Culinary risk taking

Seth Godin, the marketing guru behind Purple Cow and other books, writes today on his blog about appealing to who he calls "n00bs".  N00bs are those people who are slow at the uptake, who are not savvy, and who are generally not early adopters of any kind.  He writes:

Every interaction with your public runs the risk that some people just won’t get it. They won’t understand the protocol at your jazz club, or figure out how they use that new thing you just built. They won’t get your verbal shorthand or they’ll be frustrated by your presumption that they’re insiders.

He makes a fair point, and the dilemma risk taking poses is supremely palpable in the food world as well.  I would assume that the vast majority of diners are "n00bs" when it comes to exotic food — we know what we like and we stick with it.  But, without risk taking, there is no excitement.  Seth ends with such a notion:

Once you dumb it down so every single person gets it, you bake out the magic and the mystery and the elegance.

So, when applied to restaurants, this can lead to one of two results: either the restaurant is remarkably challenging (like wd-50 where every morsel of food is a world of unique exploration), or it is indistinguishably boring.  In my ideal world, there would be at least some restaurants that could find an in between.

Here’s my earth-shatteringly new idea: take a restaurant like wd-50 where most dishes are an incredibly different take on an otherwise recognizable course.  To the uninitiated, that might be confusing.  In my fantasy restaurant, diners would be presented with two options for each course: "Challenging" and "Comfortable". 

For example, at the French Laundry, Chef Thomas Keller makes serves a dish called a "Caesar Salad", but his variation features thinly diced strips of lettuce atop a thick parmigiano-reggiano custard, dressed lightly with anchovy dressing.  The entire creation lays on top of a small, perfectly sized flat crouton and is garnished with a dash of balsamic glaze.

Clearly, this is a challenging Caesar salad.  The  "comfortable" Caesar salad would be the variation we all know and love, simple romaine lettuce tossed with Caesar dressing and topped with croutons.  This way, a restaurant can take risks as well as hedge against n00bs, who are invariably around every corner.

Mark posted this on August 5, 2008 and is filed under Musings.

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