Skip to content

Speaking of Perfection

December 8, 2009

“The salmon was cooked to perfection.”  Well maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t.  But the way people throw-around the word perfect these days, I tend to doubt it.

I am taking a few days just to get some things off my chest.  There are a few words that are terribly overused in describing restaurant food – and they drive me crazy.  Yesterday I tackled “Fresh” and today I am setting my sights on “Perfect.”

Can some things be perfect?  I think they can.  Sure, there are those who believe that perfection is the providence of the divine.  But I like to think of perfection in narrower terms.  One example might be, “A perfect slice of NY-style pizza.”

Even then, for something to be labeled as perfect, it must fulfill a set of criteria.  My idea of a perfect slice might be different from your ideal.  I feel no need for a universal truth, but I would like a bit more precision from critics, both professional and amateur alike.

Many years ago I encountered a remarkable cookbook, David Rosengarten’s Taste. At the time it struck me as both obnoxious and brilliant.  At the end of every recipe it had a checklist to help you evaluate the success of the dish.  Or in the words of Francis Ford Coppola (from the back of the book), “Taste not only helps you create some of the world’s classic dishes, it teaches you how to judge them as well.”

As David Rosengarten clearly points out all over this book, just because you successfully made something elaborate and delicious doesn’t mean you did it well.  Perfecting the execution of a recipe is no small feat.

To help protect the sanctity of the word, I humbly offer some alternatives to the term.

Experience: You order a rare steak, and you get a rare steak.
Description: The meat was cooked precisely as ordered.

Experience: Fried foods come crisp and greaseless.
Description: The calamari was expertly fried.

Experience: Fish is served with a nice sear, but remains tender and moist.
Description: The chef knows how to cook fish.

Perfection is more than just mastering a cooking technique.  Perfection is rare.  It is special.  If you happen to think something is perfect, please, for the love of all that is good and holy, back that up with some details.  And if you are lucky enough to get even a taste of perfection, that restaurant better be getting your highest rating (or there better be a damned good reason why not).

My concern is that being so free with the use of the term lessens its meaning.

And I’m not just being paranoid.  You can see it happening all around.  Restaurants are touting an alarming phrase on menus everywhere.

The phrase is “Cooked to perfection” or some minor variation.  Do you know there is even a cooked to perfection website?  It’s for a private chef.  And she has posted a menu that includes the following descriptions:

Spicy Coconut Shrimp with Mango Basil Salsa and Lime Jasmine Rice
Shrimp marinated in a sweet and spicy coconut marinade then cooked to plump and juicy perfection topped with a mango salsa… The fresh basil in this keeps your tongue awake through it all!

In the above description, “cooked to perfection” doesn’t even tell you HOW they are cooked.  Presumably everything on the cooked to perfection website would be cooked to perfection.  But I couldn’t have found a better example of a powerful word that has had all the meaning sucked out of its lifeless hollow shell.

[Mrs. Fussy thinks I’m crazy.]

My hope for going into a restaurant is that they strive for perfection.  Menus that make a point of letting you know your food will be “cooked to perfection” always raise suspicions.  This is a classic example of show me, don’t tell me.

Do you think the top restaurants in the world brag about cooking their dishes to perfection on their menus?  Yeah, they don’t.

For the sake of full disclosure:

Like I said yesterday, nobody is perfect.  Despite my aversion to the term, in my 369 Yelp reviews and 17 review updates, I have used some form of “perfect” on 67 different occasions.  A great many of these, especially at the lesser-rated restaurants, are some variation of “perfectly fine”.  But despite my fastidiousness, there may be a few examples of this crime against writing in my own work.  And I will try and do better.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 8, 2009 7:41 pm

    I’d also settle for a “Cooked to X” way. That way you know what you’re getting into. And ew, it’s also frustrating to get soggy fried food. Bleck

  2. December 8, 2009 9:27 pm

    It was in writing product descriptions for a meat website (http://www.nimanranch.com ) that I discovered how limited our descriptors for “really good food” are in English. There are only so many words we can use to say “tastes great” while there are endless adjectives for rotten, suppurating, festering etc. This is why Tom Parker Bowles (son of Camilla) told the New Yorker he had started writing a column about disgusting food, because describing good food is so much harder.

    Nonetheless, I will continue to enjoy your daily jousts with this terminology, Profussor. But after we’re done, how about a discussion of “sport peppers”? I did a web search just now for this delightful term and discovered all the authorities seem to be contributors to this blog!

  3. Annie permalink
    December 9, 2009 12:41 am

    I must say, that after visiting England I was forever disappointed by my own use of superlatives. I want more “brilliants”, “smashings”, “lovelys.” Certainly more fun than ‘good’ and ‘great’ which are more overused than ‘perfect.’ The Argentines throw around ‘perfecto’ in a way I also enjoy. Maybe I like enjoying the mediocre, the everyday. Maybe that makes me a bad critic.. and quite possibly an even worse sister. I do understand your point, though; and, if you didn’t make it, THIS wouldn’t be a fussy little blog then. Your right, on a menu, ‘perfection’ could very well set up unreasonable expectations, especially for the fussiest among us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: