Tag Archives: trickery

Science Backs Your King, Part X

In my recent series about cooking to impress, I mentioned that assigning a regional name to a dish makes your feast fancier regardless of the dish’s actual provenance. Social science has since confirmed the clue:

According to Jurafsky, very expensive restaurants “mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants.

Notice that this doesn’t say anything about the actual quality of food, as my tips didn’t. It does, however, tell you that classier places assign origins, meaning that your assigning of origins will make you food seem classier to the eater.

Fancier Feast: Reader Question

I received the following reader question on the post regarding multiple courses:

Would you suggest splitting side dishes off of the entree course in order to add courses? If so, do you have any comment on the best way to do so?

Here’s how I replied:

I think you’re asking if serving side dishes in separate bowls/plates or even family style is desirable. The answer is generally yes, with a few caveats:
-family style is inappropriate for guests with power, like bosses
-multiple plates/bowls per person can be messy, so small bowls on the entree plate are preferred.
Family style is good for dates, because people can eat more of what they like, giving them a better overall eating experience.

I’ll add here that multiple plates/bowls per person is difficult to do logistically. However, if you have very small dishes that can be placed onto the entree plate, it’s a great way to add a side – including liquid sides – while separating it from the entree both physically and conceptually.

Also, sharing a family side with your date is a good bonding experience.

Fancier Feast: Minor Happenings

There are a few tips for impressive food preparation that are usually helpful but are require some more judgment or are less universally applicable than the four major tips I’ve already blogged about. I’ll list them below.

1. Toast bread.

Whatever bread (or chips, for that matter) you serve should be warm. Toast it in a pan or heat it up in an oven before serving.

2. Olive oil.

The only fat used in cold dishes – like salads and dips – should be olive oil. Drizzle a bit extra on top before serving.

3. Butter.

Use butter to excess in hot things – sauteed or baked things should be fortified with butter at all times. Don’t make this a habit, but on a special night, yes.

4. Plate the sauce.

Spoon a bit of whatever sauce goes with your entree onto the plate, in a pattern or a squiggly line. It’s classy.

5. Bacon.

Wrap foods in bacon (or turkey bacon, which I use). Assuming your guests will eat it, this is a really easy way to improve your dish by making it more complex and tastier. Smell definitely works in your favor here.

Fancier Feast: Part 7

Today’s tip is aesthetic. I’m not entirely sure why it works, but it works.

Tip #7: Use Irregular Shapes

You’re cooking someone a homemade meal, but if it looks like it’s restaurant-made, that’s how it’ll be judged. If, instead, it looks homemade,  you get held to a different standard, and this works in your favor. (See Tip #1.) One way to achieve this is to have your dishes bear the stamp of home cooking: lack of uniformity. Avoid molds whenever you can – homemade cookies or rolls or pizzas or flatbreads should look homemade, which means different from each other and with irregular edges. Cut your own meats and cheeses; it will lend them a natural variance.

Remember that variance is your friend: it lets people choose that which they prefer. In entrees, when they’re stuck with what you gave them, irregularity signals the dish is custom-made, fresh, artisanal. These are good associations.

Bonus Tip: This section has been intentionally left blank.

Tomorrow: A reader comment.

Fancier Feast: Part 6

We continue our series on impressive cooking with more  food preparation, which so far has been a minor part of the process. Today, We continue with an additional ingredient that will make your meal classier than it would have been otherwise.

Tip #6: Hit Them With Your Best Shallot*

*Yes, inspired by Bob’s Burgers, which you should already be watching.

If you’re trying to impress, shallots are your friend. They’re the onion’s classier, fancier cousin, the one that went to art school in Europe for two years. Use shallots anywhere you’d normally use onions and reap the benefits. They’re best deployed in salads and salad dressings (“a variation of Flemish kale & tomato with shallots and toasted pine nuts”), sauteed with your cooked vegetables, and in most of your sauces. Avoid it in combination with other strong acidic flavors – say, salsas – because it can clash with other dominant flavors there. Once sauteed, though, it’s relatively safe.

