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”

  • David Loomis

    As the videographer of this CF adventure, I’d have to agree with all of Mike’s comments (though I wouldn’t have used the word insipid. I admit to looking it up after lunch to see what it really meant). At lunch I told the story of a town I recently visited where we couldn’t find a local restaurant. Truth is, America has only itself to blame for generating the demand for this lack of authenticity. If people didn’t go, the supply wouldn’t exist. Is it all crap? Of course not. But we’ve probably starting fooling ourselves that a lot of it is better than it really is. Lots of folks don’t even have the good stuff to compare it to. It has become the standard for “good.” Still, it was a fun exercise and I thank Mr. Ruhlman for the experience! -D

  • Harry

    With a little background, one can tell from the menu that the ingredients are of medium quality at best. Simple prep requires good quality because there’s nothing to hide behind All CF’s prep is elaborate or fried.

    Even so, they have a few dishes I think are quite good. One is the Shepherd’s Pie. Another is the chocolate cake, the one with jimmies on the side, not the one with nuts. I don’t like cheesecake so I can’t comment.

    It’s not the food that I find obscene. It’s the portion size.

  • Tags

    We still need to focus on getting the meat producers to treat animals humanely and sustainably, flavor or no flavor.

    And we still have to fight just to be allowed to grow food that doesn’t fit into the lobbying agribehemoths’ profit profile.

    We need to rally behind Temple Grandin and Alice Waters.

  • Victoria

    I live in NYC where I am not confronted by too many of these kinds of places, although more and more of them are slowly sneaking in.

    On a few occasions I found it convenient to travel upstate on a Friday evening by taking Route 17 in New Jersy around dinnertime. Any time I took a stab at dining at a large chain restaurant (CF not included), it would be an understatement to say I was disappointed.

    By the way, Judy Rodgers’ recipe for Pasta alla Carbonara in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook has peas in it. She calls it a rogue dish. It has smoked bacon, not pancetta, and ricotta mixed with the eggs in it. Judy Rodgers calls it “pleasantly curdy,” and I think it’s delicious.

  • Roberto N.

    As I tweeted you, I’ve only really enjoyed the Dirty Martini at CF. I see your point about the steps backwards. Unfortunately, they aren’t just doing that in the US. Chains like Chili’s and Applebee’s are staples of the Monterrey (Mex) “dining scene”. I’m just a few steps away from one and people ask for their Brownie dessert… And here I was trying my butt off to give them interesting and different options.

  • Kristin Ohlson

    CF won’t get my buck, no matter how tasty their salmon. I know too many wonderful locally owned and conceived restaurants that are languishing. Why don’t CFs and other tolerable chains locate at airports, where there’s never any decent food?

  • Rhonda

    Oh, Ruhls… What can I say… I luv ya.

    Yes, at the end of the day it was shit but my mother does lunch at one of these (and, I suspect yours does as well).

    As both of our mothers have accused us of being assholes and snobs in the kitchen (can’t remember your exact post but laughed my ass off), is it really so bad that they go to lunch at the CF?

    Nobody died. “Insipid” sauce is being kind…

    Our wonderful, darling, “mature” mothers, like it. …And I hear the “Chardonnay” is cheap.

    It is what it is.

  • cdelphine

    Interesting… my family never ate at these casual dining chains when I was growing up so they seemed quite exotic to me. When we ate out it was at small diners, pizza places or chinese restaurants. Foodies always romanticize the mom and pop restaurant quietly churning out good home-cooking. While there are some good places like this, a lot of them serve up crappy food cheap. Applebee’s is quite the fine dining compared to many of the local places I’ve eaten. (or at least on par with them)

    Also, the most common complaint here is the lack of “soul?” What happens when chefs start setting up outposts and chains? Where is the line? What about Wolfgang Puck bistro?

  • cathy deininger

    the sadness for me comes from knowing that the masses flock like cattle to these chains and miss the opportunity for a real experience of locally owned restaurants. I had family in town and was planning to take them to a gem of a place but as we passed CF their kids knew it and insisted on going to a place where they knew the food, ect. That is sadness…

  • Cali

    “Was it simple unexplored snobbery?”

