Food: a mediocracy antidote

In this weekend’s New York Times, David Segal writes Hey Chef: Next Time, Skip the Fennel about Dinner Lab, which creates eating events around the country, mated with an attitude that invites participants to give the chefs no-holds-barred comments regarding the food they have just eaten. I perked up when Dinner Lab, Segal explains, started compiling massive data on eaters’ feedback, presuming that they would be making a bundle of money reselling this behavioral analytics information to mega-restaurant chains. As I sharpened my Mediocracy antennae, however, the surprise ending grabbed me: no chains were interested in the food preferences behavioral data. What we like to eat, it seems, is not digitally trumping the intuition of your local neighborhood chef just yet. As restauranteurs explained, food is a cultural experience. The milieu is just as important as the analytical, dry examination of ingredients and spices. So behavioral analytics does not scale to food just yet, and this reminds us that culture is a phenomenon that we may try to wave away when abstracting away from time and place; but it will raise its head from time to time and mess with our clean, digital data. Horst Rittel famously talked about urban architecture as a Wicked Problem, where the solution to a real architectural challenge is hard to create, hard to detect and impossible to successfully emulate in a new place: local variations in culture trump what we learn from a previous architectural experiment.  Segal’s example gives me hope that, for some stations of invention and analysis, human intuition still reigns as the most accurate judge of human desire.

 

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