A while back I was reading the paper and came across an article stating that Olive Garden no longer salted their pasta water. “Oh my God!” I said to my husband sitting across the breakfast table from me.
“What?” Came a mutter from behind the sports page.
“No wonder Olive Garden’s tanked.”
“Hm?” Baseball scores surely more exciting than the culinary crashing of chain restaurants.
I care about chain restaurants less than I care about baseball scores but this story hit a note with me, calling up my chef days when I was, honestly, an anal retentive bitch. (Being a perfectionist is reserved for us with particularly strong stomachs.)
Salting pasta water. This, in the days of twelve-hour work days when I was the only girl in the kitchen and happened to be the boss of all the boys, was my second peeve, next to ensuring hot plates for hot food and chilled plates for cold food.
Not only salting the water as you cooked the batch of pasta in preparation for that night’s meal, but salting the water in the pot on the back of the stove reserved for dunking the cooked pasta before tossing it into the sauce before serving. It was an item on all my prep lists: “pot of boiling salted water.” It was a finger dip to tongue when checking stations before service when I was a high-volume chef at international World’s Fairs, roaming multiple kitchens, checking stations, quality, par stocks and the sobriety and mental health of my cooks. And it was the thing most forgotten, ignored, or, were my male cooks aiming to dunk pasta into tasteless boiling water on purpose? Who would know except the patron tasting a wonderful pasta sauce, then biting into a bland noodle, this noodle thing not at all holding up its end of the taste bud bargain in the dish.
Unsalted pasta water drove me nuts. It was a frustration that all frustrations pointed to. It was what caused me often to say, “God if I could only clone myself!” It was the thing that represented how hard it was to get people to do what I wanted them to. I went from explaining nicely, “The flavor of the sauce needs to penetrate the pasta,” to my frustrated, overworked screech: “Salt the f_ _ _ing pasta water!”
I once explained to an old boyfriend with an artistic culinary mind, a resident of the Florida Keys, where chain restaurants are as rare as wild white truffles, why chain restaurants were so popular. “It’s all in the consistency; most people like to know what to expect when they go out to eat.” I finished off with something I learned in restaurant management school: “And, unfortunately, consistently bad restaurants fall into this category.”
So, Olive Garden: if you make it, it doesn’t say much for the dining public, who, I guess would freak out of the pasta sauce flavor would actually penetrate the pasta.
Okay, rant over, you can go back to the sports page now.