I am again out of the kitchen for a short while, traveling and eating for a week in New York and Chicago. A family trip has opened the doors, or simply swung them the opposite direction for me, putting me in the seat of the diner.
It’s interesting how much more aware of myself I have become as a diner as I progress deeper into my career as a cook. I have begun to analyze every reaction I have, from ambiance to seating, menu language to the font, the lighting to the servers clothing. Most importantly, I am aware of every reaction from the moment I can see the food arriving to my table.
I have often told those that would listen, that the experience of a diner all hinges on how strong a memory you create for them. As they walk away, they won’t know exactly why or how you did it, but they will leave with a memory imprint based the entirety of what you created. It is up to you to make it a lasting memory, the kind they retell to their friends, spreading the best kind of publicity, word of mouth.
Just as they won’t know that you took the time to hand peel each garlic clove rather than purchasing tubs of the prepeeled stuff, slicing them open to remove the pale green bitter center, they won’t ever realize that the dish could have been a bit better had it not come off the station of a hung over cook who is a little forgetful this day. They react to exactly what you put in front of them.
I have long known that it is up to me to preconceive their reactions and give them a dish that they will react to strongly and positively. This begins with the initial appearance of the dish, spotted in a servers hands paces away from the table. The moments the dish sits in front of them as they reach silverware, each diner is absorbing as much with their eyes as they can, making predictions about the flavors, anticipating their experience.
The plating style is an outward representation of the chefs style. Is the food playful, modern, minimalistic, and even cliche, overdone, pretentious, unnecessarily decorated. All this is taken in within seconds of a plate even being on the table. Even the shape, color, condition of the plates is absorbed by the diner, aiding in creating expectations from the food on the plate.
Eyes scan the entirety of the dish, taking it in and looking for a starting point. They can begin by picking out small pieces of what looks tastiest, slowly building the larger parts. Tasting a bit of a sauce, picking up a tiny bit of grain, fingering a small chip of something, and finally beginning to cut into vegetable and meats/fish. If the dish is over constructed the diner will struggle with this starting point. They may not know it, but the initial struggle creates a negative emotional response that is carried through out the time they spend with the dish. However, this initial challenge can hint at the complexity of the dish, where as the experience becomes positive as they are rewarded for their strife.
Likewise, an under-constructed minimalistic plate can lead the diner to believe the dish is either boring, or simple in it’s perfection. Their expectations are formed before a single morsel is in their mouths, and it is up to you to understand what your plates are suggesting, and present and experience equal to that.
As the food is tasted, these expectations are held against the flavors and textures. I have found that the most satisfying experiences for me, the diner, come from meals where my visual expectations match the flavor profile of the food itself.
Most important to me is of course, dessert. By the time the dessert menu’s are on the table, most diners have enough food in their stomachs that they don’t need any more volume to satisfy them. If their experience hasn’t been positive to this point, they are unlikely to want to go through the motions again of guessing from the words on the menu, creating expectations upon sight, and holding you to your promises made by both. Often with positive dining experiences, a person can feel fully satiated, leaving no desire for more.
I realize that a large percent of the diners I encounter won’t even open the dessert menu. I don’t have a single chance to give them a memory.
For those that do, I must know that I am battling the same things that kept the others from looking. The diners have reached limits, and I need to understand what drives them to choose something beyond them. The choices they make are now intellectual and emotional.
Most of the emotional triggers that prompt a diner to order dessert have to do with comfort and reward. A simple warm cobbler with vanilla ice cream, or chocolate anything will usually do. However, to reach beyond the obvious, I like to use nostalgic triggers to bring the same comfort to the diner. Because I cook in America, and most Americans have a shared history of eating specific things, I can understand a familiarity nearly every diner will sit at my tables with.
This isn’t a revelation. Chef’s have been reinventing the classics for as long as there were classics for this reason. People react to it. Do it well, and their reaction creates a lasting memory. And that memory is why I cook. I look at every evening as a chance to create a certain number of those memories, and I put everything I have into making each one something you can fondly hold for a while to come.
Everything we do as chef’s involves manipulation. We manipulate food into something larger than the sum of its parts. Understanding the ingredients allows us to manipulate the food into provocative cuisine. Understanding every reaction a diner has from the second they enter the restaurant allows me to manipulate your entire experience. As a diner I know that it is much, much more than the food on the plate that gauges the memories I leave with. As a cook it’s easy to forget that and see only what you are putting on the plate, forget that it is an interaction with another person that will elicit emotions and memories.
So for two more days I sit as most of you, a diner, reacting to everything. I will return to my kitchen in two days time, better prepared to cook for you, the diner.