The Arrogance of Taste

August 17, 2014

A customer accosted me on the stairs a couple of weeks ago. “Why do you put butter on everything,” she asked.

“What do you mean,” I asked her.

“The sandwiches,” she said, “You put butter on the sandwiches.”

“We put it on the ham and cheese. We don’t put it on the grilled vegetable sandwich. We don’t put it on the tomato sandwich. Just on the ham and cheese.”

Jambon Beurre

“Why do you have to put it on the ham sandwich,” she asked to which I replied: “If you want a ham sandwich without butter, ask for it. We’ll make it.”

“But why do you have to put butter on it in the first place?”

“It is called a jambon beurre – ham and butter.”

Some days later someone said to me that the breads we make are too dark. “They are almost burned,” she said.

“No they’re not,” I said, “They are dark and caramelized. They aren’t burnt and they don’t taste burned.”


I wrote in this space some time ago that criticism is very important and I like getting it and learn from it. But I realize that at the same time, I am somewhat impervious to it. We make food that I like. I like my own taste. I am arrogant.

I told Hadj Osmani the other day that I wanted to change our egg salad. “What’s the matter with it,” he asked. “It doesn’t have flavor,” I told him.


He looked at me incredulously and this from a man who has worked in kitchens with me for 20 years and ought to know better than to say as he did: “We are using 90 eggs a day,” he said, “We are selling 90 eggs. The customers love the egg salad.”

I made a face. He knew why. That the customers love something is not for me a standard for what we do.

That’s arrogant – I know it.

I remember recoiling often when my sister Carla, the founder/owner of Politics and Prose, would say to a customer standing at the checkout counter, “Don’t buy that; you’ll hate it. At least you ought to hate it.”

Perhaps this runs in the family?

Small business is very difficult. It’s difficult to start a business and difficult to run one. We can’t pay people what larger businesses can and we don’t do enough volume of business to allow a lot of mistakes. (No failures like an F-35 fighter plane are possible.) So one has to be really committed to do this kind of work.

The commitment for me comes not from being nice to people – I am not that, god knows – but from being obsessed with the breads, pastries, and foods we make.

I do care about many other things – local, organic, seasonal, about tradition and originality. I care about changing Bread Furst physically to correct the customer flow mistakes we have made and tremendously about how Bread Furst looks and how clean we are.

But above all I care about the flavor of the food. The egg salad must taste like something. The peanut butter cookie must be baked enough. The bread crust must be deeply caramelized.

I think – I hope that’s a reason customers trust us. You come in and you buy something you’ve not tasted before – a quinoa salad or a simple slab of peach tart. I think you believe someone has been tasting the salad to see if it has enough flavor and the tart to see if the crust is good.

That’s my job and I like it; but being the taster puts me into a position of arrogance

Someone has to make decisions about food. Someone has to decide that Fox’s U-Bet, the Original Chocolate Flavored Syrup made since 1895, made with vanillin, artificial flavor and lots of corn syrup, is not going to be in our bakery even though it has been made for 119 years.


Certainly it is a balance between my taste and the customers’. If you don’t like what we do you won’t come and shouldn’t so I do pay attention to what is said to me by customers . But to tell you the truth Hadj was right. You were buying enthusiastically the egg salad that I thought wasn’t good enough and no one complains about our cookies.

So why bother? I don’t know how to get on and when to get off the slope of allowing customers to make decisions about our foods. If I cede to you the power to decide how things are to made and cooked and taste, I lose myself. Besides, to tell you the naked truth, I think I have higher standards than you do.

As we make what we made, I know that could do just fine by getting by. We could use cheaper ingredients. We don’t have to make our own mayonnaise. I don’t have to buy mozzarella from Di Pasquale’s, a little store in Baltimore’s Highlandtown neighborhood. We don’t have to shop at Yas Supermarket and Yekta, Persian stores in our suburbs.

But I think about how many customers buy from us something that we’ve not made before and they’ve not tasted before; and I know that you are doing that because you trust us.   That trust may be the most precious asset of Bread Furst and we’d better be worthy of it.

  1. Paul Boudreau says:

    Not arrogance, just taste. As they use to say in the (very) old country, “De gustibus non est disputandum.” Or, in English, “To each his own.” That said, this particular sentence does smack a bit of arrogance: “Besides, to tell you the naked truth, I think I have higher standards than you do.” You have no idea what my standards are.

    • You’re right, I don’t. I wrote about arrogance. One thing I have learned in the food business, however, is that, “The customers like it” is not a guarantee of quality.

      • Paul Boudreau says:

        I’m sure that’s true. I’m fairly certain that Italian emigrants to this country didn’t envision pizza with pineapple and ham or overcooked spaghetti with loads of gloppy, tasteless tomato sauce, giant bready meatballs and fake parmesan cheese!

  2. marchesa says:

    did you axe the crullers?

  3. Jack says:

    Right on!

  4. Merry Richon says:

    Love everything we’ve had at Bread Furst and since we live two blocks away, we have tried a lot. The one exception that was truly without taste was the iced chai we had one day with killer cookies. The cookies were awesome, as always, but the chai was taste-free. We mentioned it on our next visit to the person who waited on us and her comment was pretty much, “yes, we know, but ask them to add some vanilla”. What? Perhaps it just needs more chai flavoring?

    • It’s absurd that someone would say “just add vanilla.” I apologize for that. There was a time last week when the chai lacked flavor and we didn’t discover that in time. When we did, we threw it away. Please return and let us treat you to another and give us your opinion. Ask for John Flemming.

      • Merry Richon says:

        Thanks – what a gracious offer and since we are in Bread Furst frequently, we will speak with John. BTW, the dal is to die for…

  5. Tom says:

    I note one big difference between you and your sister. She had the book in her store, even though it was not to her taste. She accommodated different tastes in her store without arrogance. That may be one reason Politics and Prose has been such a success. Arrogance and its partner, disrespect, are distasteful and soon dissipate trust.

    • You are right about this. Carla did stock books she disliked. How do I make food I dislike?

      • Paul Boudreau says:

        Egg salad?

      • Josh says:

        I think there is a difference there, in that in a bookstore, the stock is things made elsewhere, while in a restaurant or bakery, the stock is things made by the owner or chef (or to his or her specifications). As such, I would not expect your bakery to sell anything that didn’t meet your standards of quality. You might choose to make and sell things that use flavors that aren’t personally your favorites. For example, if you did not like poppyseeds, you might still have foods made with poppyseeds. But presumably if you did this, you would still want that food to live up to your expectations of its quality.

        I think the closer analogy would be to an author rather than a bookseller: the author could, perhaps, write things not to his or her taste, but it would seem a bit of a strange thing to attempt.

  6. Tom says:

    You might begin by listening to Mr. Osmani, and respecting his tastes and opinions, Next, you might do likewise for opinions of others (employees, customers).

    • I doubt that Hadj who has worked with me since 1992 feels disrespected. Indeed, he has a of creative license. He did not say that he liked the egg salad. He said it was good enough. That’s not a good enough standard for me. I listen to everyone’s opinion. I respect everyone’s opinion. But in the end, after considering the opinions of others, I must be guided by what I think is right.

      • Tom says:

        Arrogance – Definition and More from the Free Merriam …
        an insulting way of thinking or behaving that comes from believing that you are better, smarter, or more important than other people …

        If you listen and respect, then you have mischaracterized yourself. If not, then you used the word correctly.

  7. Joe says:

    It is one thing to be certain of your own good taste and adamant about how foods are prepared in your own bakery. That’s your right and, perhaps, even your responsibility. Confidence is one of the qualities we look for in a skilled chef or baker. But your starling statement “…to tell you the naked truth, I think I have higher standards than you do” betrays not only arrogance (your choice of words) but outright contempt for your customers, the very people who pay your bills. Just consider, for a moment, the neighborhood that surrounds your bakery: affluent, well traveled, highly educated, cosmopolitan. Do you truly believe these folks lack sophistication and “high standards” when it comes to the enjoyment of food? I am one customer who will not return to Bread Furst.

    • I feared, I knew that sentence might be offensive. But I have been shopping recently for a table for Bread Furst. I went to the shop of a woodworker and showed him a photograph of something I had liked. He looked at it and pointed out that it was a laminate and the wood was cheap and the workmanship too. He just knew so much more than I do.

      I know many very successful, even wildly successful restaurants that pretend quality but buy cheap ingredients, even bad ones. I know that it is possible to be successful without attending to quality. But I know where my ingredients come from and whether they are organic and whether pesticides are used on them. I can get away with using inferior ingredients but I believe that I must use my power to choose ingredients and my judgment about what is good to serve the best I can to my customers.

