A visit to the Cheesecake Factory In Suburban Cleveland, or, How To Use a Fancy Pants Word Like “Insipid” Twice In a Two-Minute Video (insipid: 1. without flavor, tasteless 2. not exciting or interesting, dull; lifeless).
A week or so ago I made fun of author and journalist Kelly Alexander after she wrote an article in praise of the Cheesecake Factory. She quickly issued a challenge by email: “OK, Ruhlman: A wager is in order, clearly. If you go to the Cheesecake Factory, taste that miso salmon, and after that can honestly tell me it doesn’t rock, I will not only pay for your salmon but will personally buy 15 copies of Ratio. If you go and eat it and then concede that it tastes good, you have to blog KELLY ALEXANDER IS RIGHT ABOUT THE SALMON AT THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY. Deal or no deal?”
Watch the above for the actual tasting and response, but beyond that, the whole visit brought up for me all kinds of questions about why my gut reaction was opposed to the CF. Was it simple unexplored snobbery? Or is the place truly reprehensible?
As it happened a friend had organized a lunch, four high school friends welcoming a fifth back to town. I suggested the CF, saying I would explain. (That it required an explanation, says a lot.)
“I never ate here because the name turned me off,” said DH perusing the menu. “Do you think the Roadside Sliders are made of possum?”
The menu runs 20 laminated pages, many filled with full-page ads for Coke and Carnival Cruise Lines and Alberto Men’s Pants.
DL said, “There are 92 specialties. How special can they be?!”

Beside the dish filled with foil-wrapped pats of butter was a second menu, with still more “specials.” There is indeed a lot to choose from.

We ordered five entrees (lunch-sized portions, except for the salmon): the crispy beef, an Asian-style stir-fry, the salmon, chicken piccata, pasta carbonara and eventually the fish tacos. The salmon, as described above was delicious–juicy, flavorful, excellent miso glaze, just the right amount of sweetness, the sauce was buttery/creamy but lacked the acidity that would have added a lot to an already sweetish dish. The crispy beef was indeed crispy, lightly coated and deep fried I suspect, then tossed in a sweet sour sauce and al dente green beans. I’m a sucker for this dual cooking technique and enjoyed this the most.
The piccata was fine, but more to the point, it would have been fine even if you didn’t like boneless skinless chicken breas
I’d ordered the carbonara because it’s so simple and one of the best pasta dishes there is and I wanted to see how the CF handled this classic. The waitress asked if I wanted chicken on it. I asked “Why I would want chicken on it?” She said, “You’re just like my husband, I don’t know why.” (She was very nice, btw—all service was prompt, friendly and attentive.)
The carbonara came dressed in a cream sauce and was garnished with peas (where did this peas thing come from—CF is not the only one).

The friend beside me, LJ, said, “It’s a guilty pleasure, liking bad pasta,” as he polished off the carbonara.

And the fish tacos, which we ordered on the fly, were all about texture, since the fish didn’t have a flavor of it’s own. But the texture and the garnishes were enjoyable, as was the fact that you could eat a few tacos and not feel stuffed. That, the beef and salmon were winners. The lay-ups, the piccata and carbonara were like muzak versions of the real thing. Portion size was generous. By the end even LJ was too full to taste the White Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut Cheesecake that he’d wanted to order for his lunch entree.

So, clearly, decent food can be had at more than reasonable prices, but it takes some careful choosing on a menu with more than 200 offerings. The biggest drawback is the mall-like atmosphere, a sense of faux everything that is perhaps inevitable in any large chain. The fact that any of the 146 CFs around the country can put out this astonishing variety of food is an impressive work of corporate organization and efficiency.

But I left feeling sad, and not sure why. I think, on reflection it was because of the sense that what we’d just experienced was simply a company responding to the demands of America, and the demands of America were helping us to take our food one step backward rather than one step forward, and I don’t think we have time for backward steps.

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129 Wonderful responses to “Cheesecake Factory:
The Alexander Challenge”

  • Emily

    I’m still stuck on the first frame of Michael’s video – how in the world does the Ottoman architecture relate to the restaurant concept housed inside? Is that the first attempt to get diners prepared to try something “ethnic?”

  • Tags

    Is it true that Eric Mangini saw your video and decided to open a Cheesecake Factory in the Browns’ training facility in Berea to prepare his players for crowd noise?

