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.”
“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.