Key to Good Cooking: Trickery

So, you're not a great chef, but you want to impress someone with your culinary skills. Trick them into thinking the cheap wine you've just poured is really a fine wine from California, and they'll sing praises of your meal.

Conversely, serve the same wine, but make them think it came from North Dakota, and chances are you won't have to feed them again for a long, long time.

That's the latest finding from researchers at Cornell University, who have spent several years now, up to their gullets in trickery, trying to find out just how easy it is to make someone think a meal, or just about anything else, is better than it really is just by introducing one or two psychological cues.

A purported "fine wine," in this case, invoked "cognitive shortcuts" that led diners to believe the meal was fit for a king, according to Brian Wansink, professor of marketing at Cornell, and leader of the research team.

"It's really crazy, but it kind of makes sense," said Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think." "If we think something is going to taste good, we look for the qualities that can confirm that expectation. If we think it's going to taste terrible, we look for things that will confirm that it's bad."

For his latest excursion into culinary witchcraft, Wansink returned to a restaurant he helped found when he was at the University of Illinois. The Spice Box restaurant in Urbana was designed to serve as a research platform, allowing Wansink and others to test out their theories about how our expectations influence our behavior and judgment.

Every Thursday, the restaurant serves a meal for $20 to $25, and diners know they are expected to fill out a card after the meal, offering their comments and evaluation. Everybody gets the same meal.

The diners are pretty sophisticated, partly because of the proximity of the university, but Wansink wanted to find out if he could introduce a single cue and sway their judgment, either to think the meal was quite good, or quite bad.

The cue, in this case, turned out to be wine.

Half the diners were served a cabernet sauvignon that had recently been introduced from California. The other half received a cabernet from North Dakota, which is known more for its cold winters than for its wine. In fact, North Dakota was the last of the 50 states to produce wine, Wansink said.

As expected, the diners who were served the California wine ranked the overall experience, including the meal, as much better than the diners who were served the North Dakota wine.

But, here's the trickery. It was the same wine. And not just any wine. We're talking Charles Shaw wine, known affectionately among enthusiasts as Two Buck Chuck. Yup, you can buy a whole bottle for $2, and those who are far more experienced at these things than this reporter say it isn't all that bad. Not all that good, but not all that bad, either.

Wansink and colleague Collin Payne floated the labels off the Charles Shaw bottles and replaced them with labels claiming the wine was either from California or North Dakota.

Then, they watched their diners through hidden cameras. How much of their meal did they eat? How long did they stay in the restaurant? Did they make a reservation to return?

"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.