Resetting the Scale

Julia Child Rose.  Photo by The Marmot.One of my passions is food. If you’ve been reading The Simple Dollar for long, you know that I love spending a couple of hours in the kitchen preparing an interesting meal. My food articles seem to always grab some acclaim – I think it’s because I bring a bit of extra passion to the table when I write about culinary delights.

Unsurprisingly, this means that I also read quite a bit about food as well. I read several food magazines and visit quite a few food blogs on a regular basis.

Recently, I read an article on Michael Ruhlman’s blog about his negative impressions of the Cheesecake Factory. This was followed by tons of comments from people who found the food at the Cheesecake Factory to be wholly unacceptable for their standards. One even went so far as to essentially question the sanity of their own mother for enjoying regular dinner dates with their friends there.

An aside: I admit I’m happiest cooking food in my own home. When I eat outside the home, the experience, to me, is a combination of food and people, leaning towards the “people” side of the equation. When I eat outside the home, rarely do I remember the food – I remember the dinner conversation. I’ve eaten at a Cheesecake Factory twice – I don’t remember what I ate one of the visits, and I only remember my dish at the other visit (fish tacos) because it became something of a conversation subject. While I don’t remember a great meal from the Cheesecake Factory, nor do I remember anything exceptionally poor, as opposed to plenty other particular restaurants and bistros that shall remain nameless.

This made me start to think about why people would innately criticize a perfectly good meal. What exactly would cause a perfectly good restaurant like the Cheesecake Factory to get such a bad rap in those circles?

What I realized is that the problem has to do with internal scales of quality.

I’m happy eating what I prepare at home. Most of the time, I’d judge those meals as being around a 6 on my scale of good meals – perfectly good. On occasion, I’ll reach an 8 or so.

What’s the 10 on that scale? There are a few meals that my mother prepares that are up there on my scale, but they’re helped by the “comfort food” factor. Aside from that, my definition of a 10 comes from eating at Aunt Maude’s, a wonderful restaurant in Ames, Iowa that I highly recommend to anyone who visits there. The atmosphere is nice without being pretentious and the food is excellent.

Someday, I fully intend to dine at a restaurant that’s off the high end of my scale. I’d love to enjoy a meal at one of the S. Pellegrino 50 at some point.

However, I have no interest in going to those restaurants more than once or twice in my life.

Why is that? It’s pretty simple. If I dine at an incredibly high end restaurant once in my life, it’s a truly unique occasion – one that I don’t even use in my personal idea of what’s good and what’s bad. I could dine at Per Se once, be utterly blown away, but that one experience wouldn’t change the fact that I still view dinner prepared in my own kitchen as a “6.”

But what happens if I go there twice? And I dine at a few other restaurants on that list? I go to one every few months – and that standard starts to enter my scale. Suddenly, the meal in my own kitchen goes down to a “2” – I’m no longer nearly as happy with it.

Instead, my idea of a great meal is boxed in at the $250 a plate price at Per Se. Everything else is judged by that level of quality – and, unsurprisingly, everything else falls short.

If I reached a point where I judged all my meals by restaurants on the S. Pellegrino 50 list, I’m going to be unhappy with almost every dining experience and I’ll go broke chasing a “decent” dining experience.

The high end experience, taken once, is something to always remember. It’s a life-affirming experience, something to enjoy and cherish.

The high end experience, taken on a regular basis, drives you to disaster. It undermines your enjoyment of the simpler experiences in life.

When you reach the point that dinner with your mother at the Cheesecake Factory on the occasion of her birthday at her request becomes intolerable because of the quality of the food, you’re riding a very dangerous line. You either need to have an enormous bankroll devoted to chasing exquisite dining experiences or bankruptcy will be finding you soon.

Peak experiences are great things. They’re things to enjoy and truly savor in life and if you can truly afford it, go for it. But they have a dangerous side as well. When those peak experiences become your new standard, you begin to ride a very expensive track. Not only that, the peak experiences are no longer peaks – a dinner at Per Se no longer takes you to another world. It becomes ordinary, and some of the value is lost.

This philosophy holds true for any experience in life. Vacations – a European trip once a decade or so can be a true peak experience, but one taken every year starts to become the standard, and an expensive one. Even things as simple as coffee: if you enjoy an expensive cup at a high end coffee shop every day, suddenly that’s your standard, you’re burning through piles of cash, and ordinary coffee is no longer good enough.

When a peak experience becomes an ordinary experience, you not only lose money, you lose happiness, too.