Covering Shrimp in Formaldehyde and Other Cost-Saving Restaurant Moves

Illustration for article titled Covering Shrimp in Formaldehyde and Other Cost-Saving Restaurant Moves

Hey, you know that stuff they used to temporarily keep grandpa from decaying? Yeah, turns out restaurants use a diluted version of it to keep shrimp clean. It's just one of many cost-saving moves restaurants use to cut corners. Here are some more.


Technically, the formaldehyde solution used to clean mass-produced shrimp is called formalin. The whole thing is FDA-approved, by the way. The point of this is not to shout "ARGY BLARGH TOXIC SHRIMP ARGY BLARGHY BLARGH" like some idiot going on about Subway's yoga mat bread or something, but to point out that restaurants use all sorts of bizarre brain hacks and clever/occasionally weird cost-shaving techniques to save as much money as possible. The Guardian has compiled a list, actually. Here are some highlights:

  • Darden Restaurants, parent company of Olive Garden and (formerly) Red Lobster, apparently instructs their restaurants not to salt their pasta when cooking it, in order to make their pots last longer.
  • Products get renamed from something accurate but unappealing-sounding ("Patagonian Toothfish") to a complete nonsense name that sounds better ("Chilean Sea Bass"). Apparently only two restaurants in the US serve actual Kobe Beef, too, despite hundreds of places claiming to do so.*
  • Menu repositioning. Apparently, customers are far more likely to buy items located in the middle of a menu page, so restaurants will deliberately place the products with the best cost-value margins there.
  • Alcohol gets a crazy mark-up, which should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever ordered a drink in a restaurant. One restaurant was found to sell a bottle of wine that should've cost $2.50 at $15 a pop.
  • Deliberately adding more head to every beer served — turns out people who think this is happening aren't just paranoid. Making sure there's a full inch of head compared to half an inch can mean up to 20 beers saved per keg.
  • Gradually decreasing portions by shrinking plate sizes from 12 inches to 11 inches or thinning the burgers by an ounce and shrinking the buns so customers won't notice.

I've witnessed a lot of these firsthand; "Chilean Sea Bass" was an incredibly popular dish when I worked at McCormick and Schmick's, and I doubt anyone would've bought the special if it had been "Toothfish." In the same vein, any restaurant worker who tells you they haven't seen alcohol marked up to ludicrous degrees is lying through their teeth.

* This part confuses me. How do they get away with this? Do they have a guy named Kobe poke their beef with a stick during the packing process? Does Kobe Bryant have an ownership stake?

Image via Ramona Heim/Shutterstock.

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How to Eat at Restaurants + Cafes Without Getting Totally Screwed

OK - this is a long list of info I've compiled for you. I have extensive experience in food & beverage. My credentials include:

Food writer
Grocery marketer
Private chef
Cocktail server
Restaurant server, manager & host

Also, I grew up in my grandma's house and she ran industrial kitchens for a living. We had a 10-gallon standing mixer in our kitchen. She regularly cooked/baked for hundreds and rarely needed calculations or a cookbook, and I learned from her. We made homemade/from scratch sausages, liqueur, wine, bread, pate, pasta, preserves, canned goods, etc. We grew vegetables, fruits, herbs and berries in our yard. Sometimes, we'd purchase a cow and divide it up with other families. We even churned our own butter! So I know from food.

I promise you that the following information is legit, and can help you get more bang for your buck when going out to eat, plus you will mostly likely choose healthier options.

1) NEVER order beverages in a restaurant if you can help it.

- Soda is a psycho ripoff. The regular stuff is made with the cheapest ingredients and you are paying $1-4 for something that might not even cost the place 1 cent, I am not kidding. Diet soda is fillled with chemicals. "Natural", artisan or organic sodas are a better option, but are rarely available. Solution? Bring in your own powdered drink mixes like EmergenC packets or simply ask for lemon slices and deal. Seltzer/soda water is sometimes a nice change, and while mineral water - sparkling or not - is often a ripoff, too, check the source. Some places refill their fancy labeled bottles with regular seltzer. Beware.

