10 reasons why expensive restaurants serve tiny portions

Butter Poached Sous-Vide Nova Scotia Lobster with super-sized garnishing

Butter Poached Sous-Vide Nova Scotia Lobster with super-sized garnishing at Per Se

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.

Bon Appetit!

 

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10 Responses to 10 reasons why expensive restaurants serve tiny portions

  1. David Cappiociona says:

    Let’s just be truthful. The reason you get small portions is twofold..They are easy to prep for the back line chefs and they are high profit margin The “art” of putting garnish on a dish takes like 30 seconds…because its the same pattern every time. It is not like they create new “works of art ” with every platinng. Anyone on the back of the house knows you don’t really get what you pay for but if the house is owned by a big name chef, people think its proper to pay waaaaay to much for it because “so n so” created it. Hint… O)dds are he didn’t create it and it is most assuredly 100% he he didn’t even see your order. Normally he isn’t even there, and when they are they are usually with their business partner(s) checking out the books before they fly off to their Vegas,LA,Chicago,London,Paris…etc…etc…etc franchise…and yes it is a franchise Let’s be real no chef can be at 5-20 restaurants around the world fixing everything on the same day.

    If you wanna see a real chef that really cares and busts his ass day after day, go to a dive with a chef/owner operator. It may not be full of “artistic plating” or “delicate flavors for a refined palate” but what you will get is real food for real people, with real flavor for real dollars.

  2. samuel says:

    ahhhh bloody awefull
    get me fish and chips

  3. df9f98d says:

    The only reason to eat at shite le pompe is to impress strange or bribe your mutinous familiar. You damn well know if the concern was yours alone $10 at a rib joint would give you a satisfaction and serving portion that would have you unbuttoning in gluttony.

    Can’t complain. Defeats the purpose. Can’t is the ultimate service sinker. Can’t price shop healthcare very well so of course checking your blood pressure 1 time costs as much as 3 at home machines. Unlawful to not have car insurance so of course they can all outsource to India and change the tos on an hhourly basis and put it in cantonese.

    When choice is removed or shame is added great opportunity emerges. You expect them not to take advantage of it? Life in the land of golden shits means loving the shinyness and smells. You want depth get out of the shallow end. Eat your spoonful and convince yourself it was worth it because you paid so much for it, you thrifty stud you 🙂

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  5. Tom Thumb says:

    Restaurants are over priced and servings are getting smaller.. also often they don’t include certain ingredients just so they can save money and make more profit.. like pasta and rice dishes without mushrooms, cashew nuts etc.. Often they just use the basic cheap ingredients and give it an exotic name and charge $35 for something you can make at home for $4

  6. Anonymous says:

    Everyone here is an idiot and know nothing about the restaurant business. Do you know how much food actually costs and the work that goes into those “small” portions you are all talking about. The price of a pound of scallops is about 20 dollars a pound depending on the size and quality. When you are buying HAND-DIVED scallops found in the higher echelon restaurants the price doubles. Also, each component on the dish takes hours of labor. You are paying for the labor and costs of a restaurant in order for it to run and stay in business. How much meat do you get out of one lobster? Not much. Restauarants are about consistency, so yes David chefs try to make every dish look and taste the same. If you want to be a gluttonous pig and want food slopped onto a plate and huge portions go to Cheesecake Factory people. You can take a doggy bag home too.

  7. A-Aron says:

    Only boys and girlsbeat small portions.

  8. ozmirage says:

    Another possibility :
    High fat content / rich food.
    I recently shifted to a ketogenic diet (high fat, moderate protein, low carb) and my portions have diminished drastically. With 80% of the calories from fat, the protein and carbohydrate portions are minuscule in comparison to my old eating habits. Ironically, the high fat intake stifles the appetite, and one feels satisfied for hours.

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