Information tech and variety

Abstract:      
Using the food truck industry as the setting, we provide direct evidence for how information technology can complement consumption variety in cities by reducing spatial information frictions associated with locally produced goods. We document the following facts: 1) food trucks use technology to overcome a spatial information friction; 2) proliferation of technology is related to growth in food trucks; 3) food trucks use their mobility to respond to consumer taste-for-variety; and 4) growth in food trucks is positively correlated with growth in food expenditures away from home. Taken together, our results illustrate how information technology can provide a meaningful increase in variety for urban consumers.
 

Research paper titled Information Technology and Product Variety in the City: The Case of Food Trucks.

It's not just food variety that's increased thanks to information technology, though food trucks are one of the more peculiar instances. I lived in LA from 2006-2011, and that city's lower flatter, more dispersed distribution of retail and people might have made it an optimal ground zero for the food truck boom.

Amazon has increased our retail variety expectations. The internet and the web have increased the variety of information we expect to find with a query typed into a search engine. Information technology plus urban density are an intertwined network that overcomes much of the spatial friction of the past, which is why it's so odd to me that it's still so hard to find good versions of so many types of ethnic food in San Francisco.

The lady had dropped her napkin

The lady had dropped her napkin.
 
More accurately, she had hurled it to the floor in a fit of disillusionment, her small protest against the slow creep of mediocrity and missed cues during a four-hour dinner at Per Se that would cost the four of us close to $3,000. Some time later, a passing server picked up the napkin without pausing to see whose lap it was missing from, neatly embodying the oblivious sleepwalking that had pushed my guest to this point.
 
Such is Per Se’s mystique that I briefly wondered if the failure to bring her a new napkin could have been intentional. The restaurant’s identity, to the extent that it has one distinct from that of its owner and chef, Thomas Keller, is based on fastidiously minding the tiniest details. This is the place, after all, that brought in a ballet dancer to help servers slip around the tables with poise. So I had to consider the chance that the server was just making a thoughtful accommodation to a diner with a napkin allergy.
 
But in three meals this fall and winter, enough other things have gone awry in the kitchen and dining room to make that theory seem unlikely. Enough, also, to make the perception of Per Se as one of the country’s great restaurants, which I shared after visits in the past, appear out of date. Enough to suggest that the four-star rating it received from Sam Sifton in 2011, its most recent review in The New York Times, needs a hard look.
 

Pete Wells of the NYTimes drops Per Se from 4 stars to 2.

I have no idea if Wells is right or not, but I can't think of too many other food writers who can make a restaurant review as pleasurable to read. Writing about food is like writing about music; language can feel like an inadequate medium for describing something which we experience through our senses, bypassing the symbolic representations of words. Wells avoids those traps by, in large part, not trying to describe tastes.

The Hottest Restaurant of 2081

Matt Buchanan conjures an interview with New York's hottest chef...of the year 2081.

On a warm, very yellow November morning, I met the chef Paul Nova in front of his new restaurant, Farm & Table, which is finally set to open next week after two years of intensely secret research and development. 2081’s most anticipated new opening occupies the first flood-safe floor of a six-story trapezoid of condos, but it's a remarkable contrast to the checkerboard of glass and steel that wraps around the top five stories—bright, heavy wood doors open into a room of fifty seats that's lit by scavenged orange incandescent bulbs, littered with the occasional hunk of heirloom cast-iron industrial equipment. Otherwise, the space is a collection of all-wood everything, from wall to wall to wall—festooned with the occasional animal trophy, half of the species extinct—that looks and feels sturdy and knotted, not like re-composited bamboo or synthetics, but old, lived-in wood from trees that once grew tall and strong.
 
Nova’s new project is both of a piece and pointedly different from his first megahit restaurant. Toro! Toro! Toro! was a revival of the clubby, twentieth-century fin de siècle sushi restaurants where Nova’s exquisitely perfect reproductions of extinct fish—in terms of fidelity of texture and clarity of flavor, years beyond practically any other plant-based replication of seafood in the last decade—revealed him as a trailblazer in the medium of engineered protein. Predictably, it spawned wave after wave of imitators, and while no one has come close to his craftsmanship or success, the rumors are that with his second revivalist restaurant, Nova is pushing beyond optimized protein to a new horizon, one that has been uncharted for years: real meat.
 

I often ask people what common practice of today will be regarded by subsequent generations as horrific, because it's inevitable, isn't it? As much as I'd like to say retweeting praise, I'm more confident that we'll look back on our raising of animals in horrific conditions for our consumption to be abhorrent.

That's not the only thing Buchanan imagines will be an opportunity for nostalgia in 2081.

The biggest aspect of it, besides the real food, will be real service. We're going a step further than Toro! Toro! Toro!, and you won't even interact with any software when you come in: We're going to have human hosts in these wonderful knit hats and chambray shirts and classic selvedge jeans who take you to your seat, another human who takes your order, and another who brings the food to you, and yet another who clears the table. I don't know any other restaurant that will have as many bodies as ours will, certainly not as carefully adorned in period dress.
 
