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Benchmarking the Food We Love


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#1 robert brown

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Posted 16 June 2003 - 07:21 AM

What began as an innocent conversation about the hot and sour soup at Jean-George's "66" has evolved in my thoughts into a phenomenon that may account for some of the current state of affairs in dining in the Western World.

My friend said that although he did not have high regard for a meal he had at "66", he had enjoyed the hot and sour soup. I asked whether he, as I did, usually ordered hot and sour soup in Chinese restaurants. He said he did, to which I replied, "I guess hot and sour soup is our benchmark dish for judging Chinese restaurants".

This conversation made me think of other benchmark dishes that I use either to compare restaurants or to see how examples of each vary from preparation to preparation. My benchmark dishes tend to be straight-forward ones. They include split pea soup, New England clam chowder, "terrine de foie gras au naturel", tuna salad, chocolate ice cream, chocolate cake and melon sorbet. Everyone has their own repertoire of such dishes, and it would be interesting to hear about yours.

However, I started to reflect on to what degree the opportunity to engage in culinary benchmarking might shape our dining habits and preferences, along with the notion of the seeking out familiarity, which is at the heart of food benchmarking, and the role and influence of familiarity in culinary preferences, if not history.

I suspect that culinary benchmarking plays, at one extreme, a large part in the mental divide between traditional food and artistic and avant-garde cuisine such as what we are witnessing today. We see this on eGullet in the yawning division of opinion of visitors to El Bulli. At first, some of us criticized the naysayers for lacking a certain sensibility to appreciate or enjoy the restaurant. I wonder, though, whether it was the lack of the familiar in Ferran Adria's cooking that upsets or puts off-balance his critics and accounts for some of the reluctance of a meaningful number of chefs outside of Spain to fully embrace the avant-garde.

At the other extreme in the context of everyday dining, might familiarity play a decisive role? Does the bringing of prior history of eating to the table each time we confront a meal exert a bigger influence on some people than on others? Is it possible that our genes are programmed to influence how and what we eat and how we react to our food? Does benchmarking food and the opportunity to engage in benchmarking provide us a kind of security blanket of the familiar? Conversely, might there be people who, faced with the lack of opportunity to dine in restaurants in which the food is either foreign to them (in both senses of the word) tend to close their minds to the appearance and taste of such food?

This thread, by the way, is one you can answer on very personal terms; or you can respond as an anthropologist, evolutionary biologist or culinary analyst. It’s up to you!

#2 pixelchef

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Posted 16 June 2003 - 08:22 AM

Great thread, as always Robert!

For me personally, familiarity does indeed play a crucial role in my determining whether or not a meal was to my taste. When eating foodstuffs new to me, I do have a difficult time rating how good or bad that meal truly was to me subjectively. I mean, obviously I'm able to determine whether I like or dislike something on a very elementary level, but I find it hard to determine how much I like or dislike a new dish or flavour without having something similar to compare it to. I think that in searching out new and exciting food we are seeking to find our culinary personalities, to define our palates so much that meals in the future can continue to better and better suit us, therefore making the meals we enjoy progressively more successful.

My benchmark dishes include: duck confit, tuna tartare, ceviche, butter-poached lobster, steak frites, pasta & red sauce, and crème brulee.

#3 nerissa

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Posted 16 June 2003 - 08:48 AM

At the other extreme in the context of everyday dining, might familiarity play a decisive role? Does the bringing of prior history of eating to the table each time we confront a meal exert a bigger influence on some people than on others? Is it possible that our genes are programmed to influence how and what we eat and how we react to our food? Does benchmarking food and the opportunity to engage in benchmarking provide us a kind of security blanket of the familiar? Conversely, might there be people who, faced with the lack of opportunity to dine in restaurants in which the food is either foreign to them (in both senses of the word) tend to close their minds to the appearance and taste of such food?

I am one of those people who gets easily depressed if I don't eat welll, and if there is not anything of good quality around to eat, I will eat very little.(See college years. Subsisted on coffee, bagels, and steak). I think my eating history exerts an inordinate influence at times; as I simply cannot eat bad food just to fill my stomach. I am always thinking that this can be done better.

I wonder if we eat according to our ancestral/genetic history. I find that I am happiest eating a great variety of foods. Some members of my family will eat nothing but salad greens and some will eat nothing but fish and steak if given the choice. I don't know if that is a result of genetics or not--I would not want to have to choose between fish, steak, and salad greens. However I do think that genetics must have some role, as there are certain ethnic groups that fare well on certain diets.