    You hit the nail on the head. I used to be a chef at a REALLY exclusive place and I served food that was fresh, local and seasonal. I understand the ideal. That being said, what I find sad is the fact that eating tasty, well-cooked food served in an efficient manner in a clean, comfortable environment is no longer good enough. So, it’s not The French Laundry. So what? In this economy the fact that we can dine out at anyplace other than McDonald’s makes us pretty lucky in the whole scheme of things.

  • Mu

    I think the “sad” is the soullessness that’s registering for you.

  • Emily

    Maybe the sadness stems from eating a full days worth of calories in a single sitting? I know you all got lunch portions, except the salmon, but even those are gigantic in a gross, too much food for one person way. My friend is a server there and most dishes are finished with copious amounts of butter and oil, even something innocuous like glazed salmon where I wouldn’t expect extra fat. Salmon is fatty and flavorful on its own.
    I’d rather have a few perfect bites of well seasoned, well prepared food made with love than a platter of CF food. (BTW< i do like the food there bc it is easy to take large groups or families with diverse tastes, with a 20 pg menu, most will find something to eat, but it is sort of blah, mall culture food)

  • dadekian

    This whole thing made me a little sad too. I’m sad you’re sad Michael, but mostly I’m sad you’re sad because it wasn’t a terrible experience. I suppose there’s something to be said for American ingenuity in there, I just wish it wasn’t spent on The Factory.

  • tim

    Places like the CF are safe places to eat. They are consistent and everyone can find something on the menu they are comfortable with time and time again. And most CFs appear to be located in suburbs so people are comfortable with the faux surroundings. The food isn’t bad. It isn’t great either.

  • Steve G

    “…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.”

    So true… Thank you for taking one for the team.

  • Kate in the NW

    The food…the FOOD has no soul. Nothing against anyone who works there, i’m not accusing them of soul-lesness, but something about the environment of places like CF just sucks the meaning right out of the food – and maybe out of the work, too(?). I swear you can taste its absence somehow, even when, “objectively”, the flavors are okay, or even good. It just feels like Pod People food. Like Baudrillard’s simulacra…I can’t quite put my finger (or tongue, or brain) on it exactly, but MR, I share your discomfort with both the food and my own distaste for it. It just doesn’t feel…REAL, somehow. Yet neither does that judgment…I don’t want to be a food snob…if there’s really nothing wrong with the food, I should just get over myself and enjoy it like everyone else, right?

    Yet this is exactly why I go to local places instead of corporate ones: my comfort zone just doesn’t line up well with most Americans’, I guess.

    Ha – then again, it means I don’t have to line up with them (literally) for two hours to get my dinner, either…when the taco truck around the corner looks and smells so much better to me, and the line is shorter there!!! ;-)

  • Aaron Ward

    Haven’t got a chance to watch the video attached as I’m in an airport on my iPhone and don’t want to disturb the cattle, but liked the comments about CF. Just about a month ago I worked in the kitchen at the Des Moines CF for just 3 days. I got the job from a friend of mine who happened to be the head chef there. Since I had very little commercial kitchen experience he started me on the frier where I handled appatizers. Why did I only last 3 days, well 2 culinary reasons, first the menu is entirely too extensive in my opinion. I took the job to gain kitchen experience more out of curiosity than for need of money and trying to memorize 40+ plaitings including sauce and garnish (at least 2 each per plait) I realized I wasn’t suited for mass production of fried food for the masses. Second, which goes hand in hand with the first, is that everything hit the frier and the reason for those sauces and garnish were because there wasn’t anything special about the major ingrediants themselves.

    There were many other reasons for leaving including being opposed to the way food was handled, but before I come off completely negative, I was impressed with one thing. They do create there own sauces and dressings in house with relatively fresh ingrediants (asopposed to the Applebee’s I wsited tables at in college which had every sauce shipped in plastic gallon containers). However I understand all the cheesecakes are shipped from one of two distribution centers, one on either coast.

    On a side note, I think it funny you mention Muzak, as I’ve also worked for them. I also couldn’t agree more about the bland factor!

  • chef4cook

    Can you believe I have never eaten at a Cheesecake Factory and after watching your video I probably never will. Any resto name that has “Factory” in it just does nothing for me.

  • JBL

    CF isn’t that bad; c’mon people don’t be such snobs. It ‘aint TFL or El Bulli but it’s not bad.

