Dating Your Food Before You Marry It

By Sean Carroll | December 6, 2007 11:41 pm

05entr1901.jpg The New York Times (via Marginal Revolution) reports on what I hope does become a trend: the diminution of the role of the entree in American restaurant cuisine. That is, what Americans call an entree, which is really the main course. The French, who apparently invented the concept of the main course (plat principal) (and who would think that something like that needed to be “invented”?), use the word “entree” to mean what you might guess, namely a starter. But Americans like to be different.

Anyway, apparently the concept of the main course dominated by a single large item is, in advanced food circles, losing ground to the increasing popularity of smaller plates. From the consumer’s point of view, it just makes perfect sense — isn’t it more fun to design your own dinner from a variety of options, than to have the kitchen make all those choices for you? And isn’t it more interesting to sample several different options, than to focus on a single oversized dish? Takami, my favorite new local restaurant, features not only small plates, but dishes from three different kitchens with different specialties (sushi, robata, and everything else). If you savor the meal as a multi-level sensory experience rather than a obligatory intake of calories, it’s definitely the way to go.

Small plates mean extra work for the restaurant, of course — customization on the consumer side works against standardization and economy of scale on the producer side. So I doubt that the trend will soon be penetrating to the Bennigans and Applebees of the world. I suspect the true food snobs wouldn’t have it any other way.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Food and Drink
  • Alex F

    Small plates mean extra work for the restaurant, of course — customization on the consumer side works against standardization and economy of scale on the producer side. So I doubt that the trend will soon be penetrating to the Bennigans and Applebees of the world.

    Oh how wrong you are! I would say that they have been pioneers in the small-plates trend. Restaurants like these been offering mix-and-match appetizer platters for years. And I too have been a pioneer, as I’ve ordered combos of boneless buffalo wings / mozzarella sticks / nachos.

  • Big Vlad

    hmm sushi. I might go a live in Japan just for the food.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Yeah. Speaking of smaller plates (in toto), I wonder why more attention isn’t given to the fact, of how much money you could invest for later if you ate less? Just put aside into a good reliable investment, say only $40/week year after year, saved from being “wasted” (well that’s literally what happens to it ;-) ), and it would add up to a lot after many years. A lot of money instead of a lot of pounds!

  • Ross Presser

    If you savor the meal as a multi-level sensory experience rather than a obligatory intake of calories, it’s definitely the way to go.

    I’ve been told one should eat to live, not live to eat.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    #4 You should flee from the person telling you that, Ross.

  • anonymous

    According to Google, it was Molière’s character Valère in The Miser: “il faut manger pour vivre, et non pas vivre pour manger”,

    http://de.wikiquote.org/wiki/Moli%C3%A8re

    http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/6923

  • anonymous

    Of course, grad students have no opinions either way, as we neither live nor eat…

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Most restaurants already serve tiny portions. When I eat in a restaurant, I usually have to eat again at home. When I’m at a conference this is really a problem. I’ll try to eat food for two persons, but the problem is that after 20 minutes they start to serve dessert while I’ve just started eating the second course :(

  • graviton383

    One of the problems with small plates, which I enjoy, is choosing the appropriate wine..always a challenge!

  • Sam Gralla

    Personally, I prefer the standard french/italian multi-course meal, with the food and wine chosen entirely by the chef. Much easier, and certainly better than anything I could come up with.

  • anon.

    Most restaurants already serve tiny portions. When I eat in a restaurant, I usually have to eat again at home.

    I guess you don’t live in the US?

  • markk

    The best restaurant meals in my life were in France when I would tell the Maitre’D or the head waiter that I was in their hands, and perhaps whether I was aiming for lighter or heavier faire. I let the experts do their job, and I certainly wasn’t disapointed. They appreciated it also even though I was a dumb American.

    I will agree with #1 – look at all the Buffalo Wing restaurants, and such. it is exactly in the Sports Bar/Food joint that you already get a bunch of small servings now. Not the healthiest food, but that is exactly how all things are served.

