in Food Philosophy ~ read.

Exclusivity

About a month ago, I visited my friend Cora* in San Francisco whom I hadn't seen since the old college days. This naturally involved deciding where to eat. Because she prefers serendipitously wandering around and happenchancing on places when she gets hungry and I prefer planning things out, especially in cities I travel to, especially when that city's diningscape rewards those who do, disagreements were inevitable.

Well, I didn't end up planning anything. But I did remember that one restaurant I'd wanted to host a group dinner at last year took walk-ins. For no other reason than its being booked to the brim - and it is always booked to the brim - was I not able to host there last year. Luckily, this year I made a new friend (Ann) who had a friend who lived nearby, and Ann's friend was able to put our names down for the daily walk-in flow.

State Bird Provisions

is a conceptual restaurant with two methods of ordering food. There's a menu, from which you can order à la carte, and dim sum, which works on the same principle found in Cantonese restaurants: waiters walk around ferrying trays of food, and if you find something appetizing, you let them know.

SBP is best characterized as New American with a variety of cultural influences - France, Mexico, Japan, and Spain to name a few - and a focus on local ingredients. SBP is good. Really good. The cuisine feels honest and refreshing; the staff - both cooks and waiters - appears happy; not even a hint of pretension exists. Best of all, it's inexpensive relative to other restaurants of its caliber not only (but especially) in SF, but across the country. I paid about $60 for everything you're about to see below. The closest analog I've been to, in terms of experience to price ratio, is lunch at New York's Bouley, but even then, SBP wins by a fair margin.

Far more interesting, however, is what happened after the meal. I rendezvoused with Cora at a steakhouse, where she had just finished dining with Frank, one of her high-flying financier friends. He was a cool dude. In addition to presenting probably the most well-rationalized arguments I've heard for why Hillary Clinton would be the aptest choice for the Oval come November, he asked me:

"So where'd you just get dinner?"
"State Bird Provisions, it was really good."
"Whoa seriously? That's like the hardest place to get in in the entire city..."
"Nah that can't be, there's dozens of restaurants in SF like that."
"No I'm pretty sure it is, actually."
"Wow, okay then! I might be able to see why."

Whether it actually is, of course, is completely up in the air, which is to say: irrelevant. What's important is how hearing this made me feel: slightly elated, fortunate, appreciative. More specifically, this elation was the sort you feel after getting - or obtaining, or winning - something that other people weren't able to.

I felt none of these things while eating the meal; it was his words, after-the-fact, that gave me an additional mood booster. I found this phenomenon awfully curious. Curious enough, in fact, that I decided to write an entire post about it.

That's right - this post is really about...

The

Phenomenology

of

Exclusivity

!

Various studies have shown that we're drawn to exclusive things. Why is this the case? Before we can answer that, we'll first have to understand what makes something exclusive; I can think of three obvious ways. For this purpose, let's use the term object to describe a material good or ethereal service to which qualities such as exclusiveness can be ascribed.

Rarity

Let's define rarity as a low quantity of objects in a given category. If there's only a few existing, say, paintings, then fewer people can obtain them. It feels intuitive to claim that the rarer something is, the more exclusive it is. But no - if Maxwell the 5th grader has produced three paintings and Pablo Picasso nearly two thousand, a work by Maxwell is clearly rarer than a Picasso, yet it doesn't feel exclusive; nobody's itching to buy his next watercolor.

It's the category, then, that separates non-exclusive rare objects from exclusive rare objects. The individuality of Maxwell's work is not recognized or appreciated by anyone other than his parents, really; it's not Maxwell that Picasso is competing against, but the legions of 5th graders who can produce similar work. Therefore Maxwell's paintings fall into a category of hundreds of thousands while Picasso's, by virtue of their... quality? character? something... are in an exclusive category of their own. I'll make the claim that while not all rare objects are exclusive, all exclusive objects are rare, and that that something is the important differentiator. Hold on to it.

Price

The more something costs, the more exclusive it tends to be. Luxury goods fit in this category almost by definition. We all know those people who lust after sports cars. Personally, I've always found it silly to be a car person when you have to invest a significant amount of your life savings and/or go into debt to get a car your fellow carheads think is sexy. And then next year rolls around...