Because it’s pricier and more labor-intensive than onions, the shallot should be used sparingly in your day-to-day cooking, but use it at crunch time.

Bonus tip: To derive maximum benefit from shallots, it’s imperative that you announce that the dish contains shallots. The word alone is classy.

Tomorrow: Getting in shape.

Fancier Feast: Part 5

I promised to help you cook to impress in this series, and you may have noticed that so far there has been no actual cooking. Rather, so far it’s been framing, lying, multiplying, and conscripting. Today, however, we begin to engage in actual food preparation.

Tip #5: Go Nuts

Nuts make your meal classier. that’s all there is to it. Almost every dish is made more complex and fancier by the addition of nuts. Think about it: kale & tomato salad is way less impressive than a kale & tomato salad with pine nuts. Roasted Brussels sprouts are a good side; roasted Brussles sprouts with walnuts are better. Fried rice with cashews is better than just fried rice. Nuts are also pretty interchangeable; yes, cashews should probably go with savory meals, and hazelnuts with sweets, but even that’s not mandatory. Basically, any nut makes your meal more complex, adding a new flavor and texture, without requiring you to actually think about what you’re doing. Nuts go best with salads and roasted vegetables, so they can be used to improve appetizers and sides.

One note: nut allergies can ruin this for you, so ask in advance. Presumably, if you’re cooking for someone, the dietary restriction question has already been floated, but if not, keep the nuts out at first. If you determine they’re okay during the course of the meal, it’s not that hard to toss a handful of pine nuts into a salad.

Bonus tip: Toasted nuts are classier than plain nuts. To toast nuts, warm them in a pan and announce kale & tomato salad with toasted pine nuts.

Tomorrow: the classy vegetable.

Fancier Feast: Part 4

So far you’ve learned how to set expectations, lie about geography, and diversify. Today, you learn to conscript your guests into helping you make a good impression. We’ll be taking advantage of a few human cognitive quirks: people appreciate things they have to work for and they take responsibility for their actions.

Tip #4: Make Them Work For It

People will appreciate your meal way more if they play a part in its creation. Presumably you can’t make your honored guest dice the onions, but you can still use them in the post-serving assembly. Think sushi: you put much of it together yourself, adding soy sauce, wasabi, and ginger in proportions of your own choosing. Do the same with your dishes, especially non-entree dishes: make your guests work to put food together. This could just mean providing a couple of dips, or multiple items to be layered on a cracker, or sauces that can be combined in different ways.

The benefits of this can be huge. First, because they are actively involved, people tend to think of this food more positively because they put some effort into it. Second, by participating, they accept soem of the responsibility – basically, if the food turns out poor, you’ll get some benefit of the doubt as people assume they perhaps mixed the sauces incorrectly.

Bonus tip: You always get bonus points if you try someone else’s assembly and agree that it is, indeed, delicious.

Tomorrow: Actual food preparation.

Fancier Feast: Part 3

So far we’ve learned to set expectations and lie about geographic origins in order to impress. Today, we move on to risk minimization. If you’re cooking to impress, the stakes are obviously higher than usual, and it’s important to minimize the chances of a disaster. Here’s how.

Tip #3: Course It Up

More courses are classier than fewer courses. That’s just a fact.

While it’s obviously easier to make one great dish rather than four, the risks are much higher if you rely on one item to carry you through the evening. Even your best food can just be in someone’s blind spot* – I bet even the best mussels in the world are unpalatable to me, for example – so it’s best to have options.

*Ideally you’d have done your research about preferences, but it’s often not possible to do so so let’s pretend we’re flying blind.

Obviously making multiple dishes increases the odds that any one will be terrible enough to taint the whole meal, but it’s a risk worth taking because it offsets many other potential problems: someone could have a strong aversion to a dish, or an allergy, or you could struggle in preparation. With multiple courses, you can hedge against those risks.

