Food and Drink

Elaine Sciolino is pretty critical.  She writes:

A new consumer protection law meant to inform diners whether their meals are freshly prepared in the kitchen or fabricated somewhere off-site is comprehensive, precise, well intentioned — and, to hear the complaints about it, half-baked.

Public decree No. 2014-797, drafted and passed by the French Parliament and approved by the prime minister, went into effect last week. It allows restaurateurs to use the logo if they have resisted the increasing temptation to buy ready-made dishes from industrial producers, pop them in the microwave and pass them off as culinary artistry.

It doesn’t seem to be working to encourage quality:

French fries, for instance, can bear the “fait maison” symbol if they are precut somewhere else, but not if they are frozen. Participating chefs are allowed to buy a ready-made pâte feuilletée, a difficult-to-make, multilayered puff pastry, but pâte brise, a rich pastry dough used to make flaky tart shells, has to be made on-site. Cured sausages and smoked hams are acceptable, while ready-made terrines and pâtés are not.

…Périco Légasse, a food critic for the weekly magazine Marianne, wrote: “ ‘Homemade’ doesn’t mean freshly made. A dish totally prepared with frozen products, even if they come from a Romanian slaughterhouse, can enjoy this happy distinction as it was cooked on-site.”

Mark Bittman piles on.  I would stress there is no substitute for consumers who demand the right kind of food and who otherwise won’t buy it.

Many people in Russia are putting their own spin on recent events:

Did you know Malaysia Air Flight 17 was full of corpses when it took off from Amsterdam? Did you know that, for some darkly inexplicable reason, on July 17, MH17 moved off the standard flight path that it had taken every time before, and moved north, toward rebel-held areas outside Donetsk? Or that the dispatchers summoned the plane lower just before the crash? Or that the plane had been recently re-insured? Or that the Ukrainian army has air defense systems in the area? Or that it was the result of the Ukrainian military mistaking MH 17 for Putin’s presidential plane, which looks strangely similar?

Did you know that the crash of MH17 was all part of an American conspiracy to provoke a big war with Russia?

There is more here from Julia Ioffe.

Facial recognition is helping improve everything from gaming to fighting crime – and now it could help in the battle against cat obesity.

A new gadget that uses ‘cutting-edge cat facial recognition technology’ promises to monitor our feline friends’ appetites and alert owners to any problems.

The Bistro system, created by Taiwanese company 42Ark, uses a camera at the front of a feeder to identify each of the cats.

There is more here, along with obligatory cat photo, with the cat’s face being scanned by facial recognition technology.  For the pointer I thank Mark Thorson.

This is from a New York Craigslist post, from a restaurant owner who apparently viewed tapes of customers from 2004 and 2014, here is part of his account of the more recent behavior:

2014

Customers walk in.

Customers get seated and is given menus, out of 45 customers 18 requested to be seated elsewhere.

Before even opening the menu they take their phones out, some are taking photos while others are simply doing something else on their phone (sorry we have no clue what they are doing and do not monitor customer WIFI activity).

7 out of the 45 customers had waiters come over right away, they showed them something on their phone and spent an average of 5 minutes of the waiter’s time. Given this is recent footage, we asked the waiters about this and they explained those customers had a problem connecting to the WIFI and demanded the waiters try to help them.

Finally the waiters are walking over to the table to see what the customers would like to order. The majority have not even opened the menu and ask the waiter to wait a bit.

Customer opens the menu, places their hands holding their phones on top of it and continue doing whatever on their phone.

There is more here, interesting throughout, and for the pointer I thank Jacqueline Mason.

A man exploited the perks of business-class travel to feast for free 35 times in a year at Deutsche Lufthansa AG (LHA’s) Munich airport lounge — without ever taking off.

The man used the flexibility of the one-way fare to Zurich to repeatedly reschedule his travel plans after gaining access to food and drink, Munich district court said in a statement. Lufthansa canceled the ticket after more than a year and refunded the price, only for the man to purchase a replacement.

The court ruled that lounge services are provided on the assumption that travelers will seek to fly, and ordered the man to pay Lufthansa 1,980 euros ($2,705), equal to about 55 euros per visit or more than twice the cost of the 744.46-euro ticket. Lufthansa pursued a prosecution only after the man bought the second ticket with the intention of resuming his foraging raids.

Business-class fares typically offer the flexibility to rebook when plans change, while offering perks such as access to premium lounges, conference facilities and showers. The Munich facility at Lufthansa second-biggest hub offers Bavaria’s Loewenbraeu beer on tap, together with local delicacies including leberkas meatloaf and sausages with sweet mustard.

The link is here and for the pointer I thank Hugo Lindgren.  And yes, I know there are various spellings of “leberkas.”

The British government is pulling out all the stops for Scotland with a referendum on independence two months away, going so far as to lobby the United States government to allow the importation of that famous Scottish delicacy made from sheep’s innards, haggis.

The problem, it seems, is sheep lungs, which the United States banned for consumption in 1971. But lungs are vital to traditional haggis, which usually also contains minced sheep heart and liver, mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet and spices. It’s all stuffed into a sheep’s stomach, which is then simmered for several hours. Delicious, no?

There is more here.  But is the market really there?  I hope not.  Please keep this in mind:

There is apparently a shocking lack of knowledge about haggis. According to a not-very-scientific online survey in 2003, carried out by the haggis manufacturer Hall’s of Broxburn, a third of American visitors to Scotland believed that haggis was an animal. Nearly a quarter thought they could catch one.

Yikes:

At about 11 o’clock in the morning [June 20], at the grand marketplace in Yulin [China], a dog peddler was haggling with dog lovers over the price of a dog, and because they couldn’t agree on a price, the dog peddler lifted the dog high into the air three times with metal prongs, doing so to force the dog lovers to buy the dog at a high price. In the end, a woman paid 350 yuan to buy the dog. At the scene, quite a few dog peddlers used mistreatment of the dogs to force dog lovers to buy the dogs.

Here is some further background:

Also, according to the official Weibo account of Chengdu Commercial Daily, on the eve of the Dog Meat Festival, a large number of dog lovers gathered in Yulin. On the morning of [June] 20, at 9 o’clock, at the Yulin dog meat market, upon seeing that there were dog lovers present, some dog peddlers began abusing their dogs at the scene, yelling: ”Will you people buy it or not? If not, I’ll strangle it to death [with the prongs]!” Dog lovers bought the dogs with tears in their eyes, and the dog peddlers waved the cash they got before the surrounding onlookers. The onlookers cheered, and some even gave them the thumbs-up.

The story with some rather gruesome photos is here, and for the pointer I thank Ben P.

This trend is accelerating:

When Jim Sullivan began working as a waiter at a Dallas restaurant a few years ago, he was being watched — not by the prying eyes of a human boss, but by intelligent software.

The digital sentinel, he was told, tracked every waiter, every ticket, and every dish and drink, looking for patterns that might suggest employee theft. But that torrent of detailed information, parsed another way, cast a computer-generated spotlight on the most productive workers.

Mr. Sullivan’s data shone brightly. And when his employer opened a fourth restaurant in the Dallas area in 2012, Mr. Sullivan was named the manager — a winner in the increasingly quantified world of work.

Here is some of what goes on behind the scenes:

Ben Waber is chief executive of Sociometric Solutions, a start-up that grew out of his doctoral research at M.I.T.’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, which conducts research in the new technologies. Sociometric Solutions advises companies using sensor-rich ID badges worn by employees. These sociometric badges, equipped with two microphones, a location sensor and an accelerometer, monitor the communications behavior of individuals — tone of voice, posture and body language, as well as who spoke to whom for how long.

Sociometric Solutions is already working with 20 companies in the banking, technology, pharmaceutical and health care industries, involving thousands of employees. The workers must opt in to have their data collected. Mr. Waber’s company signs a contract with each one guaranteeing that no individual data is given to the employer (only aggregate statistics) and that no conversations are recorded.

The article by Steve Lohr is here.

Montreal bleg

by on June 20, 2014 at 5:03 pm in Food and Drink, Travel | Permalink

Where should I eat there?  And what is the best place for vegetarian or Indian food?  I thank you all in advance for whatever aid you can offer.

