I love great food, but I also love eating.
While normally these two facts do not contradict one another, in the case of expensive restaurants they usually do.
It’s a famous fact of life that in the most expensive restaurants in the world the portion sizes range from fairly small to microscopic.
My personal experience dining in Berlin’s only two Michelin star restaurant Fischers Fritz for a business lunch was a prime example, my friend and I have been using Fischers Fritz as an adjective meaning something absolutely minuscule ever since.
So why is it that all the fancy, mostly French style restaurants have as famous chef Paul Bocuse said “nothing on the plate and everything on the bill” ?
A quick search on the net found a few answers but no real article addressing this subject so I will humbly attempt to come up with a few reasons, the combination of which will explain this phenomena.
1 The cost of the ingredients.
This is probably the most common reason mentioned and it is based on truth but not that much truth.
While it is true that high-quality ingredients cost more, they don’t cost that much more.
Sure, caviar and truffles are extremely hard to get and therefore expensive; but we don’t eat a rack of truffles or a filet of caviar.
The main ingredients of most courses at high-end restaurants are usually the same as in decent but far less expensive restaurants.
The extremely expensive ingredients are used as seasoning and are not included in all entrees.
So the cost of ingredients explains why the portions are not huge or big, but it is a mediocre explanation to their actual tininess.
2 Small is elegant
Most people don’t go to these high-end places very often.
They are mainly reserved for celebrating special occasions, business meetings and romantic dinners.
The act of eating is a bodily function and is not considered cute or attractive.
Some children may look adorable as they eat but that’s about it.
You don’t hear many couples compliment each other on their eating or saying “you should see him with his lobster bib on”.
Elegant restaurants eliminate many of the possible downsides of eating large portions.
No pigging out and stuffing your face, no “are you gonna finish that?” and no profuse sweating and dashes to the toilets are expected.
Add the fancy settings and corresponding clothing and we can forget for a while that we are ravenous apelike creatures, which is pretty much the definition of elegance.
3 Tasting menus
While most restaurants offer 3 or 4 course meals, fancy restaurants start at 3 and take it up to double figures.
Chicago’s famous Alinea has a 21 course menu while Jose Andres’ Minibar has 30.
Even a trencherman like myself can have difficulties taking care of 5 courses, so little old ladies and Japanese businessmen will probably burst at the seams if the portions were not so small.
The portions are so small so that we can enjoy the full spectrum of tastes that’s on offer, or at least that’s what they insist on.
This may be true for places like Alinea, but most of these restaurants offer a 3 course menu without describing it as “the menu that will leave you hungry” even though it’s obviously the case.
4 Design and art
A great deal of care is invested in how the food looks like when it arrives at the table.
Some dishes are referred to as “creations” and “works of art”.
Decorative leaves and drops of sauce are placed just-so in order to create a visually appealing plate.
Preparing and serving a small portion of risotto or pasta takes just about the same amount of time and care as a larger portion does.
But with Nouvelle Cuisine it will take a lot more time to arrange all the tiny bits in place.
Also, the bigger the number of slices, the less uniform the pieces will be in shape or size which will be an aesthetic affront.
So why not go with just a single gorgeous bit of lobster like the one pictured above?
5 Perceptual contrast
High-end places try to offer an experience as different as possible from low-end places like fast food joints.
The interiors are fancier, the cutlery is good enough to steal and the waiters are clever enough to avoid hot cooking oil.
We also associate big portions with the cheap food at fast food places and the free food at our home.
By serving small portions, another major difference is created in our mind and it also makes the meal more unusual and memorable.
6 Scarcity increases attractiveness
We are all attracted to offers of real or perceived scarcity.
Films and Cd’s are more attractive when released in “special collector’s edition” and offers that are available “for a limited time only” make our mouths water.
Good things come in small packages we are told.
The same effect works for food.
We won’t think highly of a mountain of spaghetti if we are served one, but place a few strands of the same pasta in the center of a beautiful plate and we will pay it a lot more attention and will probably rate it much higher afterwards.
7 Before boredom sets in
There is another reason that mountain of spaghetti will rate lower on our taste scale afterwards.
Since all of it will taste similar, our taste buds will get used to it after a few bites.
Even if it is sensational, the sensations will decrease and the 10th mouthful will not be as impressive as the first few.
By serving portions that are only the size of several bites, we avoid the boredom and have the food disappear before we take it for granted.
8 Making the Amuse-bouche feel at home
The amuse-bouche or amuse-gueule are a bite-size sampling that is served at the start of the meal and/or between courses.
It started out as a gesture of good will by certain chefs towards certain clients it is now considered a must in every self-respecting Michelin-star-craving restaurant.
While in a regular restaurant such a tiny bit of food would be considered an insult to the guest or a testament to the cook’s weird sense of humor, it fits perfectly with the image and portion size of the expensive restaurants.
9 Cost of ingredients strikes back.
In the first entry I admitted that certain ingredients do cost a lot of money but that would not explain why every portion was small.
But in a way it does.
Goose liver and caviar are the most famous examples of very expensive ingredients and they are served in small portions due to their hefty price.
These two delicacies are also served in many decent but not super fancy restaurants, so people are more familiar with them.
When we combine their price with their serving size, we create a powerful psychological confirmation.
Tiny portion+ high price = divine delicacy.
When we go to a high-end restaurant and see that everything is in small portions and expensive we are influenced into either assigning the delicacy status to every dish or creating a cognitive dissonance which our minds dislike.
10 Cosi fan tutte: a self perpetuating cycle
In time the image of the expensive restaurant with the minuscule dishes, which was not always the case, has become a part of our psyche.
Most people go to a fancy restaurant expecting to be served little morsels, and would feel cheated if they encountered man-size meals.
In turn most of these restaurants try to meet these expectations and would avoid serving anything different.
People want to buy into a certain myth and the restaurant owners happily oblige them.
In conclusion I leave you with a brilliant segment from Penn and Teller’s show which ties in nicely to this article.