Fashion, especially "high fashion," tends to this, albeit not nearly to the same degree. A $2,500 Louis Vuitton purse is hardly something to scoff at, not to mention the equally expensive lesser-known brands some fashion hipsters pursue because they think the main ones are too flashy. Hmm, but is it really worth it to dish out $120 for this t-shirt? What you're paying for (say, $115 out of the $120) might actually be the validation you feel when another fashionista sees you on the street, thinks he recognizes what you're wearing, and pops the question: "Hey, is that the Kanye West Hip-Hop T-Shirt?" But the chances of that happening are...

Food tends to this too, albeit not nearly to the same degree as fashion. Would you look at those silly foodies, dishing out hundreds to collect more stars...

Oh, wait.

For the record, I justify this (to myself) in two ways:

  1. Experiences lead to greater happiness than possessions.
  2. Development of critical inquiry, in the sense that I try to learn about a restaurant's produce, philosophy, chef, and cultural milieu in order to appreciate its cuisine more fully, as opposed to per se conspicuous consumption (pun intended, no I have not been there) in the vein of museum-goers who go only to say they've gone.

Other currently-off-the-record ways will be revealed in a later post.

Interestingly, even when price doesn't correlate to quality, expensive objects are still perceived as more exclusive.

Time

The more something costs, the more exclusive it tends to be. Nobody said price was the only form of cost. For example, take the food truck.

If you've ever been to a street festival, you've probably seen long lines outside food trucks. Foodies are always chasing the Next Big Thing, or lining up for the Current Hottest Thing, so some food trucks have exceptionally long lines. If you can't dish out the cash, you can dish out your time. It's okay, your Instagram picture will be worth the wait. Is it weird when you derive more pleasure from your 'gram than the food itself? If not, when did it become not?

There are four-hour lines outside Franklin Barbecue every morning.
State Bird Provisions has a 2-3 hour wait for walk-ins every night.

What is exclusivity?

The general principle is that for any given object, the higher the ratio of [people who have it] to [people who want to have it], the more exclusive it is. Haves and have-nots; it's baked into the word itself: exclusion. And the more exclusive something is, the more you have to sacrifice to get it. You either pay $2,500 for that Louis Vuitton purse or wait fo(u)r hours in line for Franklin Barbecue. The rarity of exclusive objects lies not in their available quantity, as services like food are relatively limitless, but their supply relative to their demand.

But this still doesn't answer the question of why I felt a boost of elation upon hearing that my dining experience was exclusive. And there is something deeper going on here. That's right, people.

That's right, people. Exclusivity is a phenomenon of social relation. It's a perception in your mind that other people also perceive the same thing, ascribe the same property - exclusiveness - to a given object. Exclusivity is not intrinsic to objects, in the way that mass or chemical composition are; we are not privy to the demand-supply curve, we can only abstract a model of it, with comments like Frank's acting as evidence to validate our models. Thus what made me happy wasn't the realization of SBP's exclusivity, in which I'd already believed, but Frank's comment's lending credence to my belief. In other words, I am happy when external data tells me that my model of the world does indeed match the world it models. And I am happier still having come to this conclusion, for it means that exclusivity per se does not make me happy - that I chase objects (food, at least, for sure) in spite, not because of their exclusivity.

Protip: It's usually good to know what makes you happy.

Ready for some more mind-bending? If I did not perceive Frank (whom I'd never met before) to be a relatively in-the-know, food-appreciating San Francisco millennial, then his comment would've carried much less weight; the quality of the evidence, in my mind, would've been lower; this is why you'd feel funny taking restaurant recommendations from someone who believes Olive Garden is fancy. And I'm willing to bet that more people believe Louis Vuitton is exclusive than believe SBP is. It's fairly obvious that more people have heard of the global fashion brand than a small restaurant in San Francisco, so it's an easy bet to win. Why does this matter?

Because, remember, exclusivity is built into our social fabric. Fashion, which happens to be significantly more woven into it than food, would still confuse a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea without the slightest idea that an LV handbag is exclusive.

The model only exists if people believe it does.

While you chew on that...
You can chew on these:

Octopus

On a skewer with parsley, spinach, and red chili vinaigrette.
Octopus Grilling is a popular technique for octopi in Spain and Italy; skewering it is popular in Japan. Combined, this grilled (kebab) meat-on-a-stick (shish) practice actually originates in the Middle East.

This dish was nicely balanced. The octopus was warm and supple, the chili accentuated its umami, and the parsley's lighter herbal spice accentuated in turn the spicier vinaigrette.

Garlic Bread

With burrata, olive oil, and spices.
Garlic Bread Crunchy crust, warm and doughy interior. The burrata was chewy as well and had great consistency: neither soggy nor overly creamy. Totally awesome. Get this if you go.

