I spent this past Fourth of July at a friend’s house with his family and their friends. As we were grilling, the conversation naturally drifted to debating which Chicago restaurant makes the best burger. And sometimes, I find these debates are nothing more than your average small talk.
Among some groups however, these debates go a bit deeper. At worst, these debates can become forms of conspicuous expression, where the story isn’t focused on appreciating the experience, but rather it gets embellished and serves primarily to signal just how “cultured” the storyteller is. I’ve certainly experienced as much on occasion amongst Northwestern students.
Nonetheless, you’ll have a lot more fun following a story about an eating experience rich in detail—one in which you can envision the subtle, elegant decor of the restaurant, hear the sizzle of the hot steak and taste the interplay of tart and sweetness of a balsamic-glazed strawberry dessert. Maybe that’s just me. But I like to think that the ability to bring someone into your world through words is a powerful one.
Imagine, for example, you’re describing the perfect woman. If you’re Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you might say “she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving stones, why no one else’s heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell.“
Or, you could say, “I don’t know really. She just has a certain je ne sais quoi.” One is a heck of a lot more interesting and likely to generate a great conversation than the other.
So when I challenged my friend to describe what made Au Cheval’s burger the best he’d ever had… well let’s say he’s not exactly a Marquez.
The next morning, I came across a Harvard Business School working paper on how one becomes a taste expert. Funny how serendipity works. Here’s what I learned:
- Becoming an expert about hedonic products is likely to enhance your future enjoyment of their consumption
- The development of an expert can be described in two phases
- First, the analytical phase, in which novices get a feel for the basic frameworks and diction to develop an awareness and familiarity for the subtleties of taste
- Second, the holistic phase, in which the budding expert abandons these introductory approaches in favor for more visual and narrative analysis
- The most useful takeaway: to move from novice to enthusiast, one must learn the lexicon, rules and weighing scale of different attributes of a hedonic product. This step is usually more accessible and quicker than the second step to become an expert.