"I am going to chop off my fingers." This was my first thought when I was given the opportunity to go to The Cheesecake Factory and learn how to cook my favorite dish. Don’t get me wrong — I was beyond excited. But then I remembered I’m not an experienced chef. I’m not even a “person who cooks." I survive off of delivery and cereal, and maybe, if I’m feeling fancy, I can whip together a pretty mean bowl of buttered pasta.
I truly didn’t know what to expect in The Cheesecake Factory kitchen, but there were two things I knew for sure: I was going to wear an apron (score!), and I was going to make Thai Lettuce Wraps! I’m a major fan of this dish because, not only does it taste great, but it’s like my very own art project where I can mix together colorful veggies and sauces to create my own glorious masterpiece...that I can shove into my mouth. Thinking back on the last time I ate the Thai Lettuce Wraps, I considered the components: I’ve cooked chicken before, I’ve cut veggies, I know what lettuce is...yah, I can totally do this.
I woke up early and entered the eerily quiet Cheesecake Factory. But I soon realized that while the tables were empty, the prep kitchen was in full force. And unlike my kitchen at home, nothing comes packaged or pre-prepared. Chefs were chopping, slicing, and scurrying around the bright and lively kitchen. Among the busy troops, I met Donald. Donald is the Chief Culinary Officer and Executive Vice President of Kitchen Operations — *BREATHE* — and my new best friend. He was going to be my lifeline for the day and teach me everything I needed to know. I quickly learned that The Cheesecake Factory team was just that — a team. Between Donald, Doug, and a few prep chefs, I had a full-on posse. "Are you ready?" asked Donald. “We will have about three hours to prepare the 20 different recipes that go into the Thai Lettuce Wraps.” LOL. I THOUGHT I WAS MAKING ONE RECIPE. I wasn’t prepared for 20, but hey, it was 8 a.m., and that’s too early to run.
The first task of the day was to prepare the marinade for the chicken. While I combined coconut milk, spices, and honey, Donald told me how The Cheesecake Factory is very picky about the quality of ingredients that go into its dishes. Not only does the food have to be fresh, but it also has to be perfectly flavored for the specific dish. They tried 60 different honeys in order to find the honey I used to create the marinade. SIXTY?! I don’t know how one honey can taste different from another, but clearly Donald knows something I don’t.
Then it was time to prepare the chicken itself. I walked up to a cutting board and found chicken breasts, a teeny-tiny tape measurer, and a hammer. Okay, it wasn’t a hammer — it was a mallet. “First, you need to cut the chicken to be four inches long,” Donald instructed. This is when I first learned that precision is key at The Cheesecake Factory. I set aside my perfectly measured chicken and placed any leftover pieces into another bowl. “We really hate wasting food here, and we try to use 100% of everything we buy,” Donald explained. “So we will end up using these leftover bits of chicken in a pasta later today.” Leftover cabbage goes into coleslaw. Cilantro stems add flavor to a soup stock. Truly everything has a purpose, and the chefs know exactly how to utilize each fresh ingredient. Finally, Donald instructed me to skewer three pieces of chicken at a time in order to make them easier to cook on the grill. This proved to be my biggest challenge thus far. It took me four tries until I successfully secured the chicken onto a skewer. (The Cheesecake prep chefs have to skewer 200 a day.)
Now it was time to make all the fixins! Those included cucumber salad, carrots, bean sprouts, noodles, peanuts, and of course, lettuce cups. Just a counter of fresh vegetables and a giant knife awaited me. Oh, and my friend, the baby measuring tape, was back! The cabbage cups were going to hold all my toppings, so they had to be 3–5 inches. And I couldn't forget to measure the noodles. “Why do we cut noodles? Like who cares, right? Well, we care! We want to make sure the noodles are the right length so they aren’t hard for our guests to eat,” Donald explained. I wasn’t kidding when I said The Cheesecake Factory is all about precision! I don’t think I ever used a tape measure so many times in my entire life.
Every great appetizer has a signature sauce, but I didn’t know we would be making three different sauces...from scratch. First up was the Tamarind Cashew Sauce. Obviously, this involved a lot of cashews, but what surprised me the most was the amount of cilantro needed. And this wasn't just any cilantro; this was ONE-LEAF-AT-A-TIME, handpicked cilantro. How do I know so much about this cilantro situation? Because I was the one plucking those puppies! And when it’s not me, The Cheesecake Factory prep chefs create 90 tablespoons of cilantro leaves a day. We mixed together the cilantro, cashews, and tamarind syrup to create a brilliant, emerald-green sauce. We also meticulously concocted a Sweet Red Chili Sauce and a Thai Peanut Sauce, which involved of a lot of peanut butter and a giant robot mixer that I totally wasn’t afraid of. When the sauces were finished, Donald lifted his hand for a high-five and said, “So, that was prep!” Let me repeat that for you: All. That. Was. Just. Prep.
While prep took nearly three hours, I still had to cook and assemble the dish. I grilled the chicken with the signature criss-cross lines and fanned out the pieces on a plate. I precisely weighed ingredients for each side dish and tucked them into their equally precise cabbage cups. I placed the lettuce wraps along the rim of the plate and topped everything off with roasted peanuts and cilantro leaves. Line chefs are given 6 minutes to do all this, and it took me 19.
I was beaming with pride, and all that was left to do was not drop the plate. It took me 3 hours to create one dish, AND I had a team of people helping me. How do these chefs create more than 250 dishes every day? Well they do, and I’m beginning to suspect that magic is involved.
So, I didn’t burn the place down! And guess what? The lettuce wraps were delicious! “You would make a great chef because you care. You were careful with every step, and that’s important,” Donald told me. And boy, The Cheesecake Factory staff members really do care. Every staff member I talked to has worked there for at least 15 years. They care about each other, their guests, and of course, their food. If caring makes a restaurant great, then The Cheesecake Factory is definitely doing it right.
Photos by Jon Premosch/ Design by Kevin Valente.