  • Dick Black

    For your next restaurant review could you do a piece on P.F.Changs ?

  • Dervin

    The charge of “snobbish” is appropriate in this case. The writer, having a low opinion of the CF, has a reasonably enjoyable meal, he described three of the dishes as “winners,” one was “fine” and the last was insipid/bad.

    Yet that makes the writer sad? One can only conclude the writer is truly disappointed in himself, a chain restaurant gave him a decent meal. How could he look his fellow foodies in the eye ever again. Will his readers trust the writer’s palate?

    “Why yes, Ruhlman suggested we should go to The French Laundry, but he’s also the guy who called the Salmon at CF delicious. Should we really trust him?”

  • carri

    Of course the Salmon and some of the other food tasted good (and I’m quite sure there is a whole staff of people somewhere coming up with the exact ‘flavor compounds’ to make sure it’s good every time!), otherwise why would a place like this flourish. It’s the means by which they accomplish it that’s the problem! As the wife and mother of salmon fishermen who are in Bristol Bay being put on limits by their processors, I think if these fish could be harvested, Cheesecake Factory could indeed afford to put wild salmon on their menu.

  • Tags

    It’s more likely that he’s sad that the Cheesecake Factory formula is capable of tasting OK even to him. Michael knows that the source of the sweetness is cheap High Fructose Corn Syrup and he knows that the fat used in the cheesecake is not butter but cheap hydrogenated oil. The source of sadness here is that the agribehemoth hegemony comes from spending just enough to fool people, and Michael knows people will be fooled enough to continue eating the garbage that the big food conglomerates dole out while restricting competition from real food.

    Food corporations are like any corporation in that they exist solely to make money. How they differ is that, like the tobacco and pharmaceutical companies, what they sell (and control) affects everyone’s health.

  • Walter Pemican

    The comments here only confirm my belief that “foodies” are the biggest bores in the world. God almighty, get a life.

  • sbp

    The sadness for me comes from the fact that every dish is designed so that a neophyte can prepare it to taste exactly the same way every single time. You hear about the artist who devotes himself to painting the same tree over and over. Because he knows no two paintings will be the same, and the nuances can be revealing.

    Good cooking can be the same — especially if you don’t slavishly follow a recipe. Each time I make a curry, for example, it’s going to be a bit different. Sometimes I have kaffir lime leaves, so I throw them in. Sometimes I don’t. I learn something each time, and appreciate the different results.

    Beyond just the taste, the assembly line mentality is what sucks the soul from places like CF. As mentioned, if you were a real cook working there, it would probably be quite depressing.

  • chef gui

    “But I left feeling sad, and not sure why. I think, on reflection it was because of the sense that what we’d just experienced was simply a company responding to the demands of America, and the demands of America were helping us to take our food one step backward rather than one step forward, and I don’t think we have time for backward steps.”

    This is the most sensible thing i’ve heard in a long time.

    Ruhlman rules.

  • Pete

    Yes-the food there isn’t incredibly creative or innovative, or even necessarily good.
    Yes-it’s full of ingredients that are either unhealthy or not environmentally friendly/sustainable or local.

    But if I weren’t a person already interested in food, reading most of the comments from this post wouldn’t make me want to expand my gastronomic horizons, they would just piss me off. The post itself isn’t very snobbish, but it seems like a lot of the comments are. There are obvious important issues associated with what and how we eat, but an education in these issues has to get beyond the us (the educated and healthy) vs. them, locally owned vs. big corporation argument. These kind of arguments only appeal to a certain demographic and are therefore ineffective at reaching the people that we are criticizing.

    The problem to me seems to be one of a general disinterest in the process by which things are made. We’ve become a results oriented culture, and apparently have little interest in the means by which the results are obtained. People want a fast meal and don’t appreciate the means by which it’s made. We want a diploma so we can get a good job but don’t want to actually take part in the process of education. It seems to be a part of a larger cultural phenomenon to me.

  • Lamar

    I really don’t mind big business, in fact I have no ill will toward “big oil” or “big tobacco” or what have you. At the end of the day they simply have to provide people what they want (or convince them they want it).

    It’s what people seem to be wanting that bothers me. I run a family bakery, and we work very, very hard to make products that are truly something special. What spooks me lately is that only people over the age of 50 or so seem to really appreciate the stuff. Most people younger than 40 seem to have been fed so much insane crap growing up that their taste buds are pretty much useless (they can detect very salty, very sweet, and not much else).