Here is the entire NYT forum, here is my contribution, “Democratizing the Dining Experience,” excerpt:

Consider how it works when you can’t just buy a place at the table, as is still the case in most restaurants today. Tables at the best places are hard to get and you have to take other measures, such as waiting in long lines, trying to befriend restaurant staff, becoming a regular, or eating much earlier or later than you want to, among other tactics. Those actions cost money, or time, or they are inconvenient, or all of the above. For most people, it is better to have the option to pay money up front to ensure access when desired.

While the explicit pricing of reservations does favor the wealthy, keep in mind a restaurant can only demand so much money. The ability to charge for tables will, over time, limit the rate at which prices for the food go up and that is likely more or less a wash. Besides, paying for a reservation is commonly about 10 percent of the total value of the check, so if you need to, skip dessert and win those dollars back.

When restaurants don’t charge for reservations, they tend to hold back tables for regular customers, celebrities, very attractive people and the politically and socially well connected. You might be dying to go to that restaurant for a special birthday or anniversary, but you’ll simply be unable to get in. Money is ultimately a more egalitarian force than privilege, as everyone’s greenbacks are worth the same.

Here is very different contribution from that forum, “The Latest Slap in the Face From Restaurants,” and here is “Hospitality Shouldn’t Have a Price.”  Here is a chef and restauranteur explaining how he sees it.

If you would like to ponder two follow-up questions, they might be these.  First, has the growth of on-line reviews made charging for reservations easier?  (And not just technologically easier.)  Reputations spread on-line rather than through word of mouth, and thus the restaurant need not work so hard to put the price below market-clearing and attempt to cull customers on the basis of who will spread good word of mouth.  Second, how much of the efficiencies here are coming from a form of output-increasing price discrimination (high demanders can pay more to buy their way in, for low demanders some times remain free or cheap), and how much from better matching or other features of the reservations-buying institution?

Starbucks will provide a free online college education to thousands of its workers, without requiring that they remain with the company, through an unusual arrangement with Arizona State University, the company and the university will announce on Monday.

The program is open to any of the company’s 135,000 United States employees, provided they work at least 20 hours a week and have the grades and test scores to gain admission to Arizona State. For a barista with at least two years of college credit, the company will pay full tuition; for those with fewer credits it will pay part of the cost, but even for many of them, courses will be free, with government and university aid.

“Starbucks is going where no other major corporation has gone,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive of the Lumina Foundation, a group focused on education. “For many of these Starbucks employees, an online university education is the only reasonable way they’re going to get a bachelor’s degree.”

There is further information here.

Do you ever say “Rats!” after making a mistake?  It now has a whole new meaning:

They [scientists] developed a task called Restaurant Row, in which rats decided how long they were willing to wait for different foods during a 60-minute run.

“It’s like waiting in line at the restaurant,” Prof Redish. “If the line is too long at the Chinese restaurant, then you give up and go to the Indian restaurant across the street.”

The rats waited longer for their preferred flavours, meaning the researchers could determine good and bad food options.

Occasionally the rats decided not to wait for a good option and moved on, only to find themselves facing a bad option – the scientists called this a regret-inducing situation.

In these cases the rats often paused and looked back at the reward they had passed over.

They also made changes in their subsequent decisions, being more likely to wait at the next zone and rushing to eat the reward that followed. The scientists say such behaviour is consistent with the expression of regret.

When experiments were carried out where the rats encountered bad options without making incorrect decisions, such behaviour was not present.

The article is here, the paper is here, all via Michelle Dawson.

So how can an ice cube be worth eight dollars?  It is simple eough:

“Gläce Luxury Ice is a meticulously designed and differentiated ice brand specifically designed for use in premium drinks and cocktails. The Gläce Mariko Sphere is a perfectly spherical 2.5-inch piece with a melting rate of 20-30 minutes. The Gläce G-Cubed, a symmetrical 2.5-inch cube, has a dilution rate of 20-40 minutes. Gläce Ice pieces are individually carved from a 300-lb. block to ensure flawless quality and a zero-taste profile, never contaminating the essence of premium liquors and drinks.”

Better yet:

In addition to their cubes, Gläce also offers the “Mariko,” a sphere that the company claims “is the most mathematically efficient way to cool your drink” — though probably not so for your bank account: 50 “spheres” run $325 (same as their cube counterparts).

