Monday, May 30, 2011

"I don't LIKE food. I LOVE food. If I don't love it, I don't swallow."

The problem with cooking is that it is highly subjective. No doubt Ego loves food that I don't and vice versa. Even Skinner, who more resembles Ego than I (if only in animation) does not get transported by his Ratatouille in quite the same way. Personally, I’ve had differences in opinion from all the food critics I’ve followed. What then, will enable our restaurant to be successful if 1) diners follow critics whose advice I don’t follow myself, 2) sometimes trend, not the food itself, dictates success and most importantly 3) cooking is so subjective?

A lot of consumer restaurant reviews criticize, "the food was good, but nothing mind-blowing." What really strikes me is that restaurant patrons (and critics alike) want to see something new on their plates in order to grant the highest points to a particular restaurant. Put something completely new on their plates, and they insist that the “flavors don’t work.” Even molecular gastronomy, arguably one of the newest culinary traditions, reproduces classic flavors albeit in new shapes or forms.

I once had a woman criticize my cooking, saying that the particular dish was something she could have made herself. Though I didn't take her criticism well at the moment, I think it provides some insight into this current quandary of mine. That is to say, isn't the food that tastes like something you could have made yourself something that resonates most with your palate? Aren't the most popular restaurants often the ones that are most predictable, because they produce Mac and Cheese just how the generalized you remember it? Why do people profess to want something new when they fall back on what is known and familiar?

I guess I’m just trying to figure out what people look for when they go to a restaurant. And, given that tastes can be vastly different from person to person, how do you decide which subgroup to appeal to when putting together the character of your menu? How much of your own agenda (in our case, sustainability) do you put aside to appeal to customers’ taste buds, which for better or worse have been conditioned by excess sugars, fats, and salt?

Ultimately, there is no clear science to putting together a restaurant, or a concept, or a menu for that matter. Being Type A, an overachieving Asian, and Virgo all in one, I’ve pushed and pulled on TM to apply structure and frameworks to her menu planning. We’ve brainstormed, we’ve strategized, we’ve simplified, and then we’ve elevated, all in the hopes of appealing to this unknown person, a critic, a food blogger, a fat wallet patron, a regular old chum. All this when at the end of the day, what we should have been doing all along is designing a menu that we’d want to eat from day in and day out because we will be, after all. Isn’t that what upsets us about the current state of restaurants in LA? That is, there are too few restaurants with the kind of menu that we would eat from everyday, luxurious and healthy at the same time, sophisticated and sourced sustainably, and all with a conservative price point.

The realization that we should serve what we want to eat ourselves incidentally is the reason we started on this restaurant journey in the first place and came full circle while I was watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. (It is no coincidence that I begin and end this blog with a TV/film reference). He was astounded when a fast food operator told him that he wouldn’t change his restaurant’s menu because he served what his customers demanded. The implication is that food revolutions begin at the forefront of the industry, i.e. at restaurants, grocery stores, butcher shops, etc. Whether people will buy the food to begin with is somewhat irrelevant; most people will change their buying behavior when presented with better alternatives. I have no doubt that what we produce at home are better alternatives. So...who cares if you can make my food yourself? Please do, it's good for you and the earth.

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