Category: Food and Drink

How to order in a restaurant offers the following parody:

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Glance quickly at the menu and order whatever catches your eye first. Spend no more than 2-3 seconds deciding or the quality of your choice (and your meal) will decline.

Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
The key to ordering a good meal in a restaurant is understanding the economic incentives involved. Ask the server what they recommend and order something else…they are probably trying to get you to order something with a high profit margin or a dish that the restaurant needs to get rid of before the chicken goes bad or something. Never order the second least expensive bottle of wine; it’s typically the one with the highest mark-up on the list (i.e. the worst deal).

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz
Take the menu and rip it into 4 or 5 pieces. Order from only one of the pieces, ignoring the choices on the rest of the menu. You will be happier with your meal.

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
Poll the other patrons at the restaurant about what they’re having and order the most popular choices for yourself.

Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson
Order anything made with lots of butter, sugar, etc. Avoid salad or anything organic. A meal of all desserts may be appropriate. Or see if you can get the chef to make you a special dish like foie gras and bacon covered with butterscotch and hot fudge. Ideally, you will have brought a Super Sized McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese Meal into the restaurant with you. Smoke and drink liberally.

Thanks to Chris Masse for the pointer.

Barry Nalebuff’s tea

"The label of Barry Nalebuff’s, Honest Tea, which is sold on my campus, had the economics department up in arms last year.  I don’t have one in front of me, but in addition to the quote you shared, the label contains a graph plotting taste (total quality or utility in a sense, I guess) on the y-axis and sugar (presumably the only important input to the manufacturers) on the x-axis.  The graph is parabolic, revealing an increasing marginal product of sugar up to a point, and then a diminishing marginal product all the way down to the x-axis.  The manufacturer puts the competition way down past peak, as one might expect.  However, the manufacturer plots Honest Tea just BEFORE the peak of the curve.  That is, it seems they do not use sufficient sugar to maximize taste by their own standards."

My food bleg

Do you know of a good barbecue restaurant in or near Savannah?  I will have a car, and yes a) I like dumps, b) I know that health code violations are a code of honor in the sector, and c) the best barbecue enjoys low rents outside the center city.

I’m currently researching the economics of barbecue, and you’ll hear more about this in the coming months.  If you know of anything good written on barbecue, please pass along that suggestion as well.  I’ve turned on the comments section, or you can email me directly, thanks in advance.

Imaginary book excerpts

Charles Fourier, the nineteenth century French Utopian Socialist, saw gastronomy as a key to political philosophy.  Sex and food should be the dual bases of the new socialist order, which he referred to as “Gastrosophy.”  Continual stimulation of the senses would bring about a true harmony of interests, as enforced by elitist culinary judges and juries [TC: who enforces the sex part?].  But sadly culinary science had been corrupted by capitalism and its imposition of artificial scarcity.  Fourier considered the Aristotelian virtue of moderation to be an abomination.  He saw the socialist future as bringing five meals a day plus two snacks.  Men will be seven feet tall, digestion will be easy, and life expectancy will reach 144 years.  Fourier, of course, in addition predicted that socialism would bring ships pulled by dolphins and oceans full of lemonade.  But hey, not everyone is perfect.  They also laughed when he proclaimed that the steam locomotive would revolutionize European travel.

That is by me, of course.  I thank Priscilla Ferguson’s intriguing Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine for some of the details. 

In-vitro meat and the animal welfare movement

I predict that the animal welfare movement will expand dramatically in the next several decades as in-vitro meat becomes widely available.  In-vitro meat is "made in the laboratory" meat – it’s real meat but grown in "vats" rather than on animals.  In-vitro meat has already been grown in thin slices, thick steaks are harder because fresh meat must be fed nutrients by a blood supply and that requires an incredibly complicated network of capillaries and veins.   But really, who is going to notice the difference in a McDonald’s patty?  I bet thin meat tastes a lot better than tofu.

I think that many people have an idea in the back of their minds that something is not quite right about the treatment of animals (see Tyler’s post) but so long as they taste good and there are few substitutes why bring the idea to the forefront when it will just make you feel bad?   In-vitro meat will change this equation.  With a ready substitute suppression will no longer be necessary and the question of animal welfare will explode into the public consciousness.

Forget PETA, animal welfarists should be sending their money to researchers working on in-vitro meat.

Aside from animal welfare, in-vitro meat could be economic.  In an article in 1932 Winston Churchill argued:

Fifty years hence we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.

This quote is often put forward as an example of foolish prediction but my bet is that Churchill was off by no more than a factor of ~2.

Addendum: No, this isn’t an April Fool’s joke!


If the transformation of eggs by heat seems remarkable, consider what beating can do!  Physical agitation normally breaks down and destroys structure. but beat eggs and you create structure.  Begin with a single dense, sticky egg white, work it with a whisk, and in a few minutes you have a cupful of snowy white foam, a cohesive structure that clings to the bowl when you turn it upside down, and holds its o wn when mixed and cooked.  Thanks to egg whites we’re able to harvest the air, and make it an integral part of meringues and mousses, gin fizzes and souffles and sabayons.

