Hedge fund Starboard Value delivered the mother of all food reviews this week with a 294-page slide presentation tearing apart Darden Restaurants, the struggling parent company of Olive Garden. It charges the Italian chain with all manner of incompetence—from serving too little alcohol to serving too many breadsticks—but the most powerful accusations are reserved for its pasta.
Here's why: Olive Garden has stopped salting its pasta water.
"According to Darden management, Darden decided to stop salting the water to get an extended warranty on their pots," Starboard, which is in a proxy fight for control over Darden's board, explains. "Pasta is Olive Garden’s core dish and must be prepared properly. This example shows how disconnected Darden management is from restaurant operations and how little regard Darden management has for the guest experience. If you Google 'how to cook pasta,' the first step of Pasta 101 is to salt the water."
Elsewhere, Starboard calls the decision to stop salting "appalling," and concludes that it "results in a mushy, unappealing product that is well below competitors' quality despite similar cost."
For the non-home cooks out there, salting water is essential for correctly flavoring pasta.* Once the noodles are done cooking, you can also use starchy, briny leftover water to prepare a nice pan sauce. It's all basic stuff, and an act of culinary bad faith for any restaurant not to do it.
Anyway, Starboard also says that these days Olive Garden's breadsticks taste like "hot dog buns." Vicious stuff.
*Correction, Sept. 14, 2014: This post originally misstated that salting water helps pasta cook correctly by increasing the liquid's boiling point. Despite the dearly held beliefs of many home cooks, adding a moderate amount of salt does not significantly change the temperature at which water boils.