And how does the company describe the “Mariko”?

“The sphere is the most efficient shape in nature holding the greatest volume to surface area ratio of any other geometric shape. Purified of minerals, additives and other pollutants that may contaminate the taste of premium liquors and drinks, the Gläce Luxury Ice Mariko sphere is meticulously crafted to deliver and embody the finest accessory for top shelf drinks.  Each five pieces are elegantly contained in a re-sealable pouch equipped with a one-way air check valve to ensure freshness.”

There is more here, including photos.

1. Many people in Chengdu are experts on the local food scene.  Recruit one of them, but don’t be shocked if they insist on paying for your meal every time.

2. Go downtown to the Crowne Plaza hotel, walk out on the main road to your left, and within two minutes you will see on your left a “TangSong food street” — a covered food court about twenty-five small Sichuan places.  There is a sushi place too but I saw the customers dipping their sushi rolls in hot red chili oil.  It is heartwarming to walk into such a culinary universe.

2b. Within this court my favorite place is labeled “1862 History,” you might spot the small print, in any case the place looks spare and is somewhat larger than the very small venues.

3. MaPo tofu is much finer here, and the black peppers and quality vinegars are to be appreciated.

4. Sichuan chili chicken and Dan Dan noodles are two of my favorite Sichuan dishes back home.  Here they have been good, but actually slightly disappointing relative to expectations.  Don’t obsess over those during your quest.

4b. There are two philosophies of international trade.  In one philosophy, the best dishes are the best dishes and so you should order them at home and also order them abroad in their countries of origin.  In the second philosophy, it is the most exportable dishes which get exported but they are not in general the best dishes period.  When abroad you therefore should try out the dishes you cannot find at home.  For Chengdu at least, this second philosophy is the correct one as Jacob Viner had hinted way back in the mid-1930s.

5. Often the most interesting dishes are the accompanying vegetables.  For instance at a hot pot restaurant I had excellent elongated yam cubes coated in a (slightly sweet) blueberry sauce and stacked ever so perfectly.  It was the ideal offset to the hotness and tingle of the core dishes.  At another restaurant I most enjoyed some simple greens dipped in a sesame soy sauce.  Or try potato or lotus root in hot pot.

6. Unless you go to great lengths to avoid this fate, you will end up eating strange parts of the animal.  You won’t like all of them, but you won’t dislike all of them either.

6b. If you utter “Ma La” with conviction, they will think you are remarkably sophisticated or perhaps even fluent in Chinese.  The populace here seems unaware that some version of real Sichuan food is now reasonably popular in the United States.

7. Many menus have photos, but they show lots of red and are not useful for identifying exactly what you will be eating.  See #6.

8. There are two areas — Jin Li and Wenshu Fang — where old buildings and streets are recreated and you can stroll in a kind of outdoor shopping mall.  Everyone goes to these locales and they are fun.  These neighborhoods are good for finding lots of takeaway Sichuan snacks, including desserts, in a single area, and served in sanitary conditions.  That said, I don’t think these are the very best Sichuan goodies to be had in town, as they are designed explicitly for tourists, albeit food-loving Chinese tourists.

9.   “Chengdu food” and “Sichuan food” are not the same thing.  Sichuan province has more people than France, and Chengdu is simply one large city, and so your favorite Sichuan dish may not be a staple here.  The town also has a fair amount of Tibetan food, though I haven’t tried any.

10. If you leave Chengdu confused as to exactly where and what you ate, you probably had a very good food trip.

Could it be as an add-on to higher-margin, branded carry-away commercial products?  Here is one new development:

Starting Thursday…bags and cups in Chipotle’s stores will be adorned with original text by Foer, Malcolm Gladwell, Toni Morrison, George Saunders, and Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Lewis.  Foer says, ”Chipotle refrained from meddling in the editorial process for the duration of the initiative, which the burrito chain has branded Cultivating Thought. “I selected the writers, and insofar as there was any editing, I did it,” Foer said. “I tried to put together a somewhat eclectic group, in terms of styles. I wanted some that were essayistic, some fiction, some things that were funny, and somewhat thought provoking.”

You can read more here, via @ArikSharon.