Why food-hype is killing your dining experience
“THIS IS THE BEST DISH EV-AH.”
“If you don’t try this dish, you are out of your mind.”
“It totally transported me to another dimension, it was that good!”
“You MUST order this. It is the best thing I have eaten in my life.”
- Said a food critic, never.
- Urbanspoon/ Yelp/ Twitter/ Blogs.
While working on the floor of a restaurant, the most frequently asked questions are, “What’s good here,” and “What should I order?” There are two ways to go about this.
One is to tell the guest what your picks of the menu are and let them know the popular dishes, but a good server will always turn around and ask the guest what they like, what they don’t like and if they are allergic to anything. The last thing a server wants to do is to ask a guest to pay for a dish they didn’t enjoy or to endanger someone’s life while they’re out trying to have a good time.
There are also two reactions a guest will have to a server’s suggestions. A guest can acknowledge the recommendations of the server and be surprised by the restaurant, or the guest can completely ignore the server and order according to food reviews and dishes that have been highly blogged. It is not to say a guest can’t have a pleasurable experience mimicking orders from other people, but sometimes it is to the detriment of the diner.
Take for example, the lobster roll at Golden Fields. Before I realised Golden Fields was open, I had heard about the lobster roll. They were served at the launch, it was ordered by Ed Charles, Claire Davie, written up in Agenda Daily, Broadsheet and deconstructed in The Age Melbourne magazine before I had a chance to taste it. They were the mythical, life-changing rolls that guaranteed a passage into the most pleasurable after-life and would make an orgasm seem like white noise. I knew before I ordered itthat they were discs of cold poached lobster in a toasted and buttered Chinese bakery bun served with watercress and sweet, kewpie mayonnaise. What was there not to like? Why were they not in my mouth now? Why wasn’t I sitting at the bar with a glass of wine, masticating the ethereal mass? WHY, WHY, WHY?
My life was obviously not complete.
By some divinity, probably of the lobster roll gods, one of the chefs and I were released from work early and it would be our first (and probably only) opportunity to eat at a restaurant we didn’t work at since launching. We jumped in a cab from Melbourne's CBD and made it to Golden Fields half an hour before close.
“What would you like to order?” The problem with working around food is that you want to eat everything because you never eat anything.
“Do you just want to bring out a few dishes of your choice? We eat everything.”
“Certainly, how hungry are you?”
“Moderately, but he’s chef-hungry.”
“Great. I’ll get it sorted. Do you have any special requests?”
No prizes for our response.
Thus, the lobster roll came out next to a dish of cold noodles with poached chicken and sesame sauce and it looked beige, beige, beige. We pushed it to the side and concentrated on the roll.
We stared at it.
We lifted its hat and studied the contents.
We raised the rolls to our mouths, looked each other in the eye, as if cheering the other, and took a bite.
It was good; it tasted exactly as it was described, it was sweet, it was soft but where was my goddamn orgasm? Why wasn’t I seeing Jesus and how come I still felt unfulfilled?
My life hadn’t changed and I still suffered from middle class guilt.
Actually, my guilt was exacerbated by the fact that my consumerist behaviour did not achieve the intended outcome.
Then I remembered; I don’t actually like Chinese bakery buns, I don’t like sweet things and at the best of times, and I don’t even enjoy mayonnaise. And there was nothing wrong with this dish. In fact, I could see why it was a great dish, it ticked all the boxes of decadence, convenience and being of the times. It is exactly what Melbourne was after. But, it was its own undoing.
The hype surrounding the roll would undo it because for it to truly fulfil expectations, it would have to taste like transcendence, and who knows what that tastes like? We are conditioned to scan menus for buzzwords and order dishes that have words like, “confit,” “pork,” “duck fat,” “rare-breed,” “bacon,” “skin,” and “slider” in it and disregard the flow of a meal, balance and our own limits. Hype is holding a server by the wrists and gagging them with chloroform. Hype is forcing the chef to tailor their menu to use buzz-words and remove items they have created that truly speak of their soul and intentions. Hype is delivering unnecessary disappointment to the diner and tricking them into believing that they like things they actually distain.
Hype is an a-hole.
There used to be a romance in the dining experience where we would allow the restaurant to take us on a journey. The thing about a restaurant service, it is just like a performance on stage; every night is different, every night has been rehearsed, every night is an improvement from the night before and every night is highly calculated. We used to trust our highly trained servers, sommeliers and chefs. But now, we’re slaves to media, media and media.
I have witnessed tables ignoring their servers only to bring up photos from Urbanspoon and order according to un-styled, un-touched and noise-filled camera phone photos. I have had tables walk in with the latest review from The Age, The Australian and weekend lift-outs and order dish for dish, what was written up. Guests have come into the restaurant based on hype alone and not known that they are allergic to major aspects of the cuisine.
Taste is subjective. It is not a fault, it is a fact. Our obsession with the romance of dining has removed it from the act altogether. Dining has become the digitalised, monotone compact disc of today rather than the highly variable, volatile and character-filled record of yesterday.
So, you ask, what of that cold, beige plate of noodles chosen by our server that evening?