having dinner with Sherlock Holmes

mark miller.bmp

First note:

Virginia Postrel has a wonderful piece in today’s New York Times in which she notes that Americans now spend “a greater proportion on intangibles and relatively less on goods” and that “new economic value increasingly comes from experiences.”

This is one of those pieces that make the tectonic plates in your head shift around. Among other things, it suggests new ways to think about the rise of reality television, restaurant innovation, vacation travel, the Bobo phenomenon, city redesign, and a number of other things.

We have been noodling around with “experience marketing” and the “experience economy” for some time now, but Virginia’s piece that is the first one that made me see the real scope of what we are looking at here.


Postrel, Virginia. 2004. The New Trend in Spending. New York Times. September 9, 2004. On Virginia’s blog here


Ok, on a related note, here is today’s post:

It was a little like having a meal with Sherlock Holmes. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Mark Miller was “detecting” the meal before him, a lobster dish with spinach risotto.

“They have rinsed the rice too often. They prepared the spinach and the rice at different times. The parmesan is ….” From a table at L’Epicier, a little restaurant in Montreal, Mark was able to reconstruct much of what had been happening in the kitchen over that last 60 minutes. Suddenly, the restaurant was transparent. Mark was looking into the kitchen, into the activities and materials there, into the choices, training, and very mind of the chef in place.

I don’t know much about food. I have about 4 analytic categories: really good, pretty good, ok, and not so good. (This is maybe what you would expect from a man who has exactly the same thing for lunch for the last 4 years. I call it ‘tomato surprise.”)

I ordered the same dish as Mark in order to see if I could see what he was seeing. Not a chance. I thought lobster was “pretty good.” Mark spend about 20 minutes talking about different kinds of rice, protein, texture, flavor stops, how lobster releases its taste, where various tastes occur in the mouth, how foods interact in the kitchen, on the plate, and in the eating. Where I saw a meal that was pretty good, Mark offered an account that precisely rendered, patiently offered, and absolutely ruthless, a catalogue of error from one of the best restaurants in the city.

Naturally, I played the Dr. Watson card as best I could, nodding genially as if this tour de force of perception and detection were not utterly beyond me. But of course it was.

Still, this may be the best moment of being an anthropologist: when the respondent begins to show you what you cannot see. It is an eerie experience, because you are “detecting” too. As you listen to the respondent, you begin to glimpse the things they must know to talk like this. You can hear the machinery of culture working, the many categories, the fine distinctions, the operations of assumption and logic. Suddenly, “pretty good” lobster on a plate springs into fuller view. But so does the food critic. In effect, you are borrowing the respondent’s eye to look in two directions: out into the world they see, and back into the mind that does the seeing. It is my favorite “out of body” experience.

Yesterday, I talked about Alice Waters, the Berkeley based founder of Chez Panisse. Mark Miller is another Berkeley product and food innovator. He was trained as an anthropologist at Berkeley and Oxford. He is sometimes called the “high priest” of Southwestern cuisine and opened the Fourth Street Grill in Berkeley in 1979, becoming one of the first to use Mesquite grilling in an mainstream American restaurant. His Santa Fe Bar and Grill, opened in Berkeley in 1987, drew on Latin American and Caribbean cuisines exclusively. He opened Red Sage in Washington in 1991 and most recently Wildfire in Sydney in 2002. He has won the James Beard Award for Best American Chef—Southwest. His books sell in the 6 figures.

Unlike Alice Waters, Mark does not indulge in the great flaw of the California innovator, that self congratulation that says that the innovation that begins with us must stay with us. There is no insisting on specialness, no willing of privilege, no circling of wagons against the borrower, no cry of outrage that someone might want to make free with an innovation. Mark is happy, eager to be a diffusion agent. He wants Southwest cuisine to make its way out of his restaurant into the world. He accepts that compromises will happen and that things will not be perfect. He knows how innovations form in our culture. He also just happens to be one of the makers and masters of the “new trend in spending” that Virginia Postrel describes so well.


For more on the restaurant here

For more on Mark Miller here

4 thoughts on “having dinner with Sherlock Holmes

  1. Ennis

    I am jealous. I don’t know if I would put those two on exactly the same plane. I think of Waters like Martin Luther, she shook up American food in a profound way. Miller is more like Calvin, a key figure, but a secondary one whose position is defined in terms of the revolution put into motion by the first.

  2. Grant

    Ennis, thank you, that’s clarifying, do you think they differ on the self righteousness scale because they differ on the innovator continuum? Best, Grant

  3. Ennis

    I think they’re entitled to be differently righteous b/c of their order in terms of changing the world. Whether they do or not is a different question … that might explain it, but I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion w/o supporting evidence.

  4. Grant

    Ennis, great point, it may be that the earliest innovators get so little thanks (relative to the value they eventually create) that they have to “pay” themselves in self righteousness.

    But Alice Waters is a kind of Goddess. Every foodie tells us so. So she got bundles of recognition and lots of material reward. So the self righteousness begins to look just selfish and provincial. In sum, she reproduces some of the faults of the food culture she claimed to hate. Thanks, Grant

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