Oyster

Black and white sesame, red chili vinaigrette.
Oyster Acidity pairs really well with oysters, which is why they're usually served with a lemon slice. Squeeze some lemon juice on the oyster, and if it's alive, it'll squirm around a tiny bit. Depending on your background, your reaction is either one of delight or disgust - though, if the latter, you probably wouldn't be eating oysters in the first place. They also cause food poisoning at high rates compared to other foods; if you haven't seen Osmosis Jones, watch it, it's hilarious and stars Bill Murray.

The mignonette, a sauce frequently served with oysters, is always vinegar based. Vinegar is acidic but not citric. It acts as a flavor conduit for whatever it supports, be it peppercorns or chili peppers. Put some sesame seeds in there and you get a delightful toasty, nutty contrast to the bite of the vinegar and the heat of the chili oil. As for the oyster itself, odes have been written to it, apps have been developed for it, so I'll spare you my own spin on this time-worn, battered equine corpse of a topic.

Pancakes

Duck ham, honey, cilantro, and crumbled Fiscalini cheddar.
Pancakes It's a reconstructed croque madame, so where's the egg? Ah - baked into the dough. You can see a bit jutting out at the bottom. Put this in your mouth, chew, and it releases a mixture of complex yet complementary flavors that keep you dazzled just long enough for it to go down your gullet without your becoming bored.

Pancakes Sprinkled with sea salt flakes and caraway seeds. You can tell which areas are crisp by the seared dark brown areas. Inside there is sauerkraut, pecorino, and ricotta cheese. Super fun to eat; focus here is on savory flavors, elevated by the salt and tempered by the caraway.

Avocado

Sesame and dill.
Avocado A sesame seed is a sesame seed; remove its black hull and it becomes white. Sometimes it's better to keep things simple; Italy's culinary ethos is predicated on this idea. The less that's going on in a dish, the more your taste buds focus on what's there. Thus the art lies in the balance. Here, this is exemplified visually by the contrasting black and white seeds and gustatorily (gee, who invented this word huh?) by the chewy seeds and creamy avocado.

Tastewise, it's a clever pairing. Avocado on its own is mild, grassy, buttery, with the ghost of sulfur - adding in the toasty sesame notes completes it in much the same way that ketchup completes fries. Throw some dill on top for an odd, but not unwelcome sweet mint contrast.

Raviolo

is the singular of ravioli. You learned something today!
Raviolo Ensconced inside is guinea hen meat and shiitake mushroom. The texture is the key accomplishment here; baking it creates a crispy golden surface and edges, while the rest is a comparatively soft al dente. Guinea hen is like chicken but a little tougher and more concentrated in flavor. The broth of soy and lemon permeates the pasta, infusing it with a quality that is at once refreshing and deep.

State Bird

with Provisions.
State Bird If I were to teach a class on how to order food at restaurants, the Golden Rule would be: if there is a dish named after the restaurant, ORDER THAT DAMN DISH. If this isn't immediately obvious, let me explain why. Whether the restaurant is named after a dish or a dish after the restaurant, to create such a dish is to declare it a symbolic representation of the restaurant's overall quality, so the likelihood that it is good is higher than that of any other dish on the menu; it is the chef's pride and soul. And this, thus, is SBP. (Yes I said 'this, thus,' instead of 'thus, this' just to get that one extra comma in there. Deal with it.)

Callipepla californica, also known as the California valley quail, is the State Bird of California. It's tasty. SBP sources theirs from Wolfe Ranch in Vacaville, CA, a little more than an hour away by car. In fact, farmer Brent Wolfe's quails are not Callipepla californica but Coturnix japonica, and these free-range specimens are selectively bred on a high-protein diet. The quail so deliciously fried in my picture was named Colin.

Shave off some pecorino romano, mince some chives, toss some cracked black pepper on top and you've got yourself an instant classic. Delicate, buttery, fatty, tender, stringy, sharp, cheesy, salty, spicy, peppery - the indulgence must be as close to this as I'll ever get; sinful, in the Biblical sense.