    Our business is embarking on a campaign to educate young people about how to eat well (and cheaply), just to make sure that we can survive past the next two decades. I don’t mind marketing our products, but the fact that we’re having to downright evangelize the concept of eating actual, real food is just disturbing to me.

  • luis

    yes, Sarah this is why I think most food in other countries unless freshly catched is mostly stews, roasts, soups and braises. You know methods that are guaranteed to kill bacteria. The quality control here in the US is what enables some to the crudo,tar tar, rare undercooked thing…
    I guarantee you that one wild ride on the porcelain throne will cure most anyone from this elitist palate malfunction.

  • Lawrence

    It is a sad indication that this chain of food establishments is what mainstream America considers decent food. I must interject that this is more than one step backwards in our nations culinary growth. As most Chefs would agree, we as a whole have pretty iron clad stomachs, we kitchen folk can tend to eat anything (and do), but three out of four visits to the CF since the mid 90’s have left me ‘hugging the bucket’ and vowing never to return. Have not been back since ’01. You are a better man than I for accepting the challenge. There are far too many food establishments in this world to try to accept sub par chains like CF.

  • cybercita

    one of my friends moved to florida a few years ago. she wanted to take me someplace nice for dinner, so we went to the cheesecake factory. i’m still teasing her about that one.

  • comcast plus

    Michael, you have done a noble service for us: eating there so we don’t have to. I thought the division of food and atompshere was a good distinction. At many chains, the food really isn’t that bad. Certainly, many survive on that “melting some cheese on this can only make it better!”, but many offer good food, sometimes consistently, sometimes buried among the garbage.

    But the thing I find about chains (and yes, I live in this country and I’m forced to eat at some sometimes as well) is the soul-crushing sameness and schlok. CF is the worst offender among them, but certainly not the only one.

  • Cheryl

    There have been a few times that I’ve eaten at CF – mostly because I hate to rock the boat when friends want to go and they seem so enthusiastic about the place. My ears perked up to hear that there might be a dish or two that’s not too terrible and it’s good to tuck that info away in case I have to go there again. However, my big mistake was looking up the nutritional info on the dishes in the post. The pasta carbonara – over 2,000 calories, 81 sat fat, and 1.2 Gms sodium. The salmon – nearly 2000 calories and over 2 Gms of sodium. Crispy beef – over 1500 calories and a whopping 3 Gms of sodium! I had to stop looking at more dishes – it’s too depressing. I don’t mind blowing my diet for food that’s good, but for anything on the CF menu?

  • lb

    “was it simply unexplored snobbery?”

    Yes. Lots of people are guilty of it, and it’s not that horrible a failing if you own up to it. Which, by the way, you didn’t.

    That’s why you feel sad.

  • Chris

    I’ve been to CF (the one in Legacy Village/OH): Once. Never again. First, if you make a reservation for 5, and only 4 people are standing there, they put your group at the back of the line.

    The wait staff took forever, never got the drinks right, then never stopped back to refill them.

    The cheesecake was not that great, not enough to put up with the headache.

  • Tags

    It’s not hard to see why this topic has such sturdy legs and stamina. The food one is served is closely tied to one’s ego. The benchmark for how much a host respects somebody is how much trouble this host takes to assure that the guest’s food is satisfactory.

    I strongly suspect that the best diet would be to first travel to Kyoto or Osaka and eat the very best foods lovingly and assiduously prepared, then return home where everything placed before you seems like an affront to your very dignity.

    What inspired this idea was reading MFK Fisher’s introduction to Shizuo Tsuji’s “Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art,” which also includes this eloquent quote from New York Magazine’s Alan Rich;

    “by the time shoddiness becomes sufficiently visible…its roots have penetrated deeply.”

  • Wayne

    Great article. I think you were left feeling sad because it shows an underlying laziness pervading the nation. People like this sort of food because its offers a faux experience of diversity without being bad enough that they have to go else where yet being just “good” enough so that it will do. The gastronomical equivalent to the French section of Epcot Center or the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas. Very safe and even when done “right” done without any sort of panache.

  • Lorrie@ReadNEat

    I think many people are drawn to chain restaurants, simply because they do not know the difference. For example, my sister spends her grocery dollars at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, yet thinks farmer’s markets are a novelty and dines often at both Olive Garden and CF. It is as though huge disconnect has come to exist between the concepts of healthy food and the realities of healthy food choices.