- Juice and sweetened drinks are iffy. If there is a bar, the "lemonade" is probably sour mix, and the "cranberry juice" is the cheapest HFCS-filled type. Prepared OJ is often also the cheapest version, which we now know has added artificial flavorings and colorings that the FDA does not require producers to disclose. FYI: when you see the term "natural flavoring" it can actually refer to a fake flavor designed to taste like a natural version, ha ha! We all know that juices and smoothies are not that good for us. Unless the juices and smoothies are fresh-squeezed, and organic, seasonal/local if possible, sans added sugars or artificial crap.

- Instead of iced tea or hot tea, be sneaky and bring in your own teabags. You can ask for hot water and lemon and say you are sick. If they ask about the tea, explain that it is an herbal remedy. Or even better, bring in your own herbal remedy teas! Portable, durable and so much cheaper. I don't feel badly about this because rarely do they offer good-quality tea, and if they do, it is often old. Unless you visit a teahouse or are abroad! Then, the teas will probably be loose-leaf and AWESOME.

- Once you are past the age of 30, you should not be drinking hard liquor or mixed drinks when going out. They are hell on your system, your blood sugar, your hangover, your clean driving record and your wallet. Save mixed drink fun for parties at your place or someone's else's, provided you have a designated driver or a cab. Most under-30 year-olds know to drink at home before going out (again, unless they are driving) or to bring a flask. I'm just saying, it saves moolah. Bars and restaurants are notorious for switching labels, especially in mixed drinks, and they short-pour or water down the alcohol. Many drinks are designed to seem full of alcohol when they really aren't. And so many of today's "liquor" is toxic waste, like flavored vodkas or jewel-toned aberrations. If you must, know your quality and order neat or over rocks.

- Wine is tricky. Paying for a corkage fee is annoying, but you usually save some money. If you must drink wine, do some research and know your prices. Cheap glasses or bottles are usually crap, honestly. If you don't care, fine. If you want to stretch it out, order a glass or bottle with a side of selter or real juice and make your own sangria or spritzer. Bottles are usually better bargains, but not always. Drink to abandon afterwards at home.

- Beer and cider is easier, but still can be a ripoff. Breweries are a safe bet, as are bottled beers you know. Avoid cheap beer if you can, since a quality beer can actually be good for you. Pitchers or yards or even glasses can be switched on you, and sometimes the lines are dirty.

- Bottled water, as mentioned, can be iffy. You will want to order that in certain countries or if the water in the area is particularly chlorinated, etc. An odd thing you can do is to order a pot of hot water (boiling water for tea) and then ask for a glass of ice and mix them (use a metal spoon to stir, and pour slowly, to avoid cracking the glass). Of course the ice is made from tap water, but between the boiling and the freezing you may avoid the strong chlorine taste. Ask for lemon, then wipe off the peel well before squeezing it in (they can be dirty).

- Try your best to bring drinks for kids, as the markup on milk, juice, etc. is high even for small portions, but sometimes they come with the meal or are "only" 1$.

- I would say make your coffee at home, but I live in Seattle and ordering coffee out is a religion. Think of it as rent while you work or socialize at the coffeehouse for a bit. ;) Rarely is the coffee worth it at a restaurant, but at certain ethnic places - Turkish comes to mind- it's a special treat and prepared very differently, so go for it.

2) Avoid appetizers. Often, appetizers are made from food they couldn't move earlier. Small amounts of valuable ingredients are showcased among fillers, and the overall cost is very high for what you get. Plus, you will end up taking in more calories, even if you take some of your meal home in a doggie bag later. Instead of having a small portion, ask what they would charge for an "entree size" - you may get away with a better deal. Or, only purchase one appetizer to share and then split an entree with someone - that is actually a really good deal, since meals are often loaded with filler and we eat with our eyes. Repeat this mantra: "we can always order more"; and then order less to start.

