06/10/2008 01:29 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Death of the American Chef

Two weeks ago I attended the 89th Annual National Restaurant Association trade show in Chicago, my industry's main yearly event. The first thing I saw as I walked into McCormick Place was a huge sign advertising the two celebrated keynote speakers of the event: McDonald's Corporation CEO Jim Skinner and Senator John McCain. As I toured the show, I couldn't help thinking how the choice of speakers perfectly encapsulates the wrong-headed values that prevail in much of the restaurant business today.

The choice of McDonald's wasn't a surprise. I'm always hoping the mainstream aspects of my industry will be evolve in terms of taste, a rather naïve prayer, I suppose. But I was truly thrown by the choice of Senator McCain, and disappointed, especially given the early support the Las Vegas union showed for Barack Obama. What was it that attracted my industry to McCain? Was it his stance against mandatory health care? Immigration reform? Higher expense accounts?

I grew up in a liberal Democratic household, and, as I've made the transition from employee to employer, I've been committed to keeping the socially conscious values my parents instilled in me. Industry support for McCain sends the wrong message. Is being socially concerned, sympathizing with the plight of your workers (the restaurant industry has a high percentage of unskilled labor) such bad business? I've never understood how the Restaurant Association preaches safety in the workplace, yet most cooks can't afford to see a doctor.

As I walked around the show, it was impossible to escape the fact that the restaurant business is taking aggressive steps to cut labor and service and maximize profits. It's not hard to imagine a time when chefs, as we know them---people trained in purchasing and preparing raw food products---will be obsolete, except in individually owned restaurants. The restaurant industry will deny this as an agenda, but from booth to booth at the National Restaurant Show, the message was clear: fire the chefs and buy food from a central factory.

The amount of processed food available to the industry has grown tenfold in the past fifteen years, and, not coincidentally, at the same time, there has been an explosion of corporate chain restaurants, from "high end" steak houses to fast food joints. These restaurant corporations have found that purchasing processed food, or manufacturing their own food products at a central factory and shipping it to their outlets, is good for their bottom line. They're able to increase profits by needing less labor for cooking on site: have a factory make and freeze mass quantities of, for example, lasagna that freshly-made might take several chefs in each outlet. In addition to cutting costs, this manufactured food gives them a product that is consistent at each outlet, and consistency is key to spreading the brand.

The savings are passed on to the customers. For a lot of busy working people, dining out is a way of life, and millions of Americans daily eat in chain restaurants. The relatively low cost makes them hard to resist for cash-strapped families.

Today a restaurant can purchase processed or frozen food for each of the three meal periods. The big selling point is "Just thaw, heat, and serve!" Next time you're traveling on business, wander down to the hotel's breakfast buffet and try to figure out what's freshly-cooked and what's thawed, heated, and served. Chances are most of it is the latter: muffins, croissants, scones, waffles, pancakes, sausages, bacon, breads: all these and more are regularly used. I always have fruit and oatmeal in the morning when I travel, and there's no longer a guarantee that's even going to be fresh! I found an exhibitor at the show selling packaged pre-cut fruit for use on buffets. The array of frozen ready-to-fry options for lunch, dinner, and bar snacks was even scarier (Is there a jalapeno alive that hasn't been stuffed and breaded?).

Sadly, at the National Restaurant Show, any representations of the slow food movement or of organic and sustainable eating seemed to be relegated to small booths in an obscure section of the convention center, kind of like they were sticking the crazies in the corner.

The long-term health consequences of so many people eating so many processed foods, so far removed from their natural sources, aren't known, but a look around at our ever-expanding waistlines gives us a hint.

With so many people eating out regularly, it's not much of a stretch to say that wholesome fresh cooking has left the home. And, with the proliferation of inexpensive corporate chain restaurants, it looks like it's leaving the restaurant industry, too.