umami characteristics. Addionally, miso has its own umami flavor components.

This is the form that we see it in the sushi restaurant starter soup, that cloudy, rich broth with a couple of slivers of shiitake mushroom and scallions. This soup usually starts with a kombu and dashi stock, and miso is added to give it body.

But miso is more than just a great addition to soup. In the sushi restaurant, we often see it as a major component of the dressing that tops the simple starter salad that accompanies many meals. Restaurants as mainstream as California Pizza Kitchen and Applebees and high-end places like The French Laundry and Nobu have incorporated miso into their menus. Many mainstream restaurants have an “Asian salad”, and it’s almost a certainty that miso is used in the dressing. It gives that slightly earthy quality that one prizes in Asian dressing. And  Nobu Matsuhisa, chef-owner of famed restaurant Nobu, has a signature black cod and miso dish that has become famous.

So, how do you encounter miso in the wild? It’s normally found in plastic wrapped bricks. It almost has the feel of fresh mozzarella; a sort of sensuous pliability. It’s both soft and firm.

What kinds of miso are there?

First of all, it doesn’t have to be fermented soybean, although that’s the most common type that we encounter. It can be made from fermented rice or barley or several other grains, and any of these grains can augment soybean miso. The two most common types of miso that we find in the US are red and white miso. However, as I’ve said, there are several versions of miso. Miso is often made in Japan according to family traditions and each family has their own way of making miso. Here are the different kinds:

Kome miso (rice miso), mugi miso (barley miso), misozuke (miso with pickled vegetables), name miso (salt and eggplant or melon), Tyougou miso, (mixed miso, or miso made from multiple sources), red miso (aged miso), and white miso (normal miso). Occasionally, you come across yellow and black miso as well.

Each miso has its own flavor characteristics. Most of the time, US chefs and cooks will choose between red and white miso. However, don’t be misled, “white” miso isn’t usually white. It’s a lighter shade of “red”. Actually both kinds of miso usually appear to be red-brown. White miso usually looks more beige than white while red miso is more brick-red. And there are variations in all colors, depending on the type of processing and aging involved. white miso is usually sweeter, while red miso has the earthier flavor and lasts longer in storage. white miso usually has a higher proportion of white rice and is better suited for dressings, while red miso has more soybean content, is aged longer and has a more robust and complex flavor perfectly suited for hearty soups and can be used in sauces and braises.

And I think that it’s in main dishes that miso will become a star performer in the future as Western chefs learn its unique properties. Here’s a good example of miso being used as a glaze for halibut:

http://www.grouprecipes.com/46666/citrus-red-miso-ginger-glazed-halibut.html

How is miso made?

It starts with koji, a “starter” of fermented barley, rich, wheat or soybean. Koji is roughly akin to sourdough starter, or the yeast/grain/carbohydrate combo in alcoholic products. The ingredient that koji is made from determines the type of tofu because soybeans usually comprise the bulk of the miso. Koji is then combined with soaked and steamed soybeans and salt. Depending on the type of miso being made, the levels of the various types of koji are adjusted up or down. All miso is aged to a certain degree because additional fermentation is required. For white miso, fermentation is limited to a few weeks, while red miso can be aged up to 18 months.

So, what is the takeaway from all of this?

Miso is an ingredient that will become increasingly prominent in Western cooking and more and more of the general public become exposed to it in mainstream restaurants. We’re already seeing it happen. As a waiter, you should at least know what it is, what its flavor profile is, how you can use it tableside to market dishes that include it. Many of your guests have heard the name but have no clue what it is. It’s your job to gently educate them.

And I hope that more and more of you home cooks incorporate this lovely and nutritious ingredient in your own cooking.

Pride in your restaurant…

…can help you in your interactions with your guests.

Even if you work in a fairly generic restaurant like Chili’s or Applebee’s, surely there’s something in the history of the organization that can be pointed to to distinguish it from every other restaurant in world; sometimes it can even distinguish it from others in the chain.

I work for neither of the above restaurants, but for example:

Chilihead waiter points to picture on the wall, directing the patron’s attention to it – “Did you know that every Chili’s has one picture that hangs upside down? Have you ever noticed this picture and wondered why it was upside down? It’s a tradition that every Chili’s maintains…” Waiter tells whatever story they’re taught about the way the tradition started. If there’s no “official Corporate version”, they make up something outrageous. They also point out, “We’ll be 35 years old this year. We’re very proud to be one of the oldest surviving restaurant chains in the country”.

Or O’Charley’s waiter says, “Did you know that there’s an actual Charlie? He founded our restaurant and he’s still alive and lives in Nashville. We just turned 40 last year. We’re getting pretty good at cooking by now”!

Or an Applebee’s bartender tells a bar patron, “Did you know that our first restaurant was called T.J. Applebee’s Rx for Edibles & Elixirs? Have I got a prescription for you – my special Cosmopolitan features Absolut Citron, Cointreau and fresh squeezed lime juice. Would you expect anything less from the worlds largest restaurant chain? We might be large, but we’re your neighborhood restaurant, right”?

Yeah, I know, the verbiage is a bit corny. I’m not suggesting that you copy these, but you should know your restaurant’s history and be able to integrate relevant parts of it whenever it seems appropriate. Even if you mock your own corporate restaurant to your friends because it’s “too faceless”, “too corporate”, “too impersonal”, etc., remember, as long as you work there, you should take advantage of whatever advantages the corporate history that you were forced to memorize during your training phase offers because, remember, it’s your income. If you find this onerous, I’d suggest that you’re probably not working at a place that is comfortable for you.

If you work at an independent restaurant, you have an advantage. Simply by reminding your guest that your restaurant is locally owned, you put yourself apart from the competition. It’s likely that the history isn’t formally taught in a structured fashion, so you might have to use anecdotes that has been passed around, or, failing that, ask your ownership about the history of the restaurant. You might be able to find some interesting things to relay to your guests.

There’s always a hook somewhere – whether it’s community involvement, the artwork on the wall, the piano that’s 60 years old that was played by Van Cliburn during a visit in the 60s, the menu item that’s been on the menu for 20 years; the list is endless. Every restaurant has something that distinguishes it from every other restaurant. Sometimes it’s sitting right in front of your face.