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Friday Food Blogging August 14, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink.
Tags: , ,

Economist Tyler Cowen advises that, if you want the best restaurant meal, don’t order from the menu–ask the waiter to “bring us what you would eat for the last meal of your life.”

I’m wondering if this is a good general strategy. (I have been with groups that ordered this way and it was exceptional, but my experience is a very small sample.)

A couple worries occur to me: (1) you might get that piece of fish at the back of the walk-in that the chef will have to toss if he doesn’t serve it soon or (2) the chef may cook the most expensive dish he can imagine to maximize profit.

However, I doubt that either of these are real worries. When you leave your fate in the chef’s hands that is a sign of respect and confidence. Most chefs take a great deal of pride in what they do and would view this, not as an opportunity for exploitation, but as an opportunity to show off.

Has anyone had any experience with this good or bad?

Assuming that this is a good strategy, Jason Kuznicki wonders why the great dishes are not on the menu.

I love Chinese food. I always have. And I mean the authentic dishes, not the made-for-Americans glop that they try to fob off on us.

So why is it that these superior dishes are always hidden away on a secret, Chinese-only menu?

He offers 4 theories:

1. Path dependence (a): Americans have some very set though inaccurate ideas about what “Chinese food” really is. They will generally balk at anything else. More people will break this way, and avoid the restaurants, than will break my way, and go to them more often, if they are offered something new and different.

2. Path dependence (b): Setting up a restaurant is a ton of work. Someone or some entity tells Chinese restaurants what they must to sell to appeal to Americans, and all the restaurants are following the same bad advice. The agent(s) to blame aren’t as subject to market forces because Chinese immigrants have fewer contacts than most others in America. If this seems speculative, consider how few different brands of chopsticks you’ve seen at Chinese restaurants, from the fabulous ones to the truly wretched. There aren’t that many.

3. I hate to bring up the obvious, but… chauvinism. Chinese people have certain ideas about Americans, including that our culinary tastes are incredibly narrow. Obviously, this may be partially true, given (1) above.

4. The high costs of offering so many different dishes. I’m skeptical of this one, because Chinese people are usually offered the Chinese menu, if there is one, while Americans get the American menu. The costs of being able to prepare the dishes are in place either way

Which is the most plausible explanation?

I’m not sure Kuznicki is right about relative costs. A restaurant is obligated to have menu items on hand which requires purchasing all the necessary ingredients in sufficient quantities. I doubt that there is such an obligation for off-menu items.



1. Nina Rosenstand - August 14, 2009

Oh, I would be careful with that piece of advice! End-of-life debates being what they are today…and besides, nobody wants their restaurant meal to actually be the last one…
But the best Chinese restaurant I knew (and I haven’t been to China) was in Encinitas in the ’90s, owned and managed by one of my former students. Imagine, a Chinese restaurant run by a philosophy student who actually also was a superb chef! I do believe all the ancient recipes that she had grown up with were on the menu. I trusted her to cook whatever she felt like serving for us, and it was always fantastic. But it closed; too expensive to run? Too esoteric for Encinitas? Time to move on? I don’t know.
Another lost local fabulous Chinese restaurant was The Limehouse by Mission Bay. It was so renowned that it actually appears in a landmark sci-fi novel by Gregory Benford, Timescape I think is the title. And the signage was wonderful: a sign at the door announced that they served
“balls in brown sauce”
We never tried that. Now I regret it…

2. ian Duckles - August 15, 2009

I have tried this strategy with great success. I think the chef likes it, and enjoys the opportunity to be creative and to experiment.

3. Moriae - August 16, 2009

Watch out, Jack Kevorkian is learning a new trade at public expense.

4. Dwight Furrow - August 16, 2009

Old Jack is training chefs? Maybe that request about “last meal” should be reformulated.

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