Key to Good Cooking: Trickery

"We found that people who were drinking the California wine stayed about 12 minutes longer," Wansink said. "They ate more of their meal. They rated the food and wine as being very tasty, and they were more likely to make a reservation to return within the next three months."

"The eating wasn't quite so special for the people served the North Dakota wine," Wansink added. "They ate faster. They left more food on their plates. They rated both the food and the wine as not tasting as good. And they were less likely to make reservations to come back."

Yet, the only difference was the false labels.

Wansink has conducted similar experiments in many other settings. People who were told a chardonnay was "buttery" concluded that it was, indeed, "buttery." If they weren't told it wasn't buttery, they concluded that it wasn't. If they were served a "fine California wine," they loved the accompanying goat cheese. If it was a "North Dakota wine," the cheese was lousy.

"Your expectations introduce a tremendous bias," Wansink said. "If you think something is going to taste great, chances are you're going to rate it as tasting better than if you think it's going to taste bad." Same stuff, different result, because of differing expectations.

"It almost never backfires," said Wansink, who carried out related experiments at the famed Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and at Apicious Culinary Institute in Florence. "If your expectation of something is really high, even if you don't like it, you will rate it higher after you eat it, than if you think it's going to taste bad."

Wansink's interest is scientific, of course. But, he does offer a few tidbits for those of us who just want to know how to fool our dinner guests.

Splurge on the wine, or at least the label.

Don't serve a filet mignon on a paper plate.

And here's a tip from his wife, Jennifer, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu.

"My wife will put the most work into the first thing people taste, and the last thing people taste," he said. "If she's going to skimp somewhere, it's the stuff in the middle. The first thing will bias the taste, and the last thing they taste is the taste they will remember when they leave."

By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, let's return to that Urbana restaurant and Two Buck Chuck. Did the diners leave that cheap stuff from North Dakota on the table? Nope. All gone. Nary a drop left. Must not have been all that bad.

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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