by Dan Gibson
I've always thought of Chili's as more of a "I give up, this appears to be the best place to eat in this airport" sort of place, but I guess if they want to convince people that they're somehow "bold" for suggesting to eat at a place that could be best described as "not quite as bad as Applebee's", so be it:
In a new ad for Chili’s, the 36-year-old restaurant chain, an office worker in his 20s approaches the cubicle of a co-worker, and asks, “Hey Jill, you want to go to Chili’s tonight?”
She swivels in her chair, smiles, and when she speaks what comes out is the voice of the bluesman John Lee Hooker, singing, “I love that talk, when you talk like that, you knocks me out, right off of my feet.”
Looking surprised but undaunted, he says, “So, that’s a yes, or — ?”
As she nods, it is again the voice of the late Mr. Hooker from “Boom Boom” — first released in 1962 — that she incongruously lip-syncs, “Hoo, hoo, hoo.”
The ad — by Hill Holliday, Boston, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies — continues with a voice-over that urges, “Go bold with Chili’s $20 dollar dinner for two,” and footage of entrees eligible for the deal, including a new menu item, grilled shrimp tacos.
“We want to play up the boldness of the brand,” said Krista Gibson, senior vice president for brand strategy at Brinker International, Chili’s parent company, about the new spot, which is scheduled for an Oct. 3 premiere. “How he behaves is bold, how she behaves is bold, and the food we’re featuring in the spot is boldly flavored.”
I'm not necessarily anti-chain, but whenever I think of Chili's, I can't quite get a passage from David Kessler's The End of Overeating" out of my head:
Every time I order food at Chili's I casually ask the server, 'What's in this?' Sometimes I asked the same question of the manager. I never asked for the recipe - I knew that was proprietary information. I didn't care what spices and seasonings were used, but I did want to know the major ingredients in the food I was ordering. As a consumer, I thought it was reasonable to find out what I was going to eat.
Staff were generally reluctant to answer the question.
'We can't tell you,' one manager said flatly.
'What are you concerned about?' asked a server. 'What are your allergies?'
'I'm not sure I'm allowed to say,' someone else said hesitantly.
Whatever the ingredients, my food consultant contact seemed to understand why some foods just slide down the throat. About Boneless Shanghai Wings, he said, 'Taking it off the bone is like taking the husk off the nut.' That processing step reduces the need for chewing, making the food faster to consume.
Those wings contain a solution of up to 25 percent water, hydrolyzed soy protein, salt, and sodium phosphate. The water is in there for several reasons. First, it bulks up the chicken - the industry calls this 'reducing shrinkage'. Second, water is cheaper than chicken breast, so it's less costly to produce. And finally, water makes the food softer and chewing easier.
Before the chicken is shipped from the manufacturing plant, it's battered, breaded, predusted, and frozen. This creates a salty coating that becomes crispy when fried in fat. 'All this stuff absorbs fat, dries out this batter and breading and replaces water with oil. So now you've got batter and breading that is probably 40 percent fat,' according to the food consultant. The crispy coating which also contains corn-syrup solids, dried yeast, and soybean oil, may represent up to half the volume of the nuggets on the plate.
Boxes containing eight four-pound bags of ginger-citrus sauce, each with a refrigerated shelf life of about four months, are shipped to Chili's restaurants to accompany the chicken. The ingredients in the sauce sounds relatively benign: sugar, hoisin sauce, vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, chili paste, modified food starch, and orange juice concentrate. But sugar is the dominant nutrient, and salt is listed three times.
The ginger-citrus sauce 'introduces syrupy, sweet, clingy stuff,' said the consultant. 'Sugar on sugar, really just different sugars. And lots of salt. And lots of intense flavor.' The hoison sauce contributes saltiness and a browning effect, while the orange juice concentrate adds a tangy fruit flavor.
Apparently Chilli's considers all of this insufficiently enticing. Accompanying the fried and sweetened chicken concoction is a wasabi ranch dressing, which is made from mayonnaise, buttermilk, spices, and wasabi powder and has a pleasantly sharp bite. 'Wasabi has a kind of a cool, green look to it, and people love creamy', said the consultant. 'The most popular salad dressings are creamy,' he added. 'The most popular soups are creamy.'