3) Bread is a fool's game. Rarely is it ever truly fresh or housemade. Often, it has been tossed in your basket from another table (after being refreshed in a warmer). If it is fresh and housemade, and you can handle the gluten and carbs, then enjoy (lucky bastard you) but know it is designed to make the meal seem far more sumptuous than it is. Do your best to avoid it. The olive oil offered may be a really cheap one. If you use butter, you might save some calories, believe it or not. I know it's hard to resist. However, if the bread is stale or dry, ask for fresh. Try to eat as little as possible, or it will stuff you and ruin the meal. Plus, you will fall asleep later while watching Netflix.

4) Choose wisely. Do your research. Ask around, pay attention and read reviews. Generally speaking, you will pay more for quality, but for a celebration or if you're loaded, it's worth it. There are approximately 3 tiers of places you can go:

Cheap/Terrible - most fast food and franchise restaurants fall under this category, plus places that cut corners and use industrial foods, like primarily Sysco or Costco, etc. You are paying for the stuff you can get at a cheap grocery chain. Not much is done to gussy up the food, the sauces and dressings are bottled and from mixes. Everything is as cheap as it can get. Think IHOP or Denny's or McDonald's and their local equivalents.

Not Bad/OK - these places are trying, but still rely on shortcuts and use lots of prepared foods. The prices may seem more appealing, but you are still not getting the quality or value you might think you are getting. "Higher end" chains fit here and mom and pop places that aren't trying hard enough.

Good to Great - places that care make things from scratch and use local, seasonal, whole and organic ingredients whenever they can. Obviously, top-of-the-line places — out of reach for most of us — often offer the 'cream of the crop', but some places are more reasonable yet still provide quality food. The kind that have the long lines and are hard to get reservations for (one exception: hyped up BS places designed by PR machines). Then again, a good down-home BBQ joint can be excellent, if rough looking. Some dives are truly divine.

5) Don't order items that don't belong. Fresh seafood should be ordered only if you are close to the sea and that's where it actually came from. Often Atlantic salmon (farmed) is served on the West coast. Some fish is renamed, yes, and still other fish is swapped on you. There are pamphlets that show which fish is low in mercury and which you should order wild-caught; print them out and keep them with you. The special catch of the day is sometimes a great deal, although often it is just the item they have an abundance of (due to a great deal or overfishing). Local joints are best for value, like lobster and crab shacks, or seafood restaurants near working piers (as opposed to recreational piers). Avoid tourist spots. Understand that most "fresh" seafood is actually prefrozen, like crab and shrimp, but some does not have to be. There is too much info to learn, so go read up, but you want your scallops and clams to be fresh, otherwise they are watery and chewy, for example. Sashimi grade is important for uncooked fish. Many high end sushi places still offer surimi (fake krab) which is made of pollock, potato starch, gelatin and artificial ingredients. A chef I know once ran out of chicken and served a dozen "Halibut Parmesans" instead. Only two came back. Be wary. And that was just a brief overview of seafood/fish. If it's a local specialty or you are in an ethnic region, you will do well. Nothing like Chinese from Chinatown.

6) Only order dessert if it's made there, and even then, split it. The portions are obnoxiously huge, and after a rich meal, it's a bad idea to try to ingest such a load of sugar, fat and carbs. Don't order ice cream in the cooler months - it has been sitting a while. Crumbles and pies are often made from ingredients that didn't move somewhere else. Bread puddding is very likely made from a lot of leftovers, including quite old bread (but that's what it was originally designed to do). However, these "homey" desserts are really easy to make at home or buy in a nice grocery store. Order things that are spectacular, like baked Alaska or burnt cream or ethnic desserts you wouldn't know which ingredients to buy for. Cakes in restaurants can be fairly old, and they go stale, as they are refrigerated and not often covered adequately and don't sell that fast. Pies get soggy. Cooks rarely like to bake - it's just extra work to them, so unless there is a pastry chef, just don't do it. Remember to order the desserts in advance for birthdays or if they take a while. Tip: cheesecake is a bad idea. It's either been frozen previously, made in a processor - which makes it gummy - or has a soggy crust from sitting. Make a homemade NY cheescake instead, tomorrow, and then thank me.

7) Pay attention to the makeup of the dish you are ordering. Imagine it in parts or groups. If most is filler, it's probably a ripoff. Whole foods rule. Generally, order foods you have trouble making at home or that take a lot of time, require complex preparation, expensive or exotic ingredients and/or complicated equipment. House-made fresh pasta is worth it; dried rehydrated is NOT. Meatloaf is NOT worth it; spit-roasted meats are. Even good quality deep fried foods are worth it - as long as they use good quality oils and change them frequently. A nice stirfy with a variety of veggies you don't often have is a great choice.

8) Soup, stews, fritattas/quiche and casseroles are usually designed from leftovers, unless they are signature house dishes, like chowders or waterzooie (a special Belgian stew). That means items that didn't move and got old were used. The consistency is not always there, and these are tasty foods you can make at home or purchase ready-made. Not a lot of skill is involved, but a lot of fillers are used, and these also can last for weeks in cold storage. However, don't discount an "old" chowder - any old salt will tell you that new chowder is too thin, watery and flavorless. You want it be thickened and savory. Not every rule is universal.

9) Haven't I met you before? If you are willing, read some trade magazines and be aware when shopping - you will notice that the same exact foods are sold in various restaurants and chains (and cafes) that are sold prepared in stores - especially big box stores - and through food services. Those Tex Mex eggrolls are served with different sauces in CPK, Chiles and Cheesecake Factory, but also at many of your "local authentic" Mexican places. They try to gussy them up with various preparations, names and garnishes, but it's the same butternut squash pasta, meatballs or quiche from the frozen food aisle.

10) Look for clues. Go CSI. Is the shrimp cleaned? If not, you better know most of the food is cheap and ill-prepared. Are the bathrooms dirty, gross or uncared for? Don't even bother peeking into the kitchen - and leave! Is the sauce terrible - does the hollandaise taste fake? Don't come back. What is in the dumpster out back? Big used containers of cheap oil or mayo and opened cans of vegetables? Can you see those huge plastic containers of cheap dried spices? Is the parmesan powdered? Is the gravy strongly flavored with stale spices? On the flip side, are there lots of fresh veggies and herbs? Do the sauces taste like they took time? Are there deep, savory flavors? A real pepper grinder on the table is a good sign, as is an array of interesting hot sauces.

11) The ketchup you are eating may be 10 years old. They "marry" bottles, letting "newer" ketchup slide into older bottles at the end of the night. Almost no one ever cleans them out or replaces them. Yuck. And few restaurants use homemade, natural or organic versions, which they should. Really good catsup is amazing. It's not a sign of a poor restaurant, unfortunately, as even some of the most discerning still use the big cheap HFCS brands. Maybe bring your own and start a revolution.

12) Dressing and salads can be a mish mosh. I once asked a chef at a fairly swankly cafe I worked at what the coleslaw recipe was and he began with, "Take one bottle of cole slaw dressing..." And this place was KNOWN for homemade! Most of these have MSG, thickeners and sweeteners, besides other fillers. And the salad veggies are often kept "crisp and fresh" using chemicals - you can taste them. Never order tomatoes outside of summer months.

13) Take a chance. Try the house specials, what is highly recommended (by dependable servers) and the exotic ethnic dishes you are curious about. Go for broke at a fancy place and let the server or chef order for you (be very clear on what you cannot or will not eat, however, beforehand). Some chefs and staff are eager to share the best they have to offer, but most of us go by the tried and true. Be daring, but also be willing to cope if it isn't the best thing ever. It probably will be, though.

14) ASK. Ask for extra sauces. Ask for specific preparations. Ask for ingredient and side swaps. Ask for stuff on the side. Ask for condiments. Ask for fresh herbs to be sprinkled on ("do you think they could add some cilantro or chives?") Ask what goes into the dishes. Ask for the meal you enjoyed last time that's not on the menu today (I once had a lovely Greek chef prepare a stifado - fish stew - for me that is out of this world, but was not featured that night). If they can do it, they will. Ask the locals, too - they will usually steer you well. It's an obvious suggestion, but to make it work, as several.

