How a ‘chef’ can sway fine diners into preferring inferior food

CNN  — 

We’ve all been there. You’re in a restaurant, slightly underwhelmed by dinner, when the chef emerges from the kitchen to ask how things are going.

The default reaction is to proclaim loudly and confidently how you’ve just enjoyed one of the greatest meals of all time, an unmatched Epicurean odyssey.

Once the chef heads back to the kitchen, you return to grumbling about the over-salted soup and slightly limp pastry.

Why the double standards? Not wanting to offend or embarrass? Not wanting to appear misinformed about the cuisine?

A Hong Kong-based strategic consultancy specializing in hospitality, CatchOn, wanted to dig deeper and so commissioned a unique study to see whether the presence of a chef really does change the perceptions and experience of a meal.

The answer? An unequivocal yes.

Its study invited 48 unsuspecting diners to Hong Kong French restaurant Serge et le Phoque under the pretext that they were taking part in a taste test to help a chef refine a dish.

Saffron risotto with licorice and lime was prepared two ways.

‘Weird, but good’

Diners had no idea they were taking part in the experiment.

The first version used a rich homemade chicken stock and was accompanied by a nondescript card stating the ingredients.

In contrast, the second version used bouillon powder diluted with plain old tap water.

However, chef Charles Pelletier then personally introduced this version, informing diners at each table in turn that the dish was inspired by a treasured childhood memory while explaining the provenance of each ingredient.

“So another version of the risotto, very small changes but important ones,” Pelletier tells his diners. “Iranian saffron, Japanese rice, French licorice – this is the licorice [he holds it up]. It looks like a stick of wood, we would use it as candy as a kid and suck it – it’s weird but it’s good! Bon appetit, merci beaucoup.”

Diners were asked to rate both versions according to different criteria, including quality, overall taste, aesthetics, smell and portion size.

The final question then asked them to choose their preferred version. The overwhelming majority of participants, 77%, preferred the second version made with the inferior ingredients.

This version also rated consistently higher in terms of perceived quality, overall taste, aesthetics, smell and portion size.

Interesting, given that the portion sizes of both versions were identical. The diners then left the restaurant still unaware that they had been taking part in a unique test.

Apart from the importance of storytelling – and using licorice as a prop – what do the findings tell us?

Scientists, artists and storytellers

"Chef" Charles Pelletier explains the story behind the dish.

They arguably underscore the fact that a chef’s personality in today’s food and celebrity-obsessed world is as important as what they serve on the plate.

The growing phenomenon of celebrity chefs – and diners’ apparently insatiable appetite for interacting with them – means that the gastronomic experience can be authenticated and elevated as a result, even if dishes are inferior in ingredients and execution.

Sounds like those teppanyaki chefs flicking food towards you from across the room had it right all along.

On a more constructive note, it also points to the growing importance of chefs needing to be effective communicators.

“There was a time when a chef spoke only through what was served on the plate,” explains Virginia Ngai, CatchOn’s director of strategy.

“It’s hard to imagine legendary chefs having to charm diners into embracing their food. But this is the reality of what it takes for chefs to be successful today. They’ve got to be equal parts scientist, artist and storyteller to stand out.”

The affable Pelletier at Serge et Le Phoque agrees.

“We really wanted to see how people reacted to storytelling,” he says. “For us as restaurateurs – and particularly here because we run surprise menus – we have to talk about the food as people don’t know what they’re going to be having.”

Blame it on the celebrities

Cheap eats: Most said they preferred the dish made with inferior ingredients.

Pelletier had agreed to take part in the unusual test because Serge et Le Phoque is known for its irreverent attitude, stripping away the artifice and making the experience as much as possible just about the food.

The joke was also on the journalist present, however, as Pelletier is not a chef at all, but the co-owner. But wearing chef’s whites, with his rapid-fire English delivered in a broad French accent, he looked, sounded and seemed the part.

“We got you, we got everyone!” he exclaims. “It’s the first time in my life I’ve worn a chef’s jacket. It changes everything – they look at you and think ‘Oh - he’s the chef.’ People listen to and believe the story even more. It’s the theater of the restaurant.”

Blame Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Wolfgang Puck, Rachael Ray and the rest, but evidence would suggest that he’s right – dining has become more theatrical than ever.

Lighting, music, decor and atmosphere count just as much in a restaurant – if not more so – than the food.

Household-name chefs beam from advertisements for “their” restaurants, when the reality is they may pop in a couple times a year – if at all.

Cooking reality show contestants with no training or experience become culinary heroes overnight.

So next time your soup is heavy on the salt and a celebrity chef comes out, tell them exactly like it is.

That’ll make for a theatrical evening.

Chris Dwyer is a Hong Kong-based communications consultant and food writer. His restaurant reviews, chef interviews and more can be found at