It is unclear to me if benchmarking food is a result of gentic interplay. It might simply be memory. My benchmark foods are:

Leg of Lamb. Lamb is usually done so poorly/overcooked that I don't eat that often.
French Onion Soup.
Tuna Steak
Roast chicken

I wonder how much of this has to do with a discerning palate rather than a security blanket when judging a restaurant's performance? I am not entirely clear on what you mean. Do you mean security blanket as in a perspective from which someone views their meal, or as in comfort food. That which we reach for when we are nostalgic, ill, etc?

Edit: added "not" before anything in 1st paragraph.

Edited by nerissa, 16 June 2003 - 09:13 AM.


#4 fresco

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Posted 16 June 2003 - 09:05 AM

Isn't the test of a chef or a kitchen the truly simple dishes -- roast chicken, omelette?
Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"

#5 robert brown

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Posted 16 June 2003 - 09:09 AM

Pixelchef and Merissa, thgank you for your wonderful replies. As soon as I return to my computer, I will answer or try to clarify the questions that you (Merissa) raised.

#6 pirate

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Posted 16 June 2003 - 11:20 AM

All the references to genes brought to mind that there are books and websites relating blood types and nutrition.

#7 GordonCooks

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Posted 16 June 2003 - 11:26 AM

Benchmark speaks to me in terms of technique.

A few personal "benchmark" dishes would be

Chateaubriand
Beef Consommé'
Sauce Bolognese
Tarte Tartin
Omelet
Bouillabaisse
Paella
Gumbo
Pho

#8 robert brown

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Posted 16 June 2003 - 05:34 PM

Nerissa: My idea for the topic began with the discovery that I and a friend both used hot and sour soup as a gauge for measuring the quality of American Chinese restaurants.What evolved from that was that this kind of judgemental activity was a by-product of eating food that is familiar. I then thought of other benchmark foods I had (other than hot and sour soup) and how it is possible to have experiences with specific foods such that we could keep a kind of running account of where we had them and how well and differently various cooks prepared them. Also, the way we perceive and judge food (and form preferences for them) might have an influence on our food preferences and how we react to novel or previously untried foods. In a way there is such a notion as a food security blanket which some people are quicker to discard than others. I wasn't thinking of comfort food in the sense of making the deliberate decision to go out for a dinner at Joe's Diner. It is that we develop varying degrees, and a repetoire, of familiar dishes that can determine how receptive we can be to certain dishes or entire meals that fall outside of our personal norm.

#9 Aquitaine

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Posted 17 June 2003 - 05:57 AM

Thank you, robert brown, for starting an interesting thread. Here's a mishmosh of thoughts....

The concept of benchmarking comes into play for professional restaurant critics, it seems to me. How many times do you read reviews of Thai restaurants without seeing reference to pad thai, for example? And you could extrapolate to other, country-cuisine-focused examples.

Benchmarking is a distinct type of evaluation, but akin in my mind to another: what I tend to think of as "the omen." As in, how good is the first thing that you eat when seated at a restaurant? Is the bread good? Is the butter that comes with the bread at the right temperature (or the olive oil of distinctive taste)? If there is a tomato in the dish and it's August (and you're not in Iceland), is it a great tomato? (Etc.) To me, these things are augurs of the forthcoming meal.

Another element of benchmarking is not just familiarity, but sentiment. The meatloaf that Mom made, Aunt Gladys's apple pie, your first sweetheart's pancakes, etc.

I think all bets are off for benchmarking when you first encounter foods that are in a new category, e.g., for most of us Americans, Danish eel (whole), chicken feet at dim sum, seaweed, offal, Japanese sweets, etc.

(Do I like "etc"? Just wishing I could write it as they did in the 17th century, with a lovely flourish! :laugh: )

#10 Aquitaine

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Posted 17 June 2003 - 05:59 AM

Thank you, robert brown, for starting an interesting thread. Here's a mishmosh of thoughts....

The concept of benchmarking comes into play for professional restaurant critics, it seems to me. How many times do you read reviews of Thai restaurants without seeing reference to pad thai, for example? And you could extrapolate to other, country-cuisine-focused examples.

Benchmarking is a distinct type of evaluation, but akin in my mind to another: what I tend to think of as "the omen." As in, how good is the first thing that you eat when seated at a restaurant? Is the bread good? Is the butter that comes with the bread at the right temperature (or the olive oil of distinctive taste)? If there is a tomato in the dish and it's August (and you're not in Iceland), is it a great tomato? (Etc.) To me, these things are augurs of the forthcoming meal.

