Harry S. Truman once pronounced: “I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it." The culinary corollary of this homespun wisdom would be: “The best way to cook for people is to find out what they like to eat and then make that.” Whenever I’m making dinner for people I’ve never cooked for before, I perform what I call a “food inventory.” In essence, I query them as to the foods they like and don’t like. I pay special attention to foods that some people just naturally loathe, like anchovies or goat cheese, or have issues with, i.e., red meat, veal, butter, salt, etc. If I wish to showcase a new recipe, I will prepare it for the friends whose palates I already know are amenable to the dish’s ingredients.
The purpose of this is obvious and straightforward: if an individual dislikes a particular food, the dexterity of the chef and the quality of the recipe is superfluous; the person will not enjoy it. Some people are in the gray zone about certain foods. Maybe they had it once or twice and didn’t like the way it was concocted. All they need is a top notch preparation to make them a believer. But by and large, if someone can’t stand clams, it’s immaterial who the chef is or how the clam sauce is made. They will remain unsatisfied.
This all seems very plain and simple. Yet how often have you been asked by your impending hosts about your food preferences prior to being their dinner guest? Most hosts just make one of their tried and true dishes and hope that everyone approves. Or worse yet, they expect their guests to like it and become miffed if they don’t. It’s this latter group that I find particularly interesting. You need a good dose of narcissism, and a somewhat twisted conception of reality to 1) unquestioningly expect that other’s tastes will match yours, and 2) take it personally when they don’t. And there are plenty of cooks out there with these ingredients in the recipe of their personality.
In any event, the average Joes of the world will judge your cooking, not by the degree of your culinary competence, but simply by how your dish tastes. A professional may take note of the viscosity of your sauce, your knife skills, your plate presentation, etc, but your next door neighbor just cares if it tastes good. The point is, making food that your guests already like is more than half the battle.
In order to publicize the cooking classes I teach, I held a cooking demonstration and distributed samples to the customers of a local supermarket. The logic being, if the passers-by liked the food, they might sign up for a class. It’s a foregone conclusion that no recipe will appeal to everyone. Nevertheless, I needed to choose dishes that I already knew had wide appeal.
One of my offerings was my butternut squash soup which had a proven track record. Indeed, most of the folks liked it, and some did sign up for classes based on the strength of the soup. But no one commented on its color, smoothness, fabrication techniques, etc., (although one food neurotic lamented about the amount of butter). People simply responded to whether it tasted good or not. That singular taste sensation influenced their judgment about the worthiness of my cooking class. Amazingly, I could have crafted a more difficult dish, one requiring greater culinary expertise, but if the taste displeased Ms. random-customer, she would have come to an entirely different conclusion about my culinary prowess. How vexingly ironic that a dish displaying greater talent could cause the opposite impression, simply because the taste was discordant with a specific person’s palate.
A woman I used to date with psychotic issues about food liked her fish plain. No seasoning, no butter, no lemon, no sauce, no salt, no nothing. Just take a plain fillet, throw it in the oven, and then slap it on the plate. One chef at a renowned French restaurant I took her to actually came out to our table to make sure he had the order right. He found it incomprehensible, (as did I), that someone wanted a completely barren piece of fish. But my date enjoyed it and commented on how good their cooking was. Cooking? What cooking? Merely putting a completely unadulterated piece of fish into an oven is barely cooking. But kooky or not, she liked it, and therefore came to favorable conclusions about the restaurant.
So do yourself a favor. The next time you’re making dinner for others, especially new guests, give them a call and find out their gustatory profile. Give the people what they want. And if they still complain, offer them another Harry Truman axiom: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”