You'll even get the bill written down on paper—we found a lot of these GREAT vintage Moleskine pads, very period—and you'll pay a separate small fee, like twenty percent, to the servers if they do a good job. (It sounds weird, but people used to do this routinely! We're including a keepsake booklet for every guest that explains how to figure out the amount.) We're even chucking dynamic pricing for this restaurant. The only things that'll be different than how it used to be back then is that you can't pay with paper like people used to, because of the blockchain, though if we could figure out a way to make that work, we totally would.

How Los Angeles came to have the best Chinese Food in America

Having lived in most of the major U.S. cities and sampled their best Chinese food, being Chinese-American, loving Chinese food, having a mom who taught Chinese cooking, having eaten Chinese food in China and Taiwan and Hong Kong, I throw my lot in with this thesis: the best Chinese food in America is in the Eastern suburbs of Los Angeles.

New Yorkers think they know the real thing when it comes to Chinese food. It has been a topic of hot debate. A lot of folks like to cite Flushing, where there are some legitimate regional specialists. But when it comes to quality, it is Los Angeles that reigns supreme—yes, better than Flushing and Vancouver.

“For probably 140 years, the best Chinese food in the U.S. was in San Francisco,” David R. Chan, a Los Angeles attorney and Chinese food hobbyist says. Chan has eaten at more than 6,500 Chinese restaurants since 1951 and has been documenting his progress on a massive spreadsheet, recording the date and address of his visits. Chan’s interest lies in systematics. A third-generation Taishanese-American and one of the first students enrolled at UCLA’s Asian-American program, Chan uses his spreadsheet as a lens to observe the progression of the Chinese diaspora in America. Food after all, is at the apex of Chinese culture.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the Bay Area lost its crown, and all the action shifted towards the San Gabriel Valley. “That’s when Chinese food in Los Angeles experienced a major upswing,” says Chan.

If New York is home to the largest population of Chinese-Americans in the States, why, then, does Los Angeles still hold the mantle for best Chinese food? Chef pedigree, regional diversity, and a strong local food community are part of the story.

As I've written before, I think restaurant quality today is largely a supply-side problem, and that applies even more so with an ethnic cuisine like Chinese food in America. For a variety of reasons, if you're a great Chinese chef, living in suburbs like Arcadia, San Gabriel, and Monterey Park is highly desirable.

The decline of Mission Chinese Food

Michael Bauer has dropped Mission Chinese Food in SF down to a food rating of 1.5 stars.

Many favorites are a shadow of what they were when I initially reviewed the restaurant as well as when I updated it 18 months ago, about six months after Bowien started spending the bulk of his time in New York. On that visit, the food had lost a bit of luster but still showed his vision.

My all-time favorite dish - salt-cod fried rice ($12) with Chinese sausage and confit mackerel - shows how the cooking has devolved. On my recent visit it was as dry as sawdust, although there were glimmers of what I had loved in the interplay between land and sea.

Another favorite, ma po tofu ($12), which used to be thick with ground pork, seems to have been reformulated. It now has a greasy broth with too-large cubes of tofu and a one-dimensional heat that masked the earthy shiitake and aged chile sauce.
 

I agree. My recent few deliveries from MIssion Chinese have been so disappointing: the beef in the broccoli beef brisket was overcooked, as were the Chongqing chicken wings. Westlake rice porridge lacked the usual comforting flavor blend of salt and brine. It was just bland. The market greens, which have always been braised baby bok choy for as long as I've been ordering from them, have been successively less and less flavorful, lacking both salt and garlic.

Bauer theorizes the decline in the food quality at Mission Chinese Food may be due to the absence of Danny Bowien from the kitchen. Bowien is off in NYC working on Mission Cantina and searching for a new location for his NYC branch of Mission Chinese Food; the initial location was a hit but was closed by the Department of Health for pest-related issues last November (yikes).

With a much longer commute than I had in LA, a dearth of street parking throughout San Francisco, and the scarcity of good restaurants in SOMA near my apartment, I have come to depend on restaurant delivery for more meals than at any point in my life since my years in NYC.

The SF food delivery scene is, to be blunt, a desert. I'm not counting the possibility of using Postmates to expand the delivery options to include more restaurants that offer takeout; that's a fairly hefty price premium that I hesitate to resort to except when I'm desperate.

Obi Wan Bowien, come back and whip that kitchen into shape! You're our only hope.

What is American food?

Natasha Gelling at Smithsonian Mag:

Are there any dishes or foods that you would classify as typically, or even exclusively, “American?”

