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.