I know the legitimate response to this title is – “cooking is a science.” There is a chemical and physical change that takes place during the application of heat or the process of fermentation that scientifically transitions food from one product to another. This process, when understood, is quite predictable and controllable. Understanding and control allow individuals to create a consistent result, one that can be replicated with a high level of confidence. To a manufacturer, this is something that is desirable, but to a cook or chef, this approach takes away the soul of what it means to be engaged in this business. Some may disagree, but I find predictability at this level to be confining.
I wrestle with this topic since I do find that following classical, time-tested, consistent methods of cooking – essential to our trade, but this current rush to define what we do in scientific terms and methods seems different. Just because we can eliminate variables with a more scientific approach doesn’t mean that it is the right approach. Allow me to offer some parallels from other crafts (cooking is, in my mind – still a craft, and cooks are craftspeople) to bring home the point.
I am, as are many cooks, a big fan of accomplished musicians. I appreciate real talent (although I may not like all of the styles of music) in any musical genre. When I witness or listen to a musician who has mastered his or her craft, I am in awe even if I don’t particularly enjoy their choice of music. When I witness that artist in a live venue and see them weave some spontaneity into a song, making it imperfect in relation to a recording, I feel the uniqueness of the moment and respect the right of the artist to vary from the standard. This makes their art interesting and enjoyably unpredictable. On another spectrum, I love great coffee and truly appreciate the business side of companies like Starbucks who have standardized the process of roasting, grinding, and brewing coffee, and training baristas to prepare espresso drinks the “Starbucks way”, so that customers in Seattle and customers in Boston can enjoy the exact same cup of coffee. This allows a company with thousands of stores to be in control of the guest experience and in the business of making money. With all of this structured scientific approach, I still prefer to visit a local coffee shop and find a cup that is uniquely theirs. When a craftsperson puts his or her signature on a product or a dish, a one-of-a-kind experience is the result. To me, this human element of unpredictability is what creates an experience worth looking forward to and worth spending money on.
There is a fascination with breaking down cooking into definitive chemical processes and then look for ways to adjust with formulation to create an identical end product that people can depend on. It is amazing to know that this is possible and as a result we tend to rely on this being the case. Consistency does have its place, but again – what do we lose as a result? It is possible for a vintner to produce a wine void of any variance in taste and in turn – oblivious to vintage. Yet, there is something intriguing about anticipating variances in bouquet, character, mouth feel, and taste from year to year. Anticipating a great vintage because Mother Nature was kind, the soil composition was perfect, the vintner cared for the grapes as if they were his or her children, and the wine maker’s palate was tuned into a perfect blend is one of the most significant parts of the wine experience. Knowing the chemical composition of grape juice and blending to a defined formula somehow misses the reason why many people are so into wine. The same is true with food – it isn’t the recipe that makes a plate of food great, it is the way with which a cook intuitively knows how to work the ingredients and attach his or her signature.
“Professionalism in art has this difficulty: To be professional is to be dependable, to be dependable is to be predictable, and predictability is esthetically boring – an anti-virtue in a field where we hope to be astonished and startled and at some deep level refreshed.”
– John Updike
The rule of consistency has convinced restaurateurs to strive for this goal above all else. It has even been said that even consistently mediocre restaurants can be successful because customers know what to expect. But, consistency is rarely a goal that inspires highly creative cooks or attracts new customers with the promise of a pleasant surprise. In fields where creativity is the carrot that so many employees seek to reach for, predictability through a scientific approach towards connecting the dots, and using time-tested convenience items will turn the best employees away and bore a significant portion of customers looking for an experience.
“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”
So, this is where I am torn. I have always been an advocate for time-tested methods, being true to those cooking methods that have been proven to please, and maintaining a dedication to the foundations of classical preparation – yet, I am fully aware that the great restaurants and the best chefs are always looking to surprise, to tempt, to educate and build something new and exciting. It is possible to blend both – to respect the foundations of cooking that have defined our profession, but build on those foundations with an exciting twist that challenges everyone’s interpretation of what is flavor, and what is good looking food. This is the balance that every great restaurant and chef should seek.
Even in sports, there are two schools of thought on the importance of the science of the sport, the mathematics behind winning, and the excitement that teams and spectators seek.
“If you talk to any pitcher (in baseball), consistency is the most important thing.”
This may be true from the team and coach perspective (winning is the most important goal), but spectators are always waiting for that unexpected knuckle ball or stolen base. It is the unpredictability that keeps people on the edge of their seats, fully engaged, excited and anxious to come back again. It is this same unpredictability, improvisation, and unscientific pattern that keeps craftspeople, like cooks, engaged in their positions and excited about tomorrow.
Marketers know that a certain amount of consistency is important for a portion of the market that thrives on “no surprises”, but are also aware that for a business to continue to grow and attract the attention that leads to on-going success, a level of anticipated unpredictability will attract the innovator and early adopter audience that builds a restaurant’s brand.
“People like consistency. Whether it’s a store or a restaurant, they want to come in and see what you are famous for.”
This is absolutely true until it no longer is. Those businesses that rely on what has worked in the past and the scientific standardization that leads to consistency may find it difficult to change when the need presents itself. From the standpoint of being prepared to excel and excite, there is a mantra of consistency that does work. A restaurant and chef needs to focus on the following:
Be consistently good, consistently interesting, consistently unique, consistently confusing, consistently pushing the envelope, and consistently make customers question their own interpretation of what is good.
I am still torn, but know that when it comes to businesses that draw their energy from creativity – the unpredictable nature of art trumps the need for scientific consistency.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting and Training