A number of iconic foods—hot dogs and hamburgers, snack food—are hand-held. They’re novelties associated with entertainment. These are the kinds of food you eat at the ballpark, buy at a fair and eventually eat in your home. I think that there is a pattern there of iconic foods being quick and hand-held that speaks to the pace of American life, and also speaks to freedom. You’re free from the injunctions of Victorian manners and having to eat with a fork and knife and hold them properly, sit at the table and sit up straight and have your napkin properly placed. These foods shirk all that. There’s a sense of independence and a celebration of childhood in some of those foods, and we value that informality, the freedom and the fun that is associated with them.

 

I grew up eating mainly a mix of my mom's homemade Chinese cooking and then random American dishes when she was busy, so the primary attribute I associate with American food is convenience. TV dinners, pizza delivered to your door, frozen hamburger patties you can throw on the grill, something you can toss in the microwave, cereal you can dump out of a box and finish with a pour of milk. With two busy working parents and a houseful of kids to feed, dining is a daily hurdle to be leaped three times, it has to be built into one's schedule. An occasional shortcut that satisfies that requirement with minimal work is bound to be popular.

Nowadays, my dining is definitely shifted around to accommodate my work schedule, thus Gelling's quote rings so true: “It’s not the meal that shapes work, it’s the work that shapes the meal.”

It's fascinating to hear her discuss the social conventions that came to shape the three meal a day tradition that is the dominant model in the U.S. today as it is so instructive as to how dining differs from country to country and why.

How did the associations between certain meals and certain foods, like cereal for breakfast, form?

You start in the very early colonial era with one meal in the middle of the day—and it’s the hot meal of the day, dinner. Farmers and laborers ate earlier because they were up really early, and the elite were eating later in the day because they could sleep in. Breakfast and supper were kind of like glorified snacks, often leftovers or cornmeal mush, and there was not a lot of emphasis placed on these meals. Dinner, the main meal, at which people did tend to sit down together and eat, was really not the kind of social event that it has become. People did not emphasize manners, they did not emphasize conversation, and if conversation did take place it wasn’t very formal: it was really about eating and refueling. That’s the time where there are very blurry lines between what is and what isn’t a meal, and very blurry lines between what is breakfast, dinner and lunch.

Then, with the Industrial Revolution, everything changed, because people’s work schedules changed drastically. People were moving from the agrarian lifestyle to an urban, factory-driven lifestyle, and weren’t able to go home in the middle of the day. Instead, they could all come home and have dinner together, so that meal becomes special. And that’s when manners become very important, and protocol and formality. It’s really around then that people start to associate specific foods with certain meals.

Then, with dinner shifting you have the vacuum in the middle of the day that lunch is invented to fill. People are bringing pie for lunch, they’re bringing biscuits, but the sandwich really lends itself to lunch well. So the popularity of the sandwich really does have something to do with the rise of lunch—and especially the rise of children’s lunch, because it’s not messy. You don’t need utensils, you don’t have to clean up—you can stick it in a lunch pail really easily.

 

Gelling's upcoming book Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal sounds quite promising.

h/t Marginal Revolution

NY and SF: dining rivals

A reader asked San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer why celebrity NY chefs and restauranteurs didn't open outposts in San Francisco. Bauer's theory:

We’re a little provincial, a little smug about our homegrown talent, and a little less enthralled with big-name chefs who garner fame elsewhere and then bring a concept here.

As you can imagine with a topic like this, the comment thread escalated immediately into a bar fight between left and right coast foodies (if you see people and bottles and chairs flying out saloon windows, avoid the place).

If that's true, it's a loss for San Francisco, which does have a high density of hard-core foodies. Insularity is not healthy when it comes to dining, not in this day and age where chefs and diners can grow up learning and tasting so many different types of cuisine. It used to be that the sacred rule of thumb was that you didn't eat at an ethnic restaurant unless the clientele comprised a large number of people of that ethnicity. While it's still a useful diagnostic shortcut for more obscure cuisines or less diverse geographies, it has started to let me down more and more in the major US cities.

Chefs apprentice all over the world now, but even if they stay close to home, they usually have access to kitchens preparing all types of cuisine. Specialized ingredients are easier to source anywhere in the world now. Information wants to be free, and ethnic culinary secrets are no exception.

It's nonsensical that foodies who pride themselves on openness to all types of cuisine would not have that same attitude towards chefs from other cities.

Salt

Nutrition professor Marion Nestle argues that we should lower our salt intake, and that studies showing no correlation between high salt intake and poor health outcomes only fail to do so because finding a low-salt-intake control group is now almost impossible. 

For her, the two main culprits are processed food and restaurant food.

The latter isn't surprising; in culinary school one of the cardinal sins they hammer into your head is to never send out a dish that is under-salted. Salt enhances flavors of a dish. At a poor low-end restaurant, most dishes tend to be too bland or under-salted. At a higher end restaurant, it's more often the case that a dish comes out over-salted because the chefs there err on the high side.