Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Unified Theory of Deliciousness

My first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, had an open kitchen. This wasn’t by choice—I didn’t have enough money or space to put it farther away from the diners. But cooking in front of my customers changed the way I look at food. In the early years, around 2004, we were improvising new recipes every day, and I could instantly tell what was working and what wasn’t by watching people eat. A great dish hits you like a Whip-It: There’s momentary elation, a brief ripple of pure pleasure in the spacetime continuum. That’s what I was chasing, that split second when someone tastes something so delicious that their conversation suddenly derails and they blurt out something guttural like they stubbed their toe.

The Momofuku Pork Bun was our first dish that consistently got this kind of reaction. It was an 11th-hour addition, a slapped-together thing. I took some pork belly, topped it with hoisin sauce, scallions, and cucumbers, and put it inside some steamed bread. I was just making a version of my favorite Peking duck buns, with pork belly where the duck used to be. But people went crazy for them. Their faces melted. Word spread, and soon people were lining up for these buns.

That became my yardstick: I’d ask, “Is this dish good enough to come downtown and wait in line for? If not, it’s not what we’re after.” A chef can go years before getting another dish like that. We’ve been lucky: Hits have come at the least expected time and place. I’ve spent weeks on one dish that ultimately very few people would care about. And then I’ve spent 15 minutes on something that ends up flooring people like the pork bun.

Believe me, nobody is more surprised about this than I am. Cooking, as a physical activity, doesn’t come naturally to me. It never has. To compensate for my lack of dexterity, speed, and technique, I think about food constantly. In fact, I’m much stronger at thinking about food than I am at cooking it. And recently I started seeing patterns in our most successful dishes that suggested our hits weren’t entirely random; there’s a set of underlying laws that links them together. I’ve struggled to put this into words, and I haven’t talked to my fellow chefs about it, because I worry they’ll think I’m crazy. But I think there’s something to it, and so I’m sharing it now for the first time. I call it the Unified Theory of Deliciousness.

This probably sounds absolutely ridiculous, but the theory is rooted in a class I took in college called Advanced Logic. A philosopher named Howard DeLong taught it; he wrote one of the books that directly inspired Douglas Hofstadter to write Gödel, Escher, Bach. The first day, he said, “This class will change your life,” and I was like, “What kind of asshole is this?” But he was right. I would never pretend to be an expert in logic, and I never made it all the way through Gödel, Escher, Bach. But the ideas and concepts I took away from that class have haunted me ever since.

DeLong and Hofstadter both found great beauty in what the latter called strange loops—occasions when mathematical systems or works of art or pieces of music fold back upon themselves. M. C. Escher’s drawings are a great, overt example of this. Take his famous picture of two hands drawing each other; it’s impossible to say where it starts or ends. When you hit a strange loop like this, it shifts your point of view: Suddenly you aren’t just thinking about what’s happening inside the picture; you’re thinking about the system it represents and your response to it.

It was only recently that I had a realization: Maybe it’s possible to express some of these ideas in food as well. I may never be able to hear them or draw them or turn them into math. But I’ll bet I can taste them. In fact, looking back over the years, I think a version of those concepts has helped guide me to some of our most popular dishes.

My first breakthrough on this idea was with salt. It’s the most basic ingredient, but it can also be hellishly complex. A chef can go crazy figuring out how much salt to add to a dish. But I believe there is an objectively correct amount of salt, and it is rooted in a counterintuitive idea. Normally we think of a balanced dish as being neither too salty nor undersalted. I think that’s wrong. When a dish is perfectly seasoned, it will taste simultaneously like it has too much salt and too little salt. It is fully committed to being both at the same time.

Try it for yourself. Set out a few glasses of water with varying amounts of salt in them. As you taste them, think hard about whether there is too much or too little salt. If you keep experimenting, you’ll eventually hit this sweet spot. You’ll think that it’s too bland, but as soon as you form that thought, you’ll suddenly find it tastes too salty. It teeters. And once you experience that sensation, I guarantee it will be in your head any time you taste anything for the rest of your life.

It’s a little bit like the famous liar’s paradox, which we studied in DeLong’s class. Here’s one version of it: “The following sentence is true. The preceding sentence is false.” As soon as you accept the first sentence, you validate the second sentence, which invalidates the first sentence, which invalidates the second, which validates the first, and on and on.

Most people won’t ever notice this sensation; they’ll just appreciate that the food tastes good. But under the surface, the saltiness paradox has a very powerful effect, because it makes you very aware of what you’re eating and your own reaction to it. It nags at you, and it keeps you in the moment, thinking about what you’re tasting. And that’s what makes it delicious.

This was an important realization for me, because it seemed like I’d discovered an unequivocal law. And I figured if I could find one, there had to be more—a set of base patterns that people inherently respond to. So then the challenge became discovering those patterns and replicating them in dish after dish. If you could do that, you’d be like the Berry Gordy of cooking; you’d be able to crank out the hits.

by David Chang, Wired |  Read more:
Image: Kiernan Monaghan & Theo Vamvounakis