There is an issue with our love for restaurants and eating out here in Australia that most people will not realise. I think the majority of people when walking into a restaurant and choosing their dishes from the menu don’t question whether or not they are going to get what they expect. In my experience as an apprentice chef I was so appalled at what I learned and saw that I threw the apprenticeship away after doing 2 years, rather than lose my love of eating out.
The issue I’m talking about here is ingredient substitution or misleading customers totally regarding what is in their dish. Without naming the places I worked at I can assure you that they both did this regularly, and in discussion with other apprentices and chefs I found this to be a very common practice in Sydney restaurants, and I assume elsewhere as well since it seems to be both endemic and acceptable practice in the industry. I will mention 2 glaring examples here since they are dishes I personally was involved in preparing, with each case at a separate establishment.
The first was selling frozen produce as fresh (in this case seafood), and also changing the name of the fish to increase the profit margin on the dish. In this fairly expensive restaurant on the harbour my job as an apprentice was the preparation of the seafood and cooking the seafood entrees and working the deep fryer.
A pricey entrée on the menu was fresh soft-shelled crab fried in a tempura batter - the crab actually arrived frozen in boxes and was defrosted in buckets of water prior to cleaning. Another pricey entrée was seared fresh scallops - another frozen item bought by the bag (pre-shelled) and defrosted in buckets of water prior to cooking. The main I was in charge of producing was the fish and chips, described as fresh fillets of Pacific Perch lightly fried in a beer batter (and at $23 per plate for 2 slim pieces and a small basket of chips).
This was in fact frozen basa fillets bought for $2 per kilo boxed, which it was my job then to slice each basa fillet into 3 pieces after the water defrost. This gave the restaurant $69 for every 2 basa fillets once it was on the plate. Now I’m not saying the food was bad because it was frozen, as the customers enjoyed their food and many were return customers. But would they have been happy paying the same prices if they knew the seafood was frozen, and that it was basa fillets they were eating, not Pacific Perch? I highly doubt it. This from a popular, well respected restaurant whose owner has a few in Sydney that are highly regarded.
My other experience as an apprentice showed me that placing the word ‘Organic’ on a menu instantly means you can increase the cost substantially as many people are willing to pay highly for organic food. What they also taught me is people have no idea when eating whether it’s organic or not, as the majority of food we served through the store’s café/restaurant used non-organic produce, but the illusion worked because all the produce on the store shelves was organic. Naturally customers who came into a health food, sustainable organic produce and fair trade store expected that everything coming out of the kitchen would also be those things, especially when labelled.
I know it’s a long post but I feel it’s a major problem that people are getting lied to when it comes to their menu choices, and therefore not making fully informed decisions when they part with their cash for a particular dish. The only way you could be fully confident is either to ask to see the kitchen when you order, including the dry store and cool-rooms (good luck with that), or ask the waiter to show you the ingredients prior to cooking (which will not help with the organic substitution anyway, can’t tell by looking).
You won’t see any government agency get involved with this issue to due to the high cost of compliance checks - thousands upon thousands of eateries would need an army to check them all. All I can suggest I guess is that you politely ask the provenance of any ingredients you might be suspect of, and if eating in an establishment stating they serve organic produce you could either ask for proof or simply check where they put the boxes out (organic produce packaging is always clearly labelled that it’s certified).
I’m not trying to scare people away from eating out (a pleasure I still enjoy), but I do want them to think carefully about whether they are getting what they are paying for when doing so.