So you want to be a chef … how’s your algebra?

Everyone’s had the experience of ordering a dish at one restaurant and then they compared it to the same type of dish when it was served to them at a different place. It’s natural to compare. And the comparison is usually the “cost vs size” one. “Well, we paid £3.75 at The Greasy Spoon and got a much bigger burger there.” There are so many factors that govern what each eatery serves: for instance, be prepared to pay more in the centre of London than in some rural village because the rent is higher in London. And guess who coughs up for the rent? The customers.

Also, any restaurant or pub owner will tell you that when they serve a meal it must comply to certain other criteria – and I’m not referring to the quality or the freshness of the produce, that’s a “given.” We also all know that each dish should look the same so that if 2 burgers are ordered at the same table, it doesn’t appear that one person is getting a ham burger and the other a ham sandwich!

The specific criteria I’m referring to is portion size. The burger patties must both be the same, the amount of chips must be the same, the number of tomato slices etc etc. You get the drift. And there’s a very good reason for this that Jon Rutter and his stocktaking team will tell you about. It has to do with being cost effective, competitive and staying in business. So when it comes to planning what to serve the customer it’s not a hit and miss affair. The publican doesn’t sit down with the Missus at the start of the week and say, “what do we serve this week? I know we’ll run a special on the Full English at a discounted price and chuck in a free pot of tea for the table.” That type of planning will ensure the place won’t last very long. No, it’s really quite scientific how the stocktakers and their customers work things out.

But what a lot of folk didn’t know was that it seems to be highly mathematical too. Take the traditional cream tea as an example. Dr Eugenia Cheng of Sheffield University has devised a mathematical formula that will ensure the perfect cream tea is put in front of the customer. Now if you pop behind the scenes in many restaurants there are some lovely photos of what the various dishes should look like and what they should contain – but Dr Cheng has taken this “guideline” business to even higher levels. The problem might be that your chef had better know their algebra or be handy with a calculator.

Roast beef & Yorkshire pudding - algebra style?

Roast beef & Yorkshire pudding – algebra style?

The beauty of this mathematical method is that you could create the perfect cream tea anywhere in the country just by following the formula. In fact, anyone can do it which might be bad news for the cream tea business in general. What if everyone started using their previously forgotten maths principles and made the perfect serving in their own home? But that thinking takes us back to some previous thoughts we had on why we eat out, so there’s no danger there to the scone industry. If Dr Cheng is right, one wonders if there could be a new subject taught at chef school that brings certain dishes into the arena of formulae and calculation – not so much for the sake of cost effectiveness but merely for taste and appearance.

This hospitality business is a lot more complicated than the customers realize. When that roast beef and Yorkshire lands in front of me in future I won’t be able to resist wondering how much algebra went in to the making of my lunch.

Chemistry … down at your local!

Ever wondered how to really annoy a chef? One sure-fire way is to start adding salt before you’ve even tasted it! Any chef worth his salt, as they say, will have tasted and seasoned his dish so that it is just the way it should be by the time it is presented to you. And if, after tasting, you felt the need to add a sprinkling of salt, no offence would be taken.

The science of how salt works on food has to do with how it acts on the set of five primary tastes the tongue can detect (salt, sweet, bitter, sour and umami). Salt has also been shown to suppress the bitter taste – which probably explains why salt is used when taking tequila shots! But if you’re running a restaurant in Mexico City the faith you have in how well your chef seasons the food is now critical because from April 4th the over 200 000 pubs and restaurants will no longer provide salt shakers on the tables. If this move was applied in the UK, Jon Rutter and his team of stocktakers would have one less item to have to factor in to their planning and logistics as they help clients operate efficiently. It would be a tragedy to have a pub with no beer, but a pub with no salt shakers? Or brown sauce bottles? Mind you, the chefs would be ecstatic.

The Mexicans have introduced the no-salt-shaker zone in the interests of health. Apparently the amigos have been overdoing things when it comes to salt intake and has nothing to do with appeasing the ire of the chef community. The recommended daily intake of salt is 5mg per day (according to the World Health Organisation) and the Mexicans have been spooning in a whopping 12mg on average. The leading cardiologist at the Siglo III Medical Centre believes that by just removing the shakers from the table it will reduce the daily salt intake by 50%. I suppose he is basing his premise on what has become a habit at meal times – if it’s there, use it.

The good news for anyone holidaying there soon is that the restaurants will be allowed to offer salt to their patrons, it just won’t be standard issue on the table.

De Dorf Krug skol

Those who enjoy having a bit of a shake at the table will tell you that it adds to the enjoyment of their food. And isn’t that why people go out to eat – to have an enjoyable and pleasant time? This whole issue on taste and its effects also brought some more interesting news in regard to beer. Scientists (the blokes who told us about the dangers of too much salt) have said that beer cheers us up. They tell us that the taste releases dopamine that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. So even without the effect of the alcohol, just the taste of beer (even the non-alcoholic variety) will give a pleasurable feeling.

I wonder if Heston is working on a beer-flavoured-low-salt potato chip? It could be a hit.