Field Trip: The Olive Garden

At "The Garden of the Olives"

My partner is Brazilian, and we have a fairly constant stream of friends and relatives from Brazil through our house year-round.  It’s a delight, and I especially love the gifts of honey, guava jam, cachaca (Brazilian rum), and other treats that keep my pantry fairly well stocked.  My season of MasterChef just finished airing in Brazil, and my “family” down there became rockstars because they could brag that each time they come to the U.S., they get to eat BenStarr food for their entire stay.  So I’ve always been utterly baffled by the fact that each and every one of them is absolutely OBSESSED with the Olive Garden.

Each time they arrive here in Dallas, their first meal MUST be at the Olive Garden…even though they know a fabulous home-cooked meal in my kitchen can await them if they desire.  No…it simply MUST be the Olive Garden.  And they post on Facebook that they’re eating at the Olive Garden and all their Brazilian friends and family go absolutely NUTS with jealousy.

Part of me thinks I understand this obsession.  I grew up in Abilene, Texas, and during my high school years (91-95), the Olive Garden was the fanciest and most expensive restaurant in town.  It’s the place you go for a special anniversary…or if you’re rich, for your birthday.  Coming from a poor family, I could only dream of dining there as a kid.

That chance finally arrived after my high school graduation, when I was treated to dinner at the Olive Garden by a wealthy friend’s parents.  At age 17, that was the first and last time I had eaten at the Olive Garden.  To be honest, I don’t remember the meal at all, though I’m certain I was impressed, considering the narrowness of my West Texas palate at that age.

Through my travels, I developed a strong affinity for small, family-run restaurants, and though I don’t eat out that often, for the past decade I’ve almost universally chosen to eat at small family-run places, rather than chains.  Not because chains have bad food…but simply because I prefer the character you get from smaller restaurants, I find the food to be more exciting and unique, and it makes me feel good that I’m supporting a local family, rather than a corporate conglomerate.  (That, and the food is usually cheaper, and I’m always incredibly poor.)

My next run-in with the Olive Garden happened in 2007 when I appeared on Rachael Ray’s “So You Think You Can Cook” (which they now call “Hey, Can You Cook?” after probably being threatened by “So You Think You Can Dance?”)  It was the first season of that competition, and 5 finalists were flown to NYC, picked up in a limo, and whisked to Times Square to the Marriott Marquis, which was our home for the duration of the show.  (Let me tell you, MasterChef does NOT put its contestants in an equivalent hotel.  Ha ha ha…  Rachael Ray knows how to treat her contestants!!!)

As we entered Times Square (a place I had been to often…my partner’s mother lives in NYC), one of the 3 female contestants spied the Olive Garden and blurted out, “Oooooooo!  The Olive Garden!  We should eat there tonight!”

Shellshocked, in my head I retorted, “Are you INSANE?  We’re smack dab in the middle of the best city for Italian food outside of Italy!  And you want us to go to the OLIVE GARDEN?!?  You obviously have no concept of good food if you want to eat at the Olive Garden in New York City.”

It turns out that in the mishmash of my mind, I associated that comment with someone who did not actually say it.  Later that night, we were being grilled in interviews by the producers and they asked me who I thought would go home first.  At that point I had never watched reality TV, so I didn’t know how ruthless it can be, and I had also not yet seen my fellow competitors cook, so I responded that I couldn’t give them an answer, because I hadn’t seen anyone cook yet.  After many minutes of me avoiding the question, they basically told me I’d have to sit in front of the camera until I gave them a name.  So I said, “It’s going to be [Gina] (name changed for discretion), because as we pulled into Times Square she said she wanted us to all eat at the Olive Garden, and anyone who’d eat at the Olive Garden rather than a classic New York Italian restaurant knows nothing about food.”

In my tiny little brain, I didn’t realize that was being recorded.  On MasterChef, which isn’t filmed before a live studio audience, you never see what your fellow contestants say about you in their interviews until the show airs months later.  However, after our first challenge, we were seated in front of Rachael’s live studio audience, and they aired my comments in front of everyone.

“Ben, who do you think is going to be the first to go home?”

“It’s going to be [Gina], because…she…knows nothing about food.”

That was my first bitter lesson about talking freely in reality TV interviews, and how your words can be creatively twisted in the editing room.  [Gina] was sitting right next to me, and we had actually become fast friends since the first day, and I had totally forgotten about that interview.  The audience gasped at my cold remark.  And, moments later, after our challenge footage was aired before the live studio audience, Rachael announced that the first person to be eliminated was, in fact [Gina].

Back in the green room, I was on the floor, clutching my head, bawling my eyes out at how cold and coarse I had been, and how betrayed [Gina] must have felt.  (I later learned that it wasn’t even her who said that…it was the person who went on to win the competition.)

So, in a sense, the Olive Garden taught me to be extremely careful about what I say in front of the camera.  One of my life’s greatest regrets is saying what I said that night, and seeing the repercussions in the tender and very sweet soul of [Gina].  (We have since made up and she is a very, very special person to me.)

So I’ve always been extra-appalled when my Brazilian friends get so worked up about the Olive Garden.  I always politely but firmly refuse to join them, and in my own sort of protest, I usually go down the street to my local Italian family eatery, Parma, and have truly stellar Italian food for several dollars less, and I can bring my own wine.