15) As in real estate, there is a vernacular. "Charming" in real estate terms means small. 'Petite' in restaurant terms quite literally means small, but still sounds better. Fresh is overused, and may be a lie. Cuts are confusing, so print out a chart if you are intrigued. Get to know your butcher and fishmonger - they are bored out of their minds and would LOVE to share their knowledge. Know what you are ordering or ask for an explanation, even if the terms are intimidating. Many chefs/managers ought to be more clear in their menus, but either don't want to or don't realize it. Au poivre means with pepper, like pretty much every dish on earth, but it sounds amazing, doesn't it? Confit somehow seems to evoke a sweet dish, but is actually a meat or fowl cooked in its own fat. Barding is not spouting off Shakespeare, but is what happens when you wrap up a filet in bacon and then roast it (YUM). Of course, we all have the Food Network, the interweb food blogs and our smartphones to help, but asking is faster and sometimes more accurate.

16) Do not underestimate the power of a lemon. Or capers. Or saffron. Or a special vinegar. A good chef knows to balance flavors and adds these ingredients to enhance a dish. Even if you hate olives, they might make a dish of paella unreal. Trust. Tip: always add some fresh squeezed lemon to your ketchup and tomato sauces - it brings out a level of sweetness you will be amazed by.

17) Bring your own sweeteners if you are going to have coffee or tea. Many places offer cheap sugars and sweeteners, but you can carry packets of stevia, raw sugar, or xylitol or even honey sticks with you (most restaurant honey has been stored dehydrated for years prior to being rehydrated to use.) Preserves, jams and jellies offered are sometimes the lowest quality - especially if they just dump a pile of mini containers on the table. Bring a cute little jar of the real stuff, or better yet, visit restaurants that offer those. And many breakfast places - even really good ones - often try to push "table syrup" on you - fake maple syrup is a waste and a pity. Ask for real (you may have to pay extra; in my opinion it's worth it) or bring in a small bottle of your own.

18) If there is too much going on, be wary. A long list of ingredients sometimes is expected, as in Indian food. But otherwise, it can be a sign that the chef is inexperienced or they are covering low quality main ingredients with a blend of flavors to mask the truth. However, the complexity of a well made demi glace or slow-smoked meat is a different story. Marinades and rubs should have a lot of elements.

19) The perfection and consistency you get at chain restaurants is due to overmanipulation of the food, not just strict adherance to procedure. Items are designed to be preportioned, easy to store, reheat and to prepare. The Olive Garden uses plastic-sealed entrees they reheat and plate. So does Panera bread and so many other places. You can buy boil in bag food in the frozen aisle, too!

20) Know that there are lots of other shortcuts to avoid. Some places don't let their veggies roast low and slow - which transforms them into something transcendent! Or they only use dried herbs, which is a hollow shame. Most use prepared dough, or don't age/proof their doughs properly. There is an old wive's tale that certain kitchens/bakeries have yeast and particles in the air from years of baking that enhances their baked goods, but that's probably a stretch. However, sourdough starters - wet yeasts passed down from generation to generation - flavor breads in Amish towns and in San Francisco marvelously. East coast pizzerias age their dough, and use aged cheeses which are oilier and give off more flavor. They also use a higher heat older oven. Many famous steak houses "age" the meat, but they overcharge like crazy and still often accompany these pricey cuts with low-quality sides. Few make the marinades, rubs or gravies from scratch. The difference between a canned gravy and one made from a deglazed pan is enormous. Simmering and roasting should take time. A good baked potato from an oven or roaster or firepit is worth it. Slow-roasted tomatoes are a revelation. As are truly caramelized onions or sweet roast garlic cloves. You may have to wait longer at higher quality places, but boy is it worth it!

21) If you haven't worked at a food service job, you must at least once in your life. You learn so much, and you are then qualified to order food, tip and enjoy properly, IMHO. Unless you understand what is going on in the kitchen, you will have a hard time appreciating it, knowing what to do or ask, and being patient where you need to be and demanding when it is truly warranted.

22) Don't eat the garnishes. Unless you are at a top-tier place. Otherwise, they may be old and dirty and...reused.

Bon appetit! And read Anthony Bourdain's books about being a chef for more eye-opening tips, like don't order fish on Mondays-Wednesdays, etc.