We (myself included) have become so obsessed with complex, challenging, unique preparations and presentations of restaurant food that, in many cases, we lost sight of the real enjoyment of food – flavor. Perfection may mean incredibly unique, beautiful, and in some cases – contrived presentations that incorporate the latest techniques that stray from time-tested methods of cooking, but I am beginning to question if that is truly enjoyable to both the guest and the preparer. There is little question that great looking food is instrumental in exciting a diner and stimulating his or her palate, but in the end, it is the flavor that truly satisfies, brings them back, and converts guests into ambassadors. In an ideal world – the visual impact of food and the flavor that creates a nearly euphoric experience can and should coexist. Flavor in the absence of well-orchestrated presentations can still create customer loyalty, but great food presentations in the absence of flavor will quickly lose their appeal.
To carry this theme of simplicity further, restaurants and guests should understand that a chef and his or her crew can only be exceptional at so many different preparations. The larger the menu – the greater the chance of lackluster or mediocre preparations. The more contrived the presentation, the more complex the plate assembly, the more likely restaurants are to miss something critical in flavor profile. The larger the menu, the more likely it is that mistakes will be made.
Let’s take a look at how important flavor is and how challenging it is to get it right. Flavor is not simply how a product tastes. Taste is a component of the flavor profile that makes up a specific dish.
We are all familiar with taste and it’s component parts identified by our buds: sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami. Our mouths have around 10,000 taste buds when we are at our prime. These buds – normally replaced quite often, begin to diminish as we age. So younger cooks, for the most part, have a more acute ability to distinguish these taste points.
As important as taste may be, your sense of smell is even more so. There are more than 10 million olfactory cells in your nasal cavity. These cells pick up very minute differences in smell and send messages (both positive and negative) to the brain. The smell of certain foods can excite these cells and send a message of contentment, familiarity, excitement, perceived hunger, and a desire to taste and experience what is being identified. Think in terms of your flavor memory and much of what you recall is related to those positive smells: baking bread, pastries from an oven, roasting coffee, caramelized onions and garlic, roast meats, searing steaks on a grill, well defined wines, hops used in fermenting beer, and saute’ mushrooms are just a few examples of food items that you can close your eyes and experience all over again without even adding the sense of taste.
Texture or mouth feel has a tremendous impact on flavor. The chew of a steak, the sore jaw from working on a true NYC bagel, the crunch of a September apple, the crunch of a perfect potato chip, the chewiness of corn on the cob only heated by the August sun, or the creaminess of fresh churned ice cream are integral parts of the experience of flavor. Anything contrary to this experience will leave the consumer disappointed in the product even if the taste remains the same or similar.
The vessel that you use to present a food item does (even if some may consider it to be only a psychological illusion) impact on flavor. Riedel glassware has taken this assumption to new levels by defining the type of glass used in drinking wine by grape varietal. The following article supports this belief with some interesting science. To a similar, but more psychological degree, this can apply to the type of china that you serve food on and even the quality of flatware. Much of this relates to the comparison of china quality and the price of the food, but there is little question that a steak experience is better on quality china than on paper plates. If you keep in mind that flavor is an “experience” that must be viewed from a variety of angles, then you can see how this theory would carry some merit.
THE RIEDEL GLASS EXPERIENCE
- VISUAL IMPACT
Yes, how food looks does impact on our perception of flavor. This does not always infer that the visual impact of food need be contrived and complicated. Properly prepared food carries it’s own beauty: the sheen of a steak off the grill as the internal juice marries with the caramelization on the foods surface, the brilliant color of vegetables that are fresh and cooked just right, a seasoned light cluster of fresh herbs atop an entrée, or even the succulent juice and seeds encased in a tomatoes skin is more appealing than food that is built like an artist would develop an intricate painting. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy building these complicated and artistic plate presentations, but at the same time realize that the crispy skin of a perfectly cooked, medium rare duck breast served with bright green haricot vert, caramelized chanterelles, pearl onions and creamy polenta is perfect without additional fuss. A bowl of June wild strawberries with fresh cream, a sprig of mint, and dusting of 10x sugar is as near perfect as you can get.
THE CHALLENGES AND THE SOLUTIONS
The point I am making is this – the restaurant business is very difficult. The expectation of the guest is, and certainly should be, about the flavor experience and the level of welcoming service that a restaurant provides. When we over-complicate what we do and lose sight of these basic truisms, the prospect for long-term success becomes pretty cloudy. Those restaurants that know what they are good at (hopefully involving an understanding of the flavor experience) and that focus on being extraordinary at that are the ones which become timeless. Menus that are too large and that stretch the ability of the kitchen and dining room staff to be extraordinary are self-defeating. Keep it manageable and ensure that every aspect of the flavor experience is hard to beat. Make sure that your china and glassware are selected to complement flavor, have your tap water analyzed to make sure that it is crisp and fresh, buy the correct ice machine to help build a water experience, ensure that your bread is exceptional and purchase quality butter for the table that is held at the perfect temperature for the guest, use only those vegetables and fruit that are in season, do the same for your chosen fish and shellfish, involve your chef with the bar manager or sommelier to build a wine list that marries with the food, and by all means don’t forget to invest in great coffee and tea, the right equipment for brewing, and the training of staff at the level of barista. If you do this and train all staff to treasure this commitment to flavor, then you might just have something special.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
As we get closer to the holiday season and you struggle with gift ideas for those people who work in kitchens, love food, and/or are fascinated with the life of restaurants, then you should add “The Event That Changed Everything” to you gift wish list. Click on the amazon.com link below and order your copy (or copies) today.
The Event That Changed Everything
by: Chef Paul Sorgule
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