Chips 'n Salsa

Okay, this is the best chips and salsa in the world. Nothing has come remotely close to what I had at SBP that fateful evening, nor can I conceive of a single possible addition or subtraction that would've made this better.
Chips Chips. These potatoes were baked to perfection. Just look at that even cascade of sunshine color. Amazing. In texture, they possessed a remarkable evenness, breaking with a heft neither too hard (typical of Kettle chips) nor too soft (Lays). The flavor was earthy, ancient, evoking images of wide fields with rows of crops, tenderly gardened (or maybe they just look that pretty).
Salsa Salsa. Guacamole, capers, onions, tomato, olive oil. Observe the glistening. It indicates a certain juiciness, calling you to dig in right away. Every second that passes is more flavor evaporating into the air, more oxidization settling into that heavenly mashed avocado. Believe me, this guacamole was almost like a mousse, so uniform was its creaminess. Perhaps they whipped it with oil after mashing.

Shiitake

With yuzu, sea salt, and green onion.
Shiitake Notice the difference in grain character from the salt used on the pancake. These grains are more typical, tiny and crystalline, more evenly distributed. On your tongue, they dissolve and blend in more quickly, amplifying the umami of the expertly sliced mushroom caps. I used the lemony yuzu as a palate cleanser in between bites; small though it is, a dish like this is meant to be eaten slowly and savored... though if my friend didn't eat the second one I would've popped it right in. RIGHT IN.

Angel Food Cake

Black sesame seeds, caramelized banana, ginger cream, kumquat.
Angel Food Cake American classic. Fluffy, crumbly, sweet. I have to say that angel food cake has one of my favorite textures because it's so light, and because it changes into something more dense once you begin chewing and saliva starts mixing in.

This one was tasty but didn't impress. Citrus and ginger is a classic combination, as is bananas and cream. The sesame seeds are a nice touch, and I do think SBP's recognition of their versatility is a good lesson for chefs everywhere, but at this point in the meal I felt they were a tad overused thematically speaking.

Mousse

Of white chocolate and ricotta, with rhubarb and strawberry slices and a burnt matcha meringue.
Mousse This was better. Under the meringue was a semisweet hazelnut-tasting cracker, kind of like the part right under the crust of an apple pie. With regards to the meringue itself, toasting marshmallows is the camping man's flambé, although this was probably blowtorched which is a little different; the effect is to add a toasted caramel note and an alluring brown color.

You can taste each component by itself or mash the whole thing together with your spoon. You'll notice the meringue has a lighter creaminess than the mousse, so there's some interesting texture play involved, with the cracker acting as a welcome contrast. Fresh strawberry and rhubarb cutlets add a pleasant acidic staccato to the melody of the creams.

Now that we're full, let's ask ourselves...

Why do we like exclusive things?

We've looked at what makes a thing exclusive, but haven't really explored what makes us want to acquire those things. Remember when I said that exclusivity per se doesn't make me happy? I lied. I've definitely purchased things just because they had limited quantity, or just because I was given the opportunity to purchase them. You see it's not terribly difficult for me to convince myself of things I'd like to believe, but which are ultimately inaccurate or, at worst, false.

Why we like exclusive things probably stems from evolutionary psychology. In a world where resources - food, for instance - were scarce, those with the ability to acquire them were more likely to survive. Extrapolating this, it’s probably hard-wired into our brains. And since most of us are lucky enough to live in a post-scarcity world, we thus become susceptible to the whims of its bastard child, exclusivity.

Knowing this, marketers are thus able to manipulate us into buying things we normally wouldn't. Macy's, for example, is always on sale, making its customers believe they're always buying things at temporarily low prices. Other companies introduce artificial scarcity as a way to bolster demand and/or price; I'm sure you've seen concerts that release tickets in waves. Certain festivals will create several tiers of tickets - say, general admission, exclusive pass, VIP, and platinum circle - with marginally increasing benefits but exponentially increasing prices. If you think those latter tiers are aimed at wealthy folks, you’re half right. Consider that many who buy them are not well off and do so at significant financial cost to themselves; such is the draw of exclusivity.

Conclusion

At a certain point, artificially-induced exclusivity becomes legitimate exclusivity. Remember, since the model only exists if people believe it does, industries are highly incentivized to incept this belief in their consumers. At a certain point, network effects reify, thereby solidifying the edifice of exclusivity.

For you and me, I think it’s important to examine our purchase patterns and identify when this is happening - it can be quite revealing. Understanding which objects we acquire for their own sake versus for the sake of exclusivity (or to varying degrees thereof) strengthens our ability to actually shift our purchase patterns, to decide which demand models we buy into and which are better tossed away.

For my part, I like to use integrity as my primary purchase heuristic for all objects exclusive or not, but that's another concept for another day :)

*Names have been fictionalized