Personally, I find something a bit discordant about going to a place called the Cheesecake Factory for lunch. Neither the concept of “cheesecake” nor “factory” suggests a hearty, nourishing meal to me.
The “factory” part is certainly appropriate, though. Once Okura has perfected a salad, or any other dish, the head chefs at each Cheesecake Factory across the land are trained to prepare it precisely as he directs. “They don’t create, they just follow recipes,” says Okura. The chefs in turn oversee the prep staff in their kitchens, ensuring the raw materials of my romaine head are processed into a product as uniform as a car part.
Every Cheesecake Factory restaurant is a fairly massive operation: On average, each employs 200 to 250 hourly workers, plus a dozen-odd managers. The menu is bloated with offerings from around the world, its gastronomy as global in makeup as the city from which the restaurant sprang. There are Tex-Mex egg rolls, Louisiana crab cakes, crispy taquitos, chicken pot stickers, pad Thai and 10 kinds of salads, including, of course, an “almost traditional” caesar.
Knowing what I’ll get otherwise, I order the appetizer size, which is deposited in front of me maybe three minutes later by a smiling blond woman. Even this half-portion looks bigger than my head, a heaping mound of chopped green romaine leaves and pale hearts, dusted with needles of Parmesan and punctuated with fat croutons.
Somebody like Alejandro Garcia stooped over to cut this lettuce head, working fast in the hope of earning an extra dollar an hour. Perhaps someone like Abelardo Romo left his wife and children for months so that I could eat this salad. I try not to think about them, nor of the traces of diazinon or tralomethrin that may be on those D’Arrigo-grown leaves. I start eating.
It’s pretty good — the dressing tangy and rich but somehow light. Still, I can’t finish the salad — not because of any moral qualms, just because there’s too much of it.
I feel responsible for wasting the fistful of romaine left on my plate. All the work that went into getting those leaves here — only to have them thrown out? It seems wrong. Especially since I know what made it possible for this lettuce to be cheap enough for the Cheesecake Factory to dole out such ludicrously oversized portions. I’m paying $7.95 for this salad, but other people are picking up the rest of the unseen tab.
I decide not to ask for a bag to enable me to have a Cheesecake Factory experience at home. On the bottom of my check is printed a motto. “Don’t Worry Be Happy!” it says. “Thank You!”