The full foaming power of egg white seems to have burst forth in the early 17th century.  Cooks had noticed the egg’s readiness to foam long before then, and by Renaissance times were exploiting it in two fanciful dishes: imitation snow and the confectioner’s miniature loaves and biscuits.  But in those days the fork was still a novelty, and twigs, shreds of dried fruits, and sponges could deliver only a coarse froth at best.  Sometime around 1650, cooks began to use more efficient whisks of bundled straw, and meringues and souffles start to appear in cookbooks.

That is from Harold McGee’s superb On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.  Imagine the writing and expository skills of a Richard Dawkins, but applied to applied chemistry in the kitchen, and maintained at a consistent and gripping level for 809 pages.  The only problem with this book is that the magnitude of the quantity and quality is simply overwhelming.

Dan Klein and I used to have a saying: "You so much learn the whole book."  In marked contrast is Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe.  Penrose remains a brilliant scientist and writer.  But never before have I seen a book that so clearly consists of material that I either a) already know, or b) will never know.

The Benefits of Contingency Fees II

I am in Miami for a few days.  My guidebook has this to say:

Miami restaurants are notorious for slow, arrogant service, by the time you finally get your cutting-edge dish of pan-roasted, pan-seared whatever, the trend that created it may well be long over.

I can verify, last night I walked out of two restaurants.  A little while later the guidebook also notes:

…many restaurants top up the bill with a 15-18 percent gratuity …

Also true, as in Europe Miami restaurants tack-on the "gratuity" automatically.  What the guidebook falls to mention is that the latter fact explains the former.

Tomatoes and the force of law

This last week my home state of New Jersey made the tomato the official state vegetable [NB: this is the same state that named an NJ Turnpike rest stop after Vince Lombardi].  But isn’t the tomato a fruit?  In defense of its action, the state cited an 1887 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that tomatoes were subject to tariffs on vegetables.  Supposedly tomatoes can qualify as a vegetable because they are served with dinner and not as dessert.

Here is the link.  I believe the blog is by Craig Newmark’s daughter, it is worth a look.

The Michelin Dining Guide is coming to New York City

For the last five months [Michelin] gastronomic undercover agents have been working on the Michelin Guide to New York City, the company’s first hotel and restaurant ratings outside Europe. Michelin’s green sightseeing guides have covered the United States since 1968.

Édouard Michelin, the chairman of the French tire company that bears his name, is expected to announce plans for the 2006 New York guide. The book, to go on sale Nov. 15, will rate 500 restaurants in the five boroughs and 50 Manhattan hotels.

Here is The New York Times story.

How will this matter?  Zagat’s guides, the main U.S. competitor, are sold to make profit.  Furthermore they rely on unpaid reader evaluations, which tend to be low-brow or middle-brow.  Michelin Red Guides hire quality inspectors but typically lose money.  They are viewed by the parent company as loss leaders for the company name.  Whether or not this loss leader logic will apply to the U.S., the Michelin inspectors have accumulated expertise in "tony" (some would say snobby) evaluations. 

So use the Michelin guide if you are rich, using an expense account, or have especially good taste in food.  (I put myself only in the latter category.)  The median buyer, just out for fun, can stick with Zagat.

It is well known that Michelin "carries" the Lyon restaurant of Paul Bocuse at the exalted three-star status, even though the place no longer merits such high marks.  Bocuse remains a well-connected French culinary institution.  How much will the guide have to pander to and flatter Americans?  If New York has no three-star restaurants, will U.S. customers view the guide as French culinary snobbery?

Markets in Everything: Valentine’s Edition

This one is about how markets go wrong.

For $40, Without Reservations will sell you a dinner reservation for Valentine’s Day at a top-notch restaurant in New York, San Francisco or LA.  How do they get the reservations?  Simple, WR calls up restaurants a few weeks before a big event and they reserve under a fake name (you are in fact buying the fake name.)  So all this "service" is doing is selling you something for which they in part have created the shortage. 

True, scalping can create some social benefits by reallocating goods from low-valued to high-valued users but it’s not obvious that the foresighted people are the ones with low-demand so I think that benefit is likely to be small in this context.  In addition, it’s much easier for a firm to monopolize restaurant reservations than concert tickets and a monpolist seller of reservations has an incentive to keep some reservations off the market thereby leeching from both the customer and the restaurant.

As in other contexts, it it catches on this will encourage restaurants to sell their own reservations this would be better for restaurants than letting WR get the profits but for reasons that are somewhat puzzling it is evidently worse for restaurants than their current method of allocation.

Thanks to Courtney Knapp for the pointer.

Wittgensteinian sushi

…the sushi made by Mr. Cantu, the 28-year-old executive chef at Moto in Chicago, often contains no fish. It is prepared on a Canon i560 inkjet printer rather than a cutting board. He prints images of maki on pieces of edible paper made of soybeans and cornstarch, using organic, food-based inks of his own concoction. He then flavors the back of the paper, which is ordinarily used to put images onto birthday cakes, with powdered soy and seaweed seasonings.

