The Ultimate Question
Last semester I presented a guest lecture at RPI on building a social media brand or something like that. Mostly I talked about this blog. Afterwards, I was told by the professor that the students found it to be engaging. I hope to be invited back to present another one of these sometime down the road, because I’m sure they will only get better with practice.
Anyway, I told the story of how I came to start the FLB. And it resulted in a great question.
When I arrived in Albany I yelped my face off about everyplace I ate. The blog provided me a platform to write about the places where going to eat a meal seemed like a doomed experience from the outset. To provide an example I mentioned a place called Barcelona. There was a sign out front that said this ostensibly Spanish restaurant served “Italian Food” and the menu consisted of such gems as veal with a Jack Daniels cream sauce over noodles.
I explained to the inquisitive student that this was not the kind of restaurant I was looking for. To which he replied, “Yeah, but how does it taste?”
This is a powerful notion. The idea that personal taste trumps all. And I was talking about it in regards to beer last week on the Twitter. I know that what I’m about to say flies in the face of the current move to democratize food and criticism. But I have to disagree.
You say, “I like the way this _____ tastes. This is a great _____ .”
First let’s address the obvious flaw with this. Everyone has a different palate and different taste preferences. Some people love the taste of well-ripened washed rind cheeses. Other people love the taste of muenster slices from the supermarket deli counter. It’s great that people taste their food and have preferences. But you cannot have a debate on personal preference.
Here’s an example: Which is the better of the these two Bolognese?
Taster A: Prefers the flavor of Dish #1
Taster B: Prefers the flavor of Dish #2
So, they are at an impasse. They can argue the finer points of their personal tastes.
Taster A: “How could you say Dish #2? I thought those carrots were disgusting.”
Taster B: “I loved the carrots, and I thought Dish #1 was totally lacking in depth of flavor.”
Thankfully there is more to the appreciation of food, wine, beer, and pretty much everything than just one’s own sensory perceptions. People hated Picasso, but his work has stood the test of time. And there are those of us who love Tom Waits, but it’s not because his music is melodious.
On the flip side of things, the physiology of taste dictates that people prefer sweeter tastes. The wine educator at Robert Mondavi confirmed that with the winery’s sales of their muscat dessert wine in their Napa tasting room. Yet for the most part, people widely acknowledge that the great wines of the world are largely ones on the dry side of the spectrum.
Good food rests on three major pillars.
1. It comes from some place. There is history. There are traditions. There is probably a fair bit of geography as well. Even if a chef is turning those traditions upside down, they exist and need to be acknowledged. If you want to deconstruct a Lasagne Verdi alla Bolognese, go right ahead, but you cannot change the individual components of the dish.
2. It takes skill to prepare. When one eats good food, it’s not just ingredients thrown together, but the product of well trained hands. Sometimes the chef’s hand is clearly apparent and other times it’s hidden to the eye but revealed to the palate in a depth of flavor that is infeasible for most people to reproduce in a home kitchen.
3. Quality ingredients. Let’s jump back to brewed beverages for this one. Hard cider is delicious. Apparently it’s hard to get apple cider to taste like apple cider without adding in a bunch of “natural” flavor. I say that because so many brands on the shelf are compromised with ingredients that shouldn’t be in a well-made product. Yes, it may have more of an apple flavor as a result of these machinations, but in my book that doesn’t make it better.
A lot of food today is engineered to taste good. It’s made in factories, and optimized for flavor. Seriously, if people didn’t like the way Olive Garden tasted they would stop going. Just because people like it, does not make it good.
And the same holds true for Barcelona. They must be doing something right. Their parking lot is full of expensive cars, and I’ve heard some people say not awful things about the place.
Me? I’m going to choose to hold restaurants to a higher standard.
A chef’s food may taste great. Great tasting food isn’t rocket science. The secret is lots of butter and plenty of salt. However, if the person in the kitchen who is calling the shots thinks it’s a good idea to keep caprese salad on their menu all year long and defile this classic from Capri with a vile balsamic reduction, I’ve got to question their judgement. And that’s just one red flag (of many) that allows me to cast aspersions on the rest of the menu. At least enough to push a restaurant down my priority list to the point where it’s unlikely I’ll ever choose to eat their food of my own free will.
Maybe it’s tasty, but I know it’s not great. And likely not even worth the calories or the expense.