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The Myth of Consistency

May 13, 2015

When I worked in San Francisco, one of my favorite place to eat was Aqua. It was a great restaurant. Once I met a fellow socially who was a chef. I suppose technically he was a line cook, but he had been to culinary school and was thrilled to have a spot in the kitchen there. And I didn’t blame him. It had the reputation for being one of the best restaurants in the city.

But he quit. He couldn’t stand it. There was no creativity in the kitchen. He bemoaned the McDonaldification of fine dining. Every plate that came out of the kitchen had to look identical. It was this meticulous devotion to consistency of product that drove him away.

In my heart of hearts I believe chasing consistency is a fool’s errand. That’s not to say a kitchen shouldn’t strive for a consistent level of performance and excellence. I think it should. But attempting to make every plate of a specific dish come out looking and tasting identical is madness. And my prooftext for this argument comes from the most unlikely of places, McDonald’s.

It would be hard to imagine an organization more dedicated to the goal of consistency as McDonald’s. In the past few months I’ve gotten to go back behind the counter and see their operation up close.

I remember when the chain had people actually flipping burgers. Those days are done. The burgers of today cook in something in between a George Foreman grill and a flat top grill. The timing is automated. It’s kind of incredible. The French fry salt doser is a clever contraption that measures out a precise quantity of salt when placed on one end. When turned over, it produces a perfectly portioned cascade of crystals over the just drained fries.

The ice cream machines self-sanitize, the fryers automatically filter, the smoothie station operates at the push of a button. It’s amazing. I mean, it’s really amazing. The fryer thing especially.

But if you’ve ever been to more than one McDonald’s, you know they aren’t all the same.

With all of these tools and procedures, it would seem virtually impossible to produce food that was inconsistent market to market and store to store. However, it happens all the time. Sure the same overall flavor profile is there, and that’s no small feat in and of itself. That said, I think it’s important to note that even the one brand that has built an empire around the myth of consistency can’t even pull it off.

Yesterday was a good example. I decided to head back and try the 1/3 pound sirloin burger that I had been served on a faux silver platter. The sauce was still the best part. The mushrooms were still earthy. The caramelized onions were still dark and sweet. The cheese may have been a bit better than last time.

But the toppings were not evenly applied. Whereas my first burger had the mushrooms and the onions comingled on the top, this had the onions on the bottom and the mushrooms on the top.

This may sound silly and small, but the placement of sandwich components within the sandwich can totally affect the way it tastes. Put the mustard on the top or the bottom of a sandwich and it will taste different. This is an easy thing to test, just try a bite of your sandwich. Now turn it upside down and do it again.

Even worse than a separating of these commingled toppings was the fact that the onions in the bottom were totally lopsided, leaving part of the burger with heavy coverage, and other parts onion-free.

That magical black pepper and thyme sauce wasn’t well distributed either.

Which is a shame, because the only way this burger is really tasty is when all of the flavorful components are working together. Although honestly, I kind of expected this. It makes sense that the burgers the chain would prepare for the media would get an extra level of care.

My takeaway from this is that consistency is a lie. And I think it’s a lie that most people have bought into. McDonald’s spends a fortune to try to ensure consistency. But even they can’t do it. The hand of the maker is always seen, despite all of the technology at work.

But the other part of this is that the world is a remarkably diverse place. Chickens should come in different sizes, no two pizzas should look the same, and even something as ubiquitous as the carrot comes in many shapes and shades. Menus should reflect and celebrate the changes of the growing season and the differences in varieties and cultivars of seasonal produce. Maybe not at McDonald’s, but elsewhere.

It’s great for independent restaurants to aim for a consistent level of excellence and performance. However, trying to recreate the same thing over and over and over again is a recipe for failure. If not as a business, then at least as a restaurant.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2015 10:19 am

    First of all, thanks for that tip about flipping your sandwich upside down to see it tastes with the ingredients in a different order. Great hack.

    I disagree with your criticism of consistency at Aqua. When people are paying fine dining prices they deserve to have a predictable experience and a dish that will be prepared the same way from one visit to the next. That’s not to say the house can’t offer nightly specials, or a new chef can’t come in and shake things up. But there’s a reason many places have photos of the correctly plated dishes in their kitchens.

    I already know there are variations between McDonald’s because you’ve praised your local whereas mine believes in making a Big Mac by throwing the ingredients into a box rather than combining them, creating a result that looks like it’s ready for the compost bin rather than your stomach. We know the clown has been on the ropes recently and the new boss is solving things by reducing the number of items they serve. So complicated! But when the employees can’t remember the correct order of three basic ingredients on your steakburger and the management can’t be bothered to check their work, I don’t think there’s much hope.

  2. May 13, 2015 10:27 am

    I agree consistent–meaning: unchanging–is the wrong criterion to judge restaurants. A better word would be reliable–meaning: consistently good or trustworthy. I don’t go to my favorite repeat restaurants for the exact same dishes every time. I go because I understand their flavor profiles and standards of excellence which means no matter what I eat, it will be delicious.

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