An economist’s tips for dining and cooking

Just finished Tyler Cowen’s latest book, Discover Your Inner Economist, which is full of tips for applying the principles of economic reasoning to your everyday life. One of my favorite things about Tyler is that he’s even more obsessed with food than I am — check out this Washington Post article about his twin passions for food + economics. (And if you live in the DC metropolitan area, you should read his detailed and insightful “Ethnic Dining Guide” to the area.)

Tyler also shares my passion for maximizing utility in clever ways. So my favorite part of the book, unsurprisingly, was his section on how to get as much enjoyment as possible from dining out and cooking. Below, I’ve culled a few of Tyler’s best tips:

Tip #1: Pay attention to relative rents. Want to eat out in your city? Your best bet is to look for restaurants in low-rent neighborhoods that are near high-rent neighborhoods. Their costs are lower, but they’re close enough to where foodies live that they’ll be catering to foodie standards. There are better restaurants on 9th avenue (on the West side of Manhattan) or 1st avenue (on the East side of Manhattan) than there are on 5th avenue.

Even turning the corner can make a difference. In Manhattan, the avenues are generally busier than the cross-streets, and have correspondingly higher rents, so if you look for restaurants on cross-streets you’re likely to find a better deal. You’re also likely to find better food. Restaurants in high-traffic areas can thrive just by attracting a lot of first-time customers who happened to be passing by, so they have less of a need to make their food good enough to attract repeat customers.

Tip #2: Avoid “ingredient-intensive” dishes at ethnic restaurants. Eating at an ethnic restaurant in the US? Avoid simple dishes that succeed or fail on the quality of their raw ingredients, like a steak at a Peruvian restaurant. Because raw ingredients are mass-produced in the US, they’re generally inferior to their counterparts in the home country, so those dishes are at a comparative disadvantage when you order them in the US. Look instead for dishes that rely on a skillful preparation with lots of different ingredients and complex sauces and flavorings. (Or as Tyler puts it: look for dishes that are “composition-intensive,” rather than “ingredient-intensive.”)

Tip #3: Don’t trust pretty dishes. This is one that I came up with on my own, and I was both gratified and kind of bummed to read it in Cowen’s book: When you’re dining at a nice restaurant, go for the dish that sounds the least appetizing. Why? Because dishes that sound delicious can retain their place on the menu just by attracting a lot of first-time orderers. Even if most people who order that dish are disappointed with its taste, there’ll always be a steady stream of new people who want to try it because it sounds good. Same for dishes that sound familiar (think “roast chicken”). Because there are a lot of people who aren’t adventurous eaters, those dishes will always have an audience even if they’re not very tasty. If you’re an adventurous eater whose main priority is tastiness, you should look instead for the dishes that have to be tasty in order to stick around.

(My original formulation of this principle was with regards to desserts: I don’t trust pretty desserts. Those adorable petit-fours in the display case, all decorated with pastel-colored flowers? They’re likely to be dry and bland. But they stick around because so many people order them for the first time thinking “That looks so good!” Meanwhile, the homely pan of lumpy brown bread pudding or cobbler isn’t going to catch as many people’s eyes, so if it’s still on the menu, it must taste divine.

Tip #4: High inequality is the foodie’s friend. If you’re planning a “food tourism” trip, aim for countries with high inequality. It’s sad, but true: to support an amazing cuisine, it helps to have a wealthy upperclass willing to pay for it, and a poor underclass willing to work for relatively low wages preparing and serving the food. Cowen recommends both Mexico and Haiti as exemplars of haute cuisine in the Western hemisphere. By contrast, France has been gradually slipping from its spot at the top of the fine dining hierarchy, because the high wages and strict labor laws there have pushed up the costs of running a restaurant.

Tip #5: Read cookbooks with a grain of salt.  Every home cook has some rough, implicit exchange rate between the cost she’s willing to pay (in terms of money, time, calories, etc.) for a given level of deliciousness of the dish. But the recipes in your cookbook might not be calibrated to your preferred exchange rate. In fact, there are a number of ways in which the implicit exchange rate assumed by your cookbook is likely to systematically diverge from your own.

For example, older cookbooks were written during an era when the value of the cook’s time was low. Meals were prepared either by professional cooks or by wives, both of whom were pretty much expected to be cooking all day long. So if there was a modification to a recipe that would cost you an additional 2 hours of time and improve the dish only slightly, an old recipe might well recommend that you do it. By contrast, you probably value your time a lot more highly than the cooks of previous generations, so that tradeoff might not be worth it to you.

Relatedly, cookbooks published by famous chefs are likely to recommend high levels of elaborateness that pay off only in small improvements in taste. That’s because the goal of a famous chef in publishing a cookbook isn’t solely to help you make delicious food, it’s to bolster that chef’s reputation as a virtuoso. So he has an incentive to recommend recipes that are more time-consuming, difficult, and involve more ingredients than absolutely necessary for maximizing the deliciousness of the final dish. In other words, don’t be afraid to take shortcuts — just because some step is recommended in a recipe, that doesn’t mean it’s a “good deal,” in terms of the ultimate taste of the meal.

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