At least two or three food items made of paper are likely to be included in a meal at Moto, which might include 10 or more tasting courses. Even the menu is edible; diners crunch it up into a bowl of gazpacho, creating Mr. Cantu’s version of alphabet soup.

Sometimes he seasons the menus to taste like the main courses. Recently, he used dehydrated squash and sour cream powders to match a soup entree. He also prepares edible photographs flavored to fit a theme: an image of a cow, for example, might taste like filet mignon.

"We can create any sort of flavor on a printed image that we set our minds to," Mr. Cantu said. The connections need not stop with things ordinarily thought of as food. "What does M. C. Escher’s ‘Relativity’ painting taste like? That’s where we go next."

Here is The New York Times story.  Thanks to Matt Dreyer for the pointer.

Is Paris the best place to eat in France?

I have been to France many times, but I have mixed feelings about so much eating in Paris.  Yes so many items are wonderful but could not UNESCO have a few branches in Colmar, Avignon, or the Southwest?

Paris has more fine restaurants than ever before, but cheap food in Paris continues to decline in quality.  Why do we observe this apparent paradox?

Think of two differing ways of supporting quality cuisine.  The first relies on external benefits from a tightly knit network of quality food suppliers.  Restaurants, for instance, might have close links to slaughterhouses, fishing boats, and very wise grandmas.  The second method relies on made-to-order directed artisanal production.  These more expensive food outputs are purely professional in nature and are often funded by tourist demand.  The relevant ingredients are often flown in or otherwise hurried in by expensive methods of transport.  The global replaces the local.

As Parisian real estate continues to rise in value, Parisian food moves out of the first category and into the second.  Food supplies and markets get pushed out to the fringes or out of Paris altogether.  Restaurants no longer can locate in the meat-packing district to receive prime fresh cuts of offal at low cost.  Grandmas are less important as a source of food ideas.

As food markets get crowded out to more distant locales, wealthy tourists arrive in greater numbers.  Neighborhood restaurants become less important and no longer attract the best cooking talent.  Culinary knowledge is bought and sold to greater degree, and is less "in the air."  Labor costs rise with the general increase in prosperity and with French labor law.  In sum, more quality can be afforded than ever before, but the marginal cost of quality rises as well.  Quality, on average, shifts into the wealthier sector of the market.

We might say the following.  More people eat well than ever before, due largely to growing wealth.  But for a given income class, good food is more expensive than ever before as well.

So at the mid-level, quality food can become more expensive and harder to find.  Food networks are now selling their knowledge rather than giving it away for free.  Of course you can still go to the provinces, where land remains much cheaper than in Paris.  A $40 meal in Nice or Elsass is much better than along the Right Bank or next to Notre Dame.

Mexican food stalls are an example of a supply chain that still fits the model of neighborhood production.  But even here the best stalls are now in the suburbs of Oaxaca, not in the city itself.

It is wrong to blame McDonalds for the decline of quality in Parisian bistros.  The spread of McDonalds is in fact the result of a broader syndrome, driven by French economic growth and the compact nature of Paris, which exacerbates land value issues.

So is Paris the best place to eat in France?  Is Manhattan the best place to eat in the United States?  The answer is maybe, depending on how much money you wish to spend.

Why does America have inferior raw ingredients?

Mostafa Sabet, a reader, writes:

I agree with your point [TC: my link] about raw ingredients and wonder why the richest nation in the world has such crappy raw ingredients?  We can afford it and obviously people can tell the difference.  Sure it won’t affect the McDonalds’ and freezer section food, but why does it go all the way downstream unless you pay exorbitant amounts of money for it?  When I was in Egypt, not exactly first world, the raw ingredients were far superior to the ones here.  Any ideas? 

A tough question, I see a few major hypotheses:

1. Things are changing rapidly, just visit Wegmans.  OK, but why has it taken so long?  And of course the revolution remains far from complete.

2. It is an exogenous demand-side question.  Americans have bad taste in food, just as the Chinese have bad taste in lounge music.  Why, for that matter, do the Japanese like karaoke so much?  Why do the Scots serve deep-fried Mars candy bars?  Note that more detailed versions of this hypothesis blame the British connection, Protestantism, and possibly the rule of law as well.

3. Food transportation in the U.S. exhibits economies of scale to an unprecedented degree.  The relative price of canned and frozen and mass-branded goods is thus especially low here.  This discriminates against both quality and freshness.

4. U.S. agricultural is so efficient that large farms replace small farms.  At the margin this raises the marginal cost of "artisanal production" of gourmet items.  The more heavily subsidized European agriculture has preserved many more small farms, which favors quality artisanal production.

5. It can take hours to make a really good mole sauce.  America has high wages, nighttime shopping, plus the best TV shows in the world.  The opportunity cost of good cooking and fine, slow dining is very high here.