    Due to genius corporate advertising, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have become “hip”, and many, such as my sister, will shop there simply because it is what all her friends are doing. In other words, it has become mainstream, with little thought going into why buying organic food is important, other than to get the trendy reusable shopping totes. Many shoppers do not care about what “organic” means, other than it is a buzz word of the moment.

    As previous commenter noted, CF has such a large menu, because it is targeting the mainstream population. The corporation cares about little else than the bottom line. And, the sad reality is that the same people who spend their grocery dollars at Whole Foods are spending their dining dollars at CF. Corporate food has created a mirage. People are drawn to it, because they do not know the difference.

    I don’t think it’s a matter of being a food snob,Mr. Ruhlman. I think it’s a matter of making educated food choices, and being in touch with where/how our food is produced and the manner in which we consume it. The sadness you describe could be the result of this disconnect.

  • Jeffery

    I have to agree with the commenter who said that CF is much better than the other chains. As someone who prefers non-chain restaurants, I still enjoy CF whenever I go there, which is maybe once a year. I love the deep-fried avocado spring rolls. They’re delicious. I like the portions, too, because I can take some home for lunch the next day. I don’t care for the cheesecake, as I like my onw home baked ones. But I’ve had plenty of bad meals in local restaurants from chefs looking for fame and fortune. Hi-Life in Fort Lauderdale was one. Awful food. Now that was a sad experience, and over-priced. Another superb chain, though small, is Seasons 52. I always have excellent food there, great value, and excellent service. I don’t go to any other chains if I can help it.

  • bob

    Never wanna go to CF.

    By the way – a handy hint to anyone out there interviewing for a restaurant job: If the prospective boss asks you “what’s your favorite restaurant” DO NOT gleefully answer “The Cheesecake Factory!”

    Maybe I’m being an ass… but those resumes always go immediately into the “do not hire” pile.

  • Cynthia

    I went to culinary school with a guy who was paying his way with a stint at CF. He said the restaurant has it’s own handful of mother sauces, which are responsible for the tens of sauces on the menu. Chicken is usually pounded flat, so that it covers more of the plate and you think you’ve got a ton of food when you really don’t. I haven’t been to a CF in years.

  • Jenny

    Is insipid your favorite word?
    Don’t got to a chain restaurant with “Factory” in the name and expect gourmet food, idiot. Also, your snobbish insouciant disdain for what the general public likes pisses me off for some reason.

  • Tara

    I’m not reading through all 126 comments, so forgive me if I repeat something that’s already been noted, but CF has great salads (the 1,000 calorie variety) and their Thai Lettuce Wraps are fun, interactive eating.

    As a chef of a popular, fine dining establishment, I have to admit that CF is a guilty pleasure. The food is tasty and usually doesn’t disappoint. The vinaigrettes and sauces may not blow your mind, and I often wonder what third world country they are actually produced and shipped from. But CF delivers a consistent product. I’ve been to CFs in a few states (not often, but it’s an easy go-to restaurant for the family) and the lettuce wraps taste the same everywhere.

    I can say from personal experience that producing a consistent product each night for the multitudes (my restaurant does 400 on weeknights, 8-900 on weekends) IS the challenge of my job. Cheesecake must have some corporate kitchen and shipping methods because there is not training on earth that could produce that kind of consistency for those kinds of numbers!

    Love your blog, BTW.

  • Kanani

    I know why you felt bad. It’s over the top. There’s too much. And I have the feeling that people leave CF having downed their food and not really having a memorable experience.

    When I was a kid, my parents would take us to a Basque restaurant. They didn’t offer very many dishes, but I always got the most delicious farm-raised lamb with in-season vegetables. It wasn’t anything special, but the taste was amazing. So much so, that I remember it to this day.

    And that’s why I think some dining experiences leave one feeling empty. It’s because they try to do too much, instead of focusing on something simple and special.

  • Melissa Hebert Meola

    What I don’t like about the Cheesecake Factories is all the different kind of cheesecakes.

    Cheesecake is a beautiful thing, and CF smothers it in over-gilding. The smooth, creamy, tangy goodness of cheesecake is lost under all that caramel, Oreos, over-sweet glazes, chocolate, nuts, etc.

    This may be heresy, but chocolate and cheesecake don’t work well together. The flavors bring out the worst in each other.