  8. Ken Weinstein says:

    You are entirely right about being uncompromising in your quest to produce excellence — and it works – you do! My mouth waters whenever I think about your ham & butter sandwich. It’s the best ham sandwich I’ve had, anywhere, period.

    Actually, I think you combine both arrogance and modesty of taste in an effective, yin-yong way.

  9. Abe Faber, Clear Flour Bread says:

    Hi Mark, I found this blog post delightful! Made my day. Very well expressed and something I think about every day running our bakery here in Beantown.
    I especially enjoyed when you said:
    “So why bother? I don’t know how to get on and when to get off the slope of allowing customers to make decisions about our foods. If I cede to you the power to decide how things are to made and cooked and taste, I lose myself. Besides, to tell you the naked truth, I think I have higher standards than you do.”
    Because it is exactly how we feel here at our place a lot of the time. Yes, we have higher standards than our customers because just like your woodworker mentioned above, we have made it our entire life to understand and craft the bread and pastry. So trust us… we don’t muck up the bread with goofy additions of chocolate and berries even though the customers swoon over that sort of thing and we could make pots of money selling it, we instead still continue (after 30+ years) to tweak little aspects of fermentation, crust and crumb, flavor and aroma, because it is what turns our cranks personally, and little by little we raise our customers perceptions and expectations of the subtleties of texture and taste and smell that wonderful baked goods can carry. And frankly it is offensive at times customers who have read one internet article on sourdough or canelés and now think they can come in and school us on what they should and should not be. It is not at all about arrogance. It is about having a vision and expressing it, without wasting time on that silly American notion that the customer is always right. The customer is not always right. The customer often has no idea of what is possible. The customers’ taste buds and brains have been despoiled by mass quantities of artificial fats, sugars, flavors, and way to much salt in place of authentically developed flavors. The customer deserves to be educated as to the highest possible standards, rather than to pandered to. I want to make something that my customer had no idea even existed before they came into my shop, but the moment they taste it, they now can’t live without. Isn’t that a little more interesting than just listening to my customer explain how they want me to make a half sized, dietetic, gluten-free scone. The customer will hopefully be treated with respect, and the customer in our shop, i try to tell my retail employees, should always leave happy if possible, but if we only made things to the standard that it was “ok” with the customers, then it just wouldn’t be a fulfilling enough life to justify the hard hours involved. You have always stood out as a champion of quality in the baking community, with an intense personal vision, and I do find you arrogant… delightfully so! Hope to visit sometime so i can have the jambon beurre butter intact.

  10. Juan says:

    I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with you as to the flavor of your breads. We have tried on two occasions, and on both we found the crust of the bread, which has always been one of the most wonderful things about your breads, to be burned and inedible.

    The pastries: wonderful. The baguettes are usually very good as well. But most of your breads are burned, and to tell me that my opinion is wrong is not only arrogant but wrong-headed in a business that depends on providing a enjoyable eating experience to your customers. While I respect your experience and have always loved your baked goods in the past, I will not be returning until I find the breads have improved. Ironically, your past in Washington has assured that good bread is available at other locations, and I don’t require you to lower your standards in order to be satisfied.

    • From my perspective there is a difference between darkly caramelized and burned. Baking loaves until the crust is dark brown gives the crust a rich, darkly sweet flavor. Burned loaves taste burned.

      I am sorry that you disagree.

  11. Kim Scherer says:

    Mark, I’ve never been there, but when I read this article I felt the need to send a little note. I think that taste is personal, as was stated aptly above. But my taste verses your taste is a personal decision, and I would expect yours, at your location, to match yours in the food that you offer and obviously love to create.

    I try new and different things all the time, and ask the waiter, chef, or owner for their own recommendations, at times – some I enjoy, some I do not. But my father, who grew up in the depression, loves butter on *any* sandwich – so when I make his I add butter. My own is butter-less, oh, and pork-less. Just personal taste.

    I admire you for keeping to your own standards! Please continue to use local items, and keep to those standards. If you change the egg-salad recipe, and customers slack off purchasing your egg-salad, then perhaps change it back to meet their taste – but living up to your own standards is not arrogant. In my own personal opinion, it is simply meeting your own expectations.

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