The problem is delicious is easy

Coffee often looks to fine dining for inspiration. It’s not a surprising source of ideas, because they seem to have overcome a few challenges that coffee faces:

  • They seem to have overcome barriers of pricing
  • The guests are open to new experiences
  • The guests are happy to be in the hands of the restaurant, rather than be the ones calling the shots
  • Chefs in fine dining restaurants are culturally valued and validated

All very attractive to the coffee industry. What I think is worth considering is that restaurants chasing Michelin stars are dealing with the exact opposite problem of coffee: delicious food isn’t that difficult to achieve.

This statement perhaps seems somewhat incendiary. If delicious food isn’t that hard to make, why is so much food so terrible? Why is so much food disappointing?!

The answers come in a variety of forms: not all food is created to be, first and foremost, delicious. A great deal of food is created to be cheap to purchase, to be consistent regardless of location, or – and this where we circle back to fine dining – it is trying to be intellectually interesting.

Fine dining should probably be separated out onto a spectrum with two polar ends. There are fine dining establishments that have become, or aspire to be, symbols of status, wealth and power. The food and wine invoke decadence, or a kind of aristocratic tastefulness. Everything is expensive, and that is something of the point.

At the other end of the spectrum are the restaurants who are grappling with food in a philosophical and intellectual way. Chefs grapple with food’s meaning through a lens of culture, or history, or the impact of the supply chain and the very nature of agriculture. These are restaurants where food seems like a direct expression of an artistic idea, or perhaps where the food walks a fine line between innovation and novelty.

It isn’t hard to load a dish with salt and fat, to cook a good tasting piece of meat well. Mashing some boiled potatoes with almost their equal weight of butter, and a goodly amount of salt, is shamefully delicious – but not very hard to do. What is more difficult is to express an artistic idea, or a philosophical one, in a way that ticks those same boxes for the taste buds – without seeming boring, expected or trite. This leads a great many chef down a road of unrewarding (for the customer) aspiration. Meals that leave you wondering ” What on earth were they thinking?!”.

Not every meal in a great restaurant is at an extreme end of the spectrum. Many aim to execute as well as possible, in an environment that feels welcoming, hospitable and generous. These restaurants rarely, however, capture the public’s eye or garner the attentions of the culinary industry and it’s critics.

Coffee has a different problem, espresso especially: it isn’t easy to make it delicious. If it were then finding great coffee would be a lot easier, and we’d all feel more confident about the cups we pass across the counter to our paying customers. I can’t think of another culinary preparation that is as fickle and as fussy as espresso. A matter of a few seconds has more of an impact on an espresso, than any other dish you might prepare. a Coffee can be prepared well if you have time, and plenty of attention – where it often struggles is in the commercial environment where time is precious and output of paramount importance.

I’m often surprised that coffee doesn’t look more to bartending. To me there are a great deal of commonalities there. (I’m probably going to get into trouble for this bit…)

Cocktails are, by and large, pretty disappointing. They’re inconsistent because of the tools the industry has picked to work with. Volumetric measures mean either everything should work in neat ratios, or that they are sufficiently tolerant in their recipes that a bartender’s best estimation (by eye, pour time or jigger) of a third of an ounce is acceptable. Neither of these seems particularly true. However, volumetric measurement wins out across the industry because speed is considered more important than excellence. Or, shifting the blame, the consumer prizes speed of service above quality. This is not to say it is absolute – more that the weighting is more to one side than the other.

Making a great classic cocktail with a set of digital scales isn’t difficult, especially when working with very consistent ingredients (i.e. some juices would make this a little trickier). Making cocktails in large batches also works well for a variety of drinks, especially as making drinks on a larger scale is far more forgiving of small variations in the recipe: Adding 1g too much sugar to a single drink is noticeable, but adding 5g too much to a batch of 20 drinks is much harder to taste.

I am not writing this to complain about the standard of drinks in cocktail bars, but to see what we can learn from them. Cocktail bars have done a much better job of understanding why I’m ok paying twice as much for a Dry Gin Martini in one bar as I am in another. Same “drink”, but two completely different experiences, and two very different bills at the end of the evening.

The other aspect of the drinks industry that I find particularly interesting is the hunger and ambition of career-driven bartenders. Whether you believe this is good (those who aspire to careers in the industry often spend a lot of time and money trying to further their own education, buying books, attending seminars & workshops) or bad (it’s just another arrogant, ego-fuelled, male-dominated, bro heavy industry) – it both echoes and informs the coffee industry. I see it as a somewhat more evolved version of where coffee is now. You may decide that this is horrifying (and I wouldn’t necessarily stand in your way), or you can decide that there may be something to learn here – either pitfalls to avoid, or successful ideas to iterate and improve upon.

The coffee industry has looked to fine dining because we believe they’ve solved problems that we’re grappling with. I’m not sure I agree. I don’t believe we really understand the problems in retail that we face. I don’t disagree that we’d all like to be able to charge more (and still be considered good value), and that we’d like to be taken more seriously as a culinary art form. I’m not holding cocktail bars up as a shining example of perfection, but definitely an industry that has more in common with coffee, and an example of the idea that we need to be looking anywhere and everywhere for ideas and innovation.

  1. I’m willing to be proven wrong on this.  (back)