But tonight, my partner’s cousin Floh absolutely insisted that I join her at the “Garden of the Olives” because she wanted to treat me to dinner for once.  So I reluctantly agreed.  And I promptly posted on Facebook that I was about to eat at the Olive Garden for the first time in 17 years, and was wondering what to expect.

What I DIDN’T expect was the flood of responses…more than 100 in less than 30 minutes.  And it ranged from “Gag me with a spoon” to “I used to work at the Olive Garden, DON’T EAT THERE, the food is just microwaved” to “I can’t believe all these food snobs who say that eating at Oliver Garden is akin to treason” to “God, I love their breadsticks and salad.”

So, bear with me as I give you my own humble opinions of my meal at the Olive Garden.

First, the service.  Incredibly attentive and professional.  Apparently we were lucky, because many, many comments on Facebook talked about the horrible service there.  Our waiter was exceedingly accommodating, let us taste several wines before we chose one we liked, and was prompt and incredibly courteous.

Second, the wine.  Straight from the Walmart mega line, of course.  I knew every wine on their menu.  And our $24 bottle costs $7 at Walmart.  But that’s to be expected…the wine markup at most restaurants ranges between 200% and 300%.  It just hurts extra bad when you already KNOW you’re buying a cheap mega-brand and paying 3 times the amount for it.  (Their wine buyer should find some small vineyard somewhere and buy up their entire line so that they’re serving a more obscure label…though I’m not sure any vintner wants to be known as the exclusive supplier for the Olive Garden.)

Second, the appetizers.  A very pedestrian and somewhat bland soup (and it was their special…chicken and potato in a creamy tomato broth, but I ate it all…it wasn’t bad), iceberg lettuce salad with Italian dressing and big fat black olives and tangy pepperoncini peppers (as one Facebook fan mentioned…a guilty pleasure, cheap, but yummy), and their legendary breadstix.  I’m honestly not sure why their breadsticks get worshipped as they do.  They are so undercooked they have absolutely no crust, and they are brushed with melted margarine and sprinkled with garlic salt.  People…THAT’S NOT BREAD.  Bread is crispy when you bite into it.  ESPECIALLY Italian bread.  Crispy-crunchy crust, chewy interior.  Olive Garden’s breadsticks are more like a long narrow muffin.  There’s nothing bread-like about them.

Third, the main course.  I ordered the shrimp mezzaluna…large half-moon raviolis stuffed with 3 cheeses, topped with a generous portion of sauteed shrimp, in a cream sauce.  The pasta was very overcooked, but the flavors were there.  The sauce was delicious.  And…shockingly…the shrimp were PERFECTLY done.  This surprised me.  Most restaurants overcook their shrimp and turn them into Super Balls, bouncy and tough.  Not at the Olive Garden.  So whoever was back there in the kitchen microwaving my plate of shrimp, you microwaved it PERFECTLY!  Kudos to you.

For those of you who aren’t aware, mega chain restaurants look very little like traditional restaurants back in the kitchen.  Because they have to maintain consistency and uniformity across their locations, the majority of their food is produced in a factory and shipped frozen to all their restaurants.  At the location is it microwaved, plated, and finished before being delivered to the table.  This is why you get the exact same Buffalo Chicken Sandwich at every Chili’s in the world.  So there’s very little actual cooking going on back there.

Not only does this ensure uniformity from location to location, it dramatically reduces the cost of the food.  So my $13.75 plate of Shrimp Mezzaluna at Olive Garden probably cost them $3 by the time it was produced and shipped to the restaurant where I ate it.  I do admit, I was a bit offended by their prices, considering the fact that they unabashedly service glorified fast food.

It’s not my intention to bash the Olive Garden.  I ate everything on my plate, it was an acceptable meal, and nothing grossed me out.  I am the farthest thing from a food snob…I eat at food trucks and stalls and stands far more often than I eat at restaurants.  I’d prefer a $1 gas station taco to a meal at the finest restaurant in Dallas ANY DAY OF THE WEEK.

But there is something about chain restaurants that just rubs me the wrong way.  I passed Parma on my way to the Olive Garden, and there were maybe 10 cars in the parking lot.  I got to the Olive Garden and there was a 20 minute wait for a table.  Does no one dining there realize that less than a mile down the road is a small, intimate, family-run place where the food is light-years better…CHEAPER…and YOU CAN BRING YOUR OWN WINE?!?

My instinct tells me…they just don’t know.  That’s the reason.  Because no human being would willingly wait 20 minutes to pay more for obviously worse food and have to pay a 3x markup for wine that they could have brought themselves.

So if my evening at Olive Garden has taught me anything, it’s to be INSISTENT upon taking friends and family to local restaurants rather than chains.  It’s not that chain restaurants serve BAD food.  They wouldn’t be in business if they served bad food.  But they don’t serve PROPER food.  Food that was raised within a few hundred miles of the kitchen it’s prepared in.  Food that saw heat for the first time when the chef took it out of the fridge or freezer.  Food that went from whole food to finished product in that very kitchen.  And profit that goes to support a family that has devoted its life to producing quality food for their neighbors.

So get your friends together this weekend, get on Yelp and find a local restaurant with great reviews, and go out to support it.  You’ll be very glad you did!

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