Contrary to what students might think, life is not like “Hell’s Kitchen,” where food can be discarded with abandon. Here are eight easy and effective ways to teach basic food-cost principles that will serve your students well.
By Adam Weiner, CFSE
I believe that for our students to climb the kitchen ladder of success, it is important to teach them not only also how to cook well, but how to think like a chef. One thing that has always been at the forefront of chefs’ minds throughout the centuries is food costs. In today’s world, food costs, more than ever, can make or break a commercial establishment. (Even if you are only teaching a class to teach people how to cook at home, food costs are still critically important, since food is a very large part of a household budget.)
I start out teaching about food costs on DAY ONE of class using the following two riddles:
- What do you call a chef who doesn’t watch his food costs? UNEMPLOYED.
- What do you call an owner who doesn’t watch his food costs? BANKRUPT.
Now, the beauty of teaching about food costs is that there are no (okay, very little) food costs involved. Every instructor has to love a lesson like that. Here are eight easy steps:
1. Start at Receiving. If you receive product from outside vendors into your classroom, have students take turns checking in the product. Remember to teach them to rotate the product using the first-in, first-out method. This is a good skill to put on their résumé and hits them with reality. You will hear them mutter things like: “This case of eggs costs $27!”
2. Show How Little Money Can Buy. Have your delivery dropped outside your kitchen door. Point to the non-food items and ask your students to guess how much they cost. Point to the food items and do the same. Ask the students to guess the total. Keep this going until you get close to the truth. This morning I had new students guess the total was $200 for non-food and $500 for food, when the actual total was $600 and $1,100, respectively!
3. Discuss Cost Per Item. To further drive the point home, hold up, one by one, very common ingredients used in the kitchen and ask how much it costs. I did this with my students today with the eggs, and they were also shocked that 40 pounds of drumsticks was $55, a pound of butter was around $2.75, and a half-gallon of heavy cream was $8.50.
4. Explain Why. You will be surprised at how many of your students—be it high school, vocational school or college level—do not go shopping. They watch “Iron Chef,” “Hell’s Kitchen” and other shows where expensive ingredients are thrown around as if they are free. Give your students a shopping list and for homework require them to go to a supermarket and price it out. Then, explain to them that just because a commercial establishment is buying it wholesale, it probably isn’t cheaper than Costco, Safeway, Piggly Wiggly or Kroger. Explain that one of the things restaurants and other kitchens pay for is the service of having the product delivered when they want it, where they want it.
5. Bulk vs. Individual. Students need to be taught to think about using and purchasing product in bulk. As Colette says in Ratatouille, “This is not cooking with Mommy.” For example, if you have three groups working on a recipe that calls for ¼ pound of butter, each group will open up 1 pound of butter. If I give my new students a recipe calling for 2 ounces of melted butter, they will melt the whole pound and then go to throw out the remainder.
The reverse side is ordering. Throughout my course, I will assign students to develop a menu and prepare it. They will often want a special product or small order. Inevitably a group will come back with: “We need ¼ teaspoon of rose water” or “we need one chicken breast.” You can then use these requests as TEACHABLE MOMENTS to explain that they have to start thinking like a chef and not like a home cook. Explain that you have to order a whole bottle of rose water and a whole case of chicken breast, and you can’t economically justify that to make one item. Teach them to adapt the recipe to use the ingredients on hand.
6. As Purchased vs. Edible Yield. Students think that if they pay $2 for a 1-pound head of cabbage that the food cost is $2 per pound. I demonstrate the difference by weighing the whole cabbage and having the students calculate what it cost per ounce. I then remove the outer leaves, trim out the stem and re-weigh, and have the students re-calculate the costs per ounce. If you have the budget for it, do this with something with a very high non-usable portion like a bone-in leg of lamb. My favorite for this lesson is to make clam chowder from whole clams. The students are shocked at how much they pay for non-edible shells.
7. Sharpen Their Pencils. Take one or more of the dishes you have demonstrated that the students have recently prepared. Give your students the invoices for the included items. Have your students, in groups or individually, calculate what each plate cost. Want to have more fun? Have them guess the cost of each plate before the calculations.
8. Make Your Students Cost Accountants for a Day. Give them a series of recent invoices. Have each student, individually or as a group, prepare a menu for a dinner for eight. Then have them calculate the actual food costs based on As Purchased vs. Edible Yield.
For the last several months I have been writing about “soft skills.” Next month it’s back to teaching cooking skills: How to teach sautéing neatly, easily, cheaply and without students worrying about burns.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula.