For the past two years, I’ve been trying to figure out what makes food taste incredible as opposed to merely good or great. And now, I think I’ve found the answer.
It’s often said that great cooking is a combination of great ingredients and technique. Unquestionably, the quality of produce and skill of the cook* both have a tremendous influence on the final dish. But incredible food often contains one additional element – nostalgia. Like flipping through an old photo album, food has the power to arouse memories and bring us back to special moments in time.
Incredible food, in my opinion, has at least as much to do with nostalgia, as it does with ingredients and technique. To anyone else, my mom’s meatballs are probably not the best in the world. But they are the best to me, because of the memories I associate with them and because they’re the meatballs that I’m most familiar with. So even if a dish doesn’t use great ingredients and technique, it’s possible for these limitations to be overcome by the nostalgia that a diner brings to the table. Understanding and taking advantage of your guest's food-related memories is cooking’s secret ingredient.
Food can be incredible when it exceeds our past experiences (our expectations) or when it reminds us of a past experience (nostalgia). By itself, exceeding expectations is a function of better ingredients and technique. It will be much harder to exceed the expectations of someone who has dined at many fine restaurants compared to a person with limited experience. Nostalgia, on the other hand, is based on food-related memories from which the diner can draw upon. So whether or not you've eaten at the world’s best restaurants, it’s likely that you have special food memories that mean more to you than solely the food itself.
So suppose you’re cooking for someone who’s dined at many great restaurants. In order to create food that your guest will consider incredible, it’s intuitive to think that you’ll have to cook at a level that rivals the best food she's ever had - not an easy task. But if you’re able to tap into your guest’s memories and make a dish that’s special to her, your food will mean much more, and she might even find it incredible!
Of course, I’m certainly not the first one to suggest this. In addition to the millions of people who have nostalgic cravings for a home-cooked meal, innovative chefs like Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck reference traditional dishes on their menu in hopes of transporting diners back to their childhood if only for a few bites. Blumenthal’s Sardine on Toast Sorbet utilizes a flavour pairing that his local patron’s grew up eating. Similarly, Thomas Keller’s Coffee and Doughnuts is a dessert inspired by a classic North American coupling that millions of people can relate to.
The inherent risk in cooking with nostalgia is if your guests don’t get it. For instance, if I were to visit The Fat Duck and eat Sardine on Toast Sorbet, I’d probably just think it was interesting and strange because I’ve never had sardines on toast before, nor do I have any memories associated with the dish. So in order for a dish to appeal a wider audience, it’s important that the food actually tastes good, with or without nostalgia.
Being somewhat of a food geek, I thought I’d take a stab at quantifying nostalgia as it relates to deliciousness. While this isn't really meant to be a formula for plugging in actual numbers, it shows the extent to which nostalgia can influence delicious food. It’s also important to note that you can have negative associations with foods – so no matter how good the ingredients and technique are, you could still dislike a dish because of the unwanted memories you associate with it.
Clement’s Theorem of Deliciousness
D = (I*T)N+1
D = deliciousness (higher is better)
I = ingredients (0 < I < ∞)
T = technique (0 < T < ∞)
N = nostalgia (-∞ < N < ∞)
If molecular gastronomy is loosely defined as the science of deliciousness, then perhaps cooking with nostalgia or more generally, cognitive gastronomy can be thought of as the psychology of deliciousness. Within cognitive gastronomy, we could also consider other factors such as how a person’s mood and state of mind affects their enjoyment of food. In the coming weeks, I hope to explore this area further. But in the meantime, take a look at these fascinating articles by Louisa of Movable Feast, and Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck.
* includes flavour combinations, cooking methods, plating, and presentation