Ideally, you’ll have at least four courses: a pre-appettizer/appetizer, soup or salad, entree, and dessert. I’ve previously stretched this up to seven courses, but if you’re reading this for actual advice, you’re not ready to go that far.

Bonus tip: Each course gives you a whole new topic of conversation for a few minutes, so it’s a built-in hedge against awkward silences. Well, long awkward silences.

Tomorrow: conscripting guest labor for your benefit.

Fancier Feast: Part 2

Yesterday we learned that your cooking will receive a fairer reception if you introduce it as “a variation of [dish name].” Today we learn how best to choose [dish name]. Unlike yesterday’s tip, which serves largely to remove an obstacle, today’s tip is a straight-up lie designed to sound impressive without contributing anything.

Tip #2: Regionalize

This applies more to the experimenters such as myself, but you can use it even if you’re trying to make an established recipe.

If the dish you’re trying to make is well-established, like yesterday’s example of Mediterranean salmon or fettuccine Alfredo, you may think there’s little you can do about the dish name.

You fool.

What to do?

Regionalize. Place your dish’s origins into a place that provides just enough background to create a vivid image without limiting the flavor profile your dish provides. “A variation on Sicilian-style fettuccine Alfredo” is far more effective than “fettuccine Alfredo.” Sicily conjures images of Italian fields, a vineyard, some sausage (your imagination may vary), which creates a positive background against which your food can shine.

You may ask why we spent yesterday learning how to separate the dish from expectations and then saddle it with new expectations. This is why you need to use a region: most people know enough to picture a region vaguely but won’t be able to assign a flavor profile that creates specific expectations for your dish. (If they do, you’re still protected by calling it a variation.)

Bonus tip: If you tell a date this, it’s good practice to come clean a few dates/months/years later with the words “Oh, I made that part up – I was just trying to impress you.”

Tomorrow: The importance of layers.

Fancier Feast: Simple Tricks To Cook More Impressively

Regular readers know that I like to cook, and over time I’ve developed a repertoire of skills in that arena.* Because I’m mostly an improviser, I’m probably not the best person to teach a beginner, but the internet can handle that. Today’s post begins a series of posts that gives away my secret tricks to cooking to impress. This is not how to make the best, or tastiest, or easiest, or healthiest meals; this is just for you to impress a date, or boss, or the boss you’re dating.

*The most important one being my ability to create mostly edible food from whatever’s available. I would probably do okay on Chopped.

Tip #1: Set Proper Expectations

If you tell someone what you’re cooking, they will develop an expectation of what they’re getting: if I tell you I’m making salmon, your brain will automatically picture salmon. You will go into the meal with an expectation of what this will taste like, and your brain will analyze the salmon you eat in terms of how it deviates from the expectation. For me, this tricky: as an improviser, I make food mostly by feel, so there is a natural variance to it even if I’m making something I’ve made before. If you’re trying to impress someone, it’s important to adjust their expectations so they’re open to whatever you serve them.

What to do?

Don’t make a dish. Make a variation of a dish. That is, when you serve your salmon, don’t say “this is Mediterranean salmon;” serve it as “a variation on Mediterranean salmon.” Do this even if you meant to make Mediterranean salmon. This moves the baseline you’re working with: the eater doesn’t quite know what to expect, because you’ve already announced that is will be not-quite-Mediterranean salmon. The brain can’t find another baseline (since many things fit the description of not-quite-Mediterranean salmon) and the eater will go into the meal with a much more open mind. This works even when the eater isn’t particularly familiar with the dish. Ultimately, your dish is judged based on what it is rather than what someone subjectively thought it should have been, and all you have to do is explain that this is what you meant to make all along.

Bonus tip: In addition to “a variation,” “inspired by” does well to give your food a fair hearing.

Tomorrow: Naming dishes for maximum effect.