By Justin Johnson Special to Published Apr 04, 2012 at 1:03 PM

It may surprise you to know that many chefs go out for lunch. It's not that we don't want to eat our own food, but working an open-to-close shift often leaves some time in the middle of the day, and who doesn't like a change of scenery?

Once food orders are placed and lunch service is wrapped up, I might take a drive or a walk to any one of a number of local, not fast food, but let's say quick-food joints. I like the soft tacos at Chipotle Mexican Grill. I also enjoy the tuna and the cheesesteak at Cousin's Subs. Occasionally, after ordering my food, the high school girl at the cash register will glaringly survey my attire – a chef's coat emblazoned with the words "Justin Johnson, Executive Chef" – and with a screwy face, ask, "Why are you eating here?"

I usually chuckle and say something like, "A chef's gotta eat too."

But why do we eat at these places? Why do we buy the things we do at the grocery store? Relax, it's not an existential query. We already know why. It's fast. It's cheap. And dang, it's good. Our need for convenient, quick and physiologically flavor-concise food sort of rules our daily lives. No muss, no fuss.

Most of us, unless we're refusing to eat smartly and choosing instead to stare a future of heart problems and weight battles square in face, are not proud of a lot of the choices we make when we eat. "I need to get in shape," we say. "I need to start eating better." But then, we run to the store to grab something for a quick lunch. The package of frozen pizza rolls looks too good to pass up. So ... we cave.

Before I go further, let me assure you that I am not about to dispense diet advice. I have guilty pleasures, as well – witness my 200-pound, 5-foot 9-inch frame. I love Oreo cookies. A can of Spaghetti-O's and Meatballs is not safe in my charge.

Instead, the point I'm going to attempt to make is that, once you've divorced yourself from the childhood memories you associate with Orange Fanta or Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls, you may come to a startling realization. These foods don't actually taste good.

I know, take a deep breath.

The most important thing we need to understand and accept is that this food – more specifically, the packaging of this food: the colors, the logos, the labels – have an incredibly emotional effect on us. They mess with our heads. They trick us into thinking that we must have them.

They're a siren scream of consistency.

We know that inside that yellow bag of Funyuns is a friend. Someone that'll never change. Someone that'll calm us; satiate us. It can also be a lot like jumping into a time machine – rocketing us back to the lunch table in seventh grade when it didn't matter what we ate because we were built like cheetahs. Not that we cared that much about a bag of grease fried rice puff, mind you. It was just there; background, informing our adolescent journey. Now, however, it serves as an intangible link to that incredible feeling of potential. A feeling that we all took for granted; all the things we could do because we hadn't done anything yet.

Might I be exaggerating this connection a bit? It wouldn't be the first time I was accused of embroidering reality to serve my own angle but, in this case, I don't think I am. I'm not trying to make you feel bad. I'm also not going to tell you that you must exorcise these foods from your life.

Recently, my wife and I were sitting down to watch one of our favorite episodes of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" – the one where Larry gets his Chinese food take-out order mixed up with someone else's – and we decided we must have some fried rice and egg rolls. As human beings, we are virtually paralyzed by cravings. It's all about associations. If you ever stop to think about it, you have a truly astonishing number of Pavlovian vulnerabilities to food.

There are certain foods we need when we watch sports, celebrate a holiday or come home from work after a long day. There are even foods that call out to us when we're with certain people. Without these foods to augment the moment, we somehow feel incomplete – in fact, their absence almost sets our teeth on edge.

It is these moments where I believe we appreciate food the least. We aren't paying attention to it. It's just going down the hatch. It's as natural as knowing to put one foot in front of the other in order to keep moving forward. The flavors and the textures have become so permanent in our taste bud's memory that we don't even notice how salty the Ramen Noodle broth is or the trans-fatty film coating the inside of our mouth after a handful of Doritos.

The best way to put this phenomenon to the test is by eating any one of the aforementioned guilty pleasures along side something natural and pure. A few nights ago, I made a pot roast with a simple gravy of carrots, leeks, tomatoes and beef stock. I served it with a creamy parmesan polenta and wilted yellow swiss chard. It was delightful. But for dessert, I made – or should I say, assembled – strawberry shortcake with real fresh strawberries atop dense, sugary Hostess sponge cakes with hydrogenated Cool Whip. Did it taste good? Sure. As long as you didn't think too hard about it. However, next to the rich gravy, soul-satisfying polenta and nutrient-rich swiss chard, it was exposed for what it was.

"What do you want me to do?" you ask. "Make homemade sponge cake and Chantilly cream on a Thursday night when all I want to do is eat something quick so I can relax and watch 'American Idol'?"

No. I don't even do that and I'm a chef. But, you could. It's funny how, in our incrementalized day-to-day, moving thoughtfully through a task-driven routine leaves food twisting in the wind. It's not hard to see why. Convenient, grab-and-go, ready-to-eat food is everywhere. You almost have to weave through a slalom of bad food choices in order to get to a farmers market or your home kitchen.

Whether you believe you can cook or not, don't accept that the perfectly cooked, individually sized, machined and enriched version of something is somehow better than what you could make yourself.

Justin Johnson Special to
Chef Justin Johnson has been cooking in and around Milwaukee for the past 15 years. In 2005, Justin graduated from the Le Cordon Bleu Institute in Chicago whereupon he returned to Milwaukee to become, most notably, the executive chef at Harwood Place Retirement Community, launching a local and sustainable fine dining food service program that earned him local and national acclaim.

Justin has been featured in such notable publications as Food Service Director, Today's Dietician and the ACF's National Culinary Review. Most recently, Justin was the executive chef at Milwaukee's renowned art deco hotel, Hotel Metro. Today, Justin enjoys writing and demonstrating at community events and festivals, also making regular appearances on WISN 12's Saturday morning news. Justin plans to return to restaurants some day but is not sure when or where. In the meantime, he enjoys spending time with his wife and three boys.