Another element of benchmarking is not just familiarity, but sentiment. The meatloaf that Mom made, Aunt Gladys's apple pie, your first sweetheart's pancakes, etc.

I think all bets are off for benchmarking when you first encounter foods that are in a new category, e.g., for most of us Americans, Danish eel (whole), chicken feet at dim sum, seaweed, offal, Japanese sweets, etc.

(Do I like "etc"? Just wishing I could write it as they did in the 17th century, with a lovely flourish! :laugh: )

#11 Aquitaine

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Posted 17 June 2003 - 06:02 AM

[Apologies if this is a duplicate post: My post seemed to be accepted but didn't show up, so I'm trying again....)

Thank you, robert brown, for starting an interesting thread. Here's a mishmosh of thoughts....

The concept of benchmarking comes into play for professional restaurant critics, it seems to me. How many times do you read reviews of Thai restaurants without seeing reference to pad thai, for example? And you could extrapolate to other, country-cuisine-focused examples.

Benchmarking is a distinct type of evaluation, but akin in my mind to another: what I tend to think of as "the omen." As in, how good is the first thing that you eat when seated at a restaurant? Is the bread good? Is the butter that comes with the bread at the right temperature (or the olive oil of distinctive taste)? If there is a tomato in the dish and it's August (and you're not in Iceland), is it a great tomato? (Etc.) To me, these things are augurs of the forthcoming meal.

Another element of benchmarking is not just familiarity, but sentiment. The meatloaf that Mom made, Aunt Gladys's apple pie, your first sweetheart's pancakes, etc.

I think all bets are off for benchmarking when you first encounter foods that are in a new category, e.g., for most of us Americans, Danish eel (whole), chicken feet at dim sum, seaweed, offal, Japanese sweets, etc.

(Do I like "etc"? Just wishing I could write it as they did in the 17th century, with a lovely flourish! :laugh: )

#12 mcdowell

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Posted 17 June 2003 - 11:26 AM

The concept of benchmarking comes into play for professional restaurant critics, it seems to me. How many times do you read reviews of Thai restaurants without seeing reference to pad thai, for example?

I believe that reviewers pick Pad Thai at a Thai place (or Pho at a Vietnamese place) because it’s a least common denominator among dishes that their readers are most familiar with. It may have nothing at all to do with personal preference.

We all have benchmarks upon which we measure cuisines, or even types of restaurants (I have a particular affinity for independent truck stops and the chicken fried steaks that they serve, for example, but then I spend a lot of time driving for no good reason). The struggle becomes the rectification between a benchmark’s success and the actual quality of the eatery; does hot and sour soup define a good Chinese restaurant? Maybe, or maybe that cook can’t make hot and sour soup to save his life, but that crispy tofu with black bean sauce? That rocks, man.

When going someplace new, I always struggle with that inner voice telling me to order the hot and sour soup, and instead I ask the waiter what the cook makes best. I’m rarely disappointed. Sometimes I get the “whatever’s on the menu, white boy”, and then it’s more of a crapshoot. This technique comes down to personality, though. My girlfriend will order the same dishes everwhere we go, while I won't even order the same dishes at restaurants that we eat lunch at week in and week out.

At some point (if this hasn’t happened already) such places are likely to take a lesson from the technology sector and start “tuning” for the benchmarks. Can’t cook worth a damn, but can nail that soup and spring roll and get that review. I spent too much of my life running an engineering organization at a player in the Linux hardware space (Jason – surprised you & I don’t know each other) and we’d routinely tune evaluation machines for the benchmarks we knew that particular press person or consultant liked to run. It didn’t say anything about those machines except that they could pass that test, or that my engineers were good enough to make a lemon machine look good for those couple of weeks. I can see restaurants (especially ethnic places, which tend to have “standard” benchmarks) doing the same.

Benchmarks don’t tell you anything, I guess is my point, but its human nature to go down that path. Instead, you should just say 'Fuck it' and read chowhound instead of relying on inner benchmarks and restaurant reviewers – that gang is rarely wrong about good food.


*edited to clarify that my intent wasn't to send people away from here and over to CH *

Edited by mcdowell, 17 June 2003 - 12:52 PM.


#13 robert brown

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Posted 17 June 2003 - 12:26 PM

If the tables were turned, Chowhound's Jim Leff wouldn't post the above. Otherwise, a gentle reminder to all to keep the thread on topic.