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Rory Sutherland

Why restaurant food at home beats eating out

Why restaurant food at home beats eating out
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‘The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.’ That’s Niels Bohr. Or, as Oscar Wilde put it: ‘In art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true.’

Like physics and art, many other fields require that you embrace contradictions — because you can’t avoid them. Take innovation. Yes, a great deal of progress is combinatory: two or more technologies are combined to accomplish some hitherto impossible task. But, as the Soviet-era scientist Genrich Altshuller noticed, much innovation follows the opposite path, separating things which were previously combined. The productivity gains from factory electrification only appeared decades after the electric motor was invented when people learned to break manufacturing down into independent stages, each powered by small motors, rather than running everything off one big power source, as was the practice with steam.

Since the pandemic, the restaurant business seems to be experimenting in a similar vein. Like a Victorian factory, a traditional restaurant performs a whole host of functions at one location. It sources ingredients, combines them in a unique way, then heats, plates and serves the meal in a setting largely optimised for the sale of heavily marked-up wine. For years, the only alternative to this was takeaway or delivery, which left the customer to do the final eating bit at home.

What we are now seeing is a surge in foodie ideas which inventively disaggregate the process. So Gousto or Hello Fresh source the ingredients in the right ratios, provide the culinary expertise in the form of a recipe card, ship it and leave you to do the rest. For a little extra work, you get a restaurant meal for the cost of a ready meal. Elsewhere, ‘dark kitchens’ are sprouting up; these serve only delivery customers, sending out restaurant--branded food from less fancy locations. The innovative Indo-Iranian chain Dishoom has opened a dark kitchen serving Brighton, but has no restaurant in the town.

An even more recent innovation is high-end restaurants sending prepared food by courier to customers for heating at home. Dishpatch.co.uk is one such site, which offers home delivery nationwide from about 20 restaurants, including (joy of joys) Roti King, a Malaysian diner in Euston. Singer Myleene Klass and restaurateur Jamie Barber have launched Mysupperhero.com — and the Michelin-starred chef Robert Thompson sends ready-prepared meals from the Isle of Wight to mainland Britain from Youbechef.com. Since restaurants ship only once or twice a week, and offer a limited menu of signature items, there are probably significant batch-processing and scale efficiencies in the production of the food.

Will these ideas survive post--pandemic normality? I hope so. It gives small-town people big-city food choices, especially for more obscure ethnic food (Malaysian and Korean food have the highest quality to availability ratio of any cuisine). In many ways, too, it makes more sense to heat food at home than to enjoy lukewarm takeaways. I already own plates, utensils and the capacity for warming things — what I lack is culinary talent. The ready-prepared option is pricier, obviously, but there are no travel costs and you supply your own booze. And you don’t have to turn up on time or put on trousers, two of the big downsides of eating out.

In reality it’s even better than that. My tip, if you do order a Michelin-starred meal this way, is to practise the new art of ergodic gastronomy. Consume one course per evening over three consecutive evenings. That way you get three memorable meals for the price of one.