Sunday, September 15, 2019

Why is Deliciousness So Rare?

Why isn't deliciousness more common, considering that we finally enjoy:
  • Omnipresent availability of nearly every imaginable ingredient.
  • Immense widespread knowledge about cooking techniques once guarded as professional secrets, plus common familiarity with techniques of other cultures.
  • A public that appreciates deliciousness much more than ever (prior to the 1990's rich people dined out mostly as an expression of status and non-rich people were mostly content with basic nourishment - deliciousness being a welcome yet unnecessary parameter for both).
  • Massively advanced food science, fed by multibillion-dollar R&D budgets.
  • Food lovers no longer being considered fussy weirdos. Now that the jocks and the cool kids can be "into food", chowhounds and foodies no longer seem so ditzy.
For one thing, it seems certain at this juncture that delicious cooking doesn't scale; it can't be produced by chain restaurants. If McDonald's could offer scrumptiousness, they'd have done so long ago (wouldn't it be fantastic if McDonald's was great?). If a mid-level family restaurant chain could turn out poached chicken breast or lasagna with the ability to make customers moan with pleasure, they certainly would have. Chains can hire outstandingly talented chefs to create recipes, and leading scientists to innovate processes ensuring a faithful rendering, and yet, it's still all crap. 100% crap across the board, despite vast advances and money and science and economies of scale. It's at least edible, sure; edible drek that can be fluffed and lit and marketed to not detract from a wider brand experience. But it's drek nonetheless.
Popeye's fried chicken is pretty good, yeah, but it's more mindlessly crunchy/greasy/brain-stem-pleasurable than truly delicious. Just try any of their inert side dishes (or their cringe-inducing biscuits) to see the hard limits. Popeye's chicken seems to represent the ceiling of what's possible, quality-wise, in a large chain, and it's really not that good.

I know there are those who insist McDonald's french fries are damn good, but compare them to fries produced by a talented fry cook and I know which batch you'll ignore.
The problem is that there's no talent in the kitchen at a McDonald's or Applebee's or Olive Garden. Just low-priced drone cooks following strict procedures backed by infinite money, research, and industrial design. While it may all flow from genuine talent atop the pyramid in some industrial kitchen somewhere, even the cleverest procedures can't mass-produce deliciousness. This should have been conceded by now (instead, biz types mostly just define deliciousness down).

But while chains are a big slice of the food service pie, there are still countless venues where professional cooks cook. Alas, these mostly pretty much suck, too.

As a picky mo-fo, I'd go so far as to declare the vast majority of celebrated hipster pop-up Yelp-5-star chow more shticky than toothsome. Even the rarified top echelon of today's culinary heap, the pricy, much-lauded tasting menu temples, inevitably leave me cold. They can be extraordinarily competent, but mere competence - even diligent, meticulous competence - cannot yield deliciousness. Deep training and luxe ingredients can't make me go "Mmm", much less lose my mind. Never forget that The Sainted Arepa Lady used supermarket margarine, and I've never found a way to spend my way to her level of aesthetic devastation.

So why isn't food better? Why is deliciousness still such an aberration that its discovery gets people excited? Why are "8"s ("vocal expression of pleasure") so rare, and "9"s ("rational thought breaks down") like meteors? I've thought a lot about this, and much of it, you'll be unsurprised to hear, boils down to limited perceptual framing, i.e. perspective.

Most people in food service have been trained for consistency and competence, not deliciousness (remember Leff's Third Law!). Most food service jobs are about getting it done, not conjuring magic, which is a whole other thing. This is big reason why most food flatlines the deliciometer. In "Should You Go to Cooking School?", I wrote:
Deliciousness and competence are very different things. In any given moment, mountains of competent food are being cooked - much of it by culinary school grads - that you or I would never want to eat. That drab hotel breakfast buffet is competent. That mediocre fund-raiser chicken dinner is competent. The expensive "gourmet" catering store where everything's precious but nothing has a lick of flavor? Competent! All the grim non-deliciousness out there, comprising 98% of food service, is prepared by competent robo-chefs who literally can't remember what deliciousness is. They believe they're nailing it, because they're doing the moves they were taught, and they're doing it all correctly.