    WTF does “has no soul” mean? Who doesn’t have a soul? The servers? The cooks? The managers? Who exactly?

  • hollerhither

    I have been perversely curious about Cheesecake Factory over the years but the 2x I tried to go (in areas where there were nothing but chains) the wait was an hour+, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

    There was an article a few years back, maybe in Business Week, about their corporate kitchens, and how they “introduce” ethnic food to a subsection of Americans who otherwise wouldn’t have at it. It was an interesting premise, but I guess I’d like to know how many of these customers ever take off the training wheels?

  • Mykl

    Hey Mark, good read as usual. CF is a sad reflection of a over commercialized society that’s hell bent on “most bang for the buck.” It’s sad because places like CF has no soul. It’s sad because people are lining up to go to these “factories” instead of places where chefs cook from their heart. I’ll take a mom and pop taco stand over any faux miso-glazed salmon any day of the week.

    Also, I think it’s really irresponsible for Kelly Alexander to write an article in praise of CF. Alas, some people are writers who happen to like food, and some are cooks who also like to write.

    Do your thing Mark and let people know what’s right and wrong.

  • Natanya

    This statement sums up not only your CF experience but so many dining experiences around the country:

    “…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.”

    Looking back over my life of eating it’s interesting to see how my preferences and tastes have matured. When I was young, Bennegin’s and Red Lobster were special places to visit (albeit in El Paso, Tx). Now my favorites are local restaurants with creative chefs who source local and in-season ingredients which many of us would agree make for the best possible dining experiences. To get to this point though, I’ve had to be exposed to better food and understand what makes a great dish through a collection of learning experiences that I’ve intentionally sought out. I know I’m not alone in this, but still, we’re a minority. When I start to think about what it would take to move the American demand forward, I’m a little daunted. Processed and convenience foods have changed our food culture and it will be quite a task to redirect our focus to fresh, seasonal, local ingredients. While I don’t have a master plan to change our food culture, I can start at home by feeding my family differently and introducing my daughter to varied dining experiences that more often than not omit places like CF. It’s only a small step, but if we all take such steps together, we may find ourselves moving ahead instead of backwards.

  • adri

    Hi Michael, I was the only female cook you met in Ad Hoc last year. I too feel that same sadness you mentioned in your article, when I have eaten in CF and many other chain restaurants around the states. To me that feeling comes from the lack of awareness the American public have for food. They have lost a personal interest and with that have perpetuated the industrialized kitchen. Perhaps one day Slow Food will actually be the norm for the masses…Although I feel that will be a long time coming.
    PS I have since moved on to Miami,Fl currently on a project to serve a healthy, mostly organic school lunch program,any insights you may have will be well received. Tks!

  • Jerzee Tomato

    CF is kitchy. It is trendy and eye candy and their cheesecake sucks. It is waxy and full of junk so it stays pretty when frozen. Having said this I love their limoncello torte. I now make it but if I am there I always get a slice of that which is not their cheesecake. I also love the bar at CF usually staffed with great people who actually understand what a bartender is and what a bartender should do. My fav CF is Raleigh NC. The bartenders there are awesome. The food at CF is what it should be no more no less. Get a nice mixed drink and try the Limoncello torte then go home and make the drink and the torte. Salmon I can eat anyplace.

  • carri

    Two years ago on the Waikiki strip, the line outside CF was 2 1/2 hours long…what does THAT say? (Who waits 2 1/2 hours to eat? not me!)

  • chad

    After hiring more than a handful of former CF cooks to work in our kitchen, I believe that the organization to deliver this product with their degree of consistency has to be nazi-ishly strict. It must be this way since the skill level of these cooks was extraordinarily weak.
    To add to this, my last meal at CF was over a year ago here in the Miami area (not revealing the exact location) and it was disgusting. Cannot even remember what I ate, except for my overwhelming feeling of just having thrown my money away.
    On the positive side, we can all learn something from the SOP’s of a place like this… consistency (whether good, bad, or mediocre) is one of the most difficult things to achieve in a kitchen.

  • carri

    Too bad, because there is possible, I think, for a place like this to do alot of good in a local community. So much of their ‘product’ is premade and boxed just for them requiring little skill to remake, when they could be buying locally and training people to cook it well. BTW, I wonder where their Salmon comes from? Did you ask?