  • Greg

    Thank god (or more technically, the US) that we live in a time where the world has solved so many of its problems (the cosmological constant problem, global warming, extreme poverty, etc.), so that we can all engage our thoughts into such important lifestyle issues like the “diminution of the role of the entree in American restaurant cuisine”… Sean, did Takami paid you to advertise it, or are you really that “food snob”?

  • Greg

    “Why is the entree in danger of becoming the California condor of the menu?

    One theory is that people like to customize their worlds. Personalized playlists on iPods have replaced albums. TiVo has replaced channel surfing. In this quick-cut, video-on-demand universe, the entree is Walter Cronkite.”

    Kim Severson

    I find it worrying that, in a world where problems are rapidly globalised, people tend to become more and more isolated inside their customized microcosms. Instead of cultivating our awareness in order to tackle today’s urgent global needs, we tend to develop fake fancy needs to keep us busy during our spare time. We prefer morning show hosts telling us the news, wondering around lost in our own personal bubble of sound, and “dating our food before we marry it”, while at the same time, the majority of people on this planet struggle to get the minimum intake of calories they need to survive!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Greg, I am slightly appalled that you would take time out from combating global poverty in order to comment on our blog.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun
  • http://www.gibsonian.blogspot.com Ian B Gibson

    If you savor the meal as a multi-level sensory experience rather than a obligatory intake of calories

    I’m from northern England – that sentence makes no sense to me whatsoever.

  • http://astronomia-cosmlogia.blogspot.com Emanuele

    Someone forgets Italian food….in Italy, restaurants are expensive, but the cooks are fantastic. To try in order to believe!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    You must be from the wrong part of northern England Ian :)

  • Mary

    Tomorrow I’ll eat pork! Do you think I should date that pig before I eat it? Most of my friends are dating pigs anyway, and quite a few of them are married to pigs… If I was a man, however, I wouldn’t dare dating a female pig, cause pigs are pretty smart creatures and, as known, men are scared of clever women (I doubt that the difference in species will bother them as much as the difference in intelligence).

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Anon, yes, I’m not from the US. But in the US you get a large piece of meat and the food contains a lot of fat. You are still not served large portions.

    I once ordered a some dish with steak and potatoes. But what I got was a huge steak and only two small pieces of potatoes. So, I asked if I could have more potatoes. I got another dish with potatoes but that was still not enough, so I had to order again.

    And if you buy a sandwich with ham, what you get is a huge piece of ham with a microscopic piece of bread. So, it is very hard to get enough carbohydrates in the US. It seems that the whole country is on the Atkins diet. :(

  • Ginger Yellow

    “And if you buy a sandwich with ham, what you get is a huge piece of ham with a microscopic piece of bread. So, it is very hard to get enough carbohydrates in the US.”

    Go to an Italian restaurant, then. I’ve never once been able to finish a main course at the Italian restaurant my family goes to when we’re in Champaign.

  • Mathijs van den Bergh

    …the cosmological constant problem, global warming, extreme poverty…

    One of these things is not like the others.

  • Greg

    Damn Mathijs, you’re good! I bet you score really high at the IQ tests…

  • Kaleberg

    Having each diner served a series of courses on a series of plates was originally called Russian style service. Before it was popularized Western Europeans served themselves from sets of large serving dishes placed on the table for each “remove” much as is done “family style” at many Chinese restaurants. It is easy to forget that something as familiar as dining has a history, but then again, so do helium atoms.

    My experience is that it is easier to produce good small dishes than good entrees. I have been to all too many high end restaurants with great entrees, great desserts, but mediocre entrees. A woman friend of mine is convinced that these places are aimed at women who ignore their main course and “save the calories” for a megadose of chocolate. She is a main course sort.

    Since a main dish has about the same level of variety across the plate as the appetizer, but is much larger, the challenge is getting a high enough flavor density, achieving a thematic balance and providing enough internal variety. This can require a fair bit of technique and control if only for simple physical reasons. This is also why a lot of restaurants have mediocre main dishes. Moving to small plates is actually the easy way to improve the quality of the food overall.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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