All these hacky, uninspired chefs cook drab, spiritually neutral food that is, from a technical perspective, right on the money. It's hard to stock that breakfast buffet with ninety zillion individual items! It requires the logistical and execution skills of a small army, and the chefs can be rightfully proud of pulling it off day after day. But they may never register the fact that no customer has ever clenched eyes shut, pounded table with fist, and hollered "Holy CRAP that's great!". Such an outcome is not even on their radar.
Aspiration frames your perspective, and limited aspiration functions as a constraint. In a posting titled "Framing Failure", I explained that if you don't aim higher than necessary, you'll average lower than intended:
Amateur musicians sometimes play out of tune. This is because they're trying to play in tune. If you try to play in tune, that means that when you fail (and you will fail!), you'll be noticeably out of tune.

Professional musicians don't try to play in tune. They're preoccupied with trying to play really, really in tune. So when they fail (and they will fail), they're still reasonably in tune, though not precisely enough for their standards. They'll wince, and feel like failures, but you won't hear it.

Amateurs conclude that professionals fail less; they must be trying to play in tune and consistently succeeding. Wrong. They're failing as often as anyone, but they're working within narrower tolerances. We're all failures, but they're failing well.
If you're intending to make competent quiche, you'll wind up somewhere below that - nowhere near greatness. And if you try make great quiche, you'll come out below that. Greatness only happens with unreasonably high ("better than great"!) aspirations, and even then only if there's the talent, commitment and endurance to fulfill those aspirations. Why should that be anything but rare?

Greatness is never an accident. Greatness is produced by heroically, obsessively fighting crazily far up the curve of declining results. It doesn't just "happen".

As I wrote in a posting titled "The Most Helpful Insight About Creativity":
"Shitty", "adequate", and "great" are not neighbors. Greatness is a quadrillion times more demanding; a separate realm above and beyond.
To achieve steady output at the high level of "delicious", you've got to be an absolute kook, raving and sobbing and treating your kids maybe not so nice and getting ulcers and dying young. This is not "normal."

Another way of seeing it: you can't achieve escape velocity without a shmear of the slippery, artsy-fartsy, woo-woo stuff - i.e. love,  talent, magic, touch, etc. - which I've been writing about here for years, trying to pin it down (see postings labeled "Creativity"). One of my central points is that that the process leading to that stuff isn't normal, isn't healthy, and you'd turn your head away if you were to glimpse the process. Magic is messy, not clean and prim and shiny. Never forget that Beethoven composed in a diaper.

Consider this: just opening a drably mediocre restaurant and keeping it going day after day is an exhausting experience requiring super-human perseverance (which makes even hacks mistakenly consider themselves deeply-committed artists).

Another factor: restaurateurs undervalue the importance of a chef's touch, talent, and commitment. As I wrote in "What Makes Restaurants Go Downhill?", they think of chefs as hot-swappable modules, failing to "recognize that deliciousness is the outcome not of sound management, diligent investment, and clear vision, but mostly of how lovingly the chef flips the next pancake."

See also "The Non-Linearity of Deliciousness"

See also "Why My Cooking Isn't Great", which confesses:
Why is my cooking delicious and not devastating? Because I'm merely super-hyper-mega committed, which makes me a piker. Seeing the chefs at Nudel, I instantly flashed: they could cook better than me without even trying. So why do I try so much less than they do?


Richard Stanford said...

Possibly, is it because the scale you suggest (which is great, btw) is inevitably subjective, so a what used to be a 7 is now seen as a 5 due to unconsciously raised expectations?

Steve said...

I have worked with many people who will wax eloquent about all the fast food, corporate casual places you could imagine. They crave those flavors. Their desire for that food is as strong as for a Chowhound who revels in the discovery of an Arepa Lady. They have achieved their bliss, and without resorting to any effort.

"Fast foodies know the deal."

Display Name said...

Jim I've been thinking all day about your fb comment where even fabulous home cooks get tired ot their own cooking. You have shared a lot here, for example I now know that bird shit is your kryptonite. I hope Lex Luther never reads this slog. I was forunate enough to have two grandmothers and a mother who loved to cook I have all these wonderful family recipes I can make and riff on. Like fried tomatoes. My cooking doesn't have all the same vibe because I have all this wealth to draw on. I don't think you got that experience. Plus I keep jumping up and down and saying seasonal! It's pretty hard to get tired of corn on the cob and tomato sandwiches. Plus for the very first time I managed to score some broccoli grown right there at the farm stand. I was so excited. I overcooked it dang it but it still was amazing. Could it be you just don't love cooking as much as some? Did I phrase that right? Don't want to trigger any contrarions! Would love to ask that dude if he is a gamer. In the dictionary Contrarion and Gamer are the same entry. Sorry to bother you here but the mic died over there.

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