What Master Chef teaches us about the humble brag and marketing food

I’m a regular watcher of FOX’s Master Chef and on Monday night, Cutter, the “bear hands of the kitchen”, was in a pressure test challenge. If you don’t watch the show, people compete for the title of “America’s best home cook” and pressure tests are the challenges at the end of the show that determine who goes home that week. Cutter prepared a red velvet cake, along with a handful of other contestants, including Dan Wu.

Dan Wu did what the judges evidently (mostly) wanted: he prepared a dish, it wasn’t very good, the judges lambasted him for it, and he stood there like a puppy and just took it. Cutter, however, went the opposite route. He prepared a dish, it wasn’t very good either, the judges lambasted him for it, and he stood there and defended his dish.

Anyone who knows anything about reality TV knows that with enough film and a copy of Final Cut or Premiere, you can make anyone look like you want them to. Cutter claimed it was a good dish, said he liked the taste, and he defended his cake. The judges didn’t like that, namely Joe Bastianich. Joe said he needed to take their “advice”, which is really just criticism, (it’s too sweet, it’s too thick, etc.).

It makes for good TV, because there stands Cutter getting up and seeming defensive and agitated. But I’ve long groaned when contestants come up and they’re so sheepish. “Here you go. This is my dish…it’s not great. This sauce came out too thin” does not inspire confidence in eating it. If a waiter came out to your next sit-down meal and said, “Here you go, this sauce is awfully thin”, your immediate thought would be focusing on the sauce and you’ll never get it off your mind despite what might be a great pork chop. It’s like if I said: “Don’t think about an elephant.”

But before Cutter presented his cake, he said something like, “I’ve prepared a delicious red velvet cake for you with a thick cream cheese icing.” At that I practically sat up and yelled, “Atta boy!” at the TV. Except, the judges got back in his face and said he wasn’t being humble, that he knew the dish was bad and shouldn’t have tried selling it like that. But of course he should have, it’s a competition, and while the judges are out to make good TV, on anyone else that would be exactly how you’d sell that.

The judges complained the icing was thick, but there are a lot of people who love thick icing, and if someone presented you with a cake and said, “it comes with thick icing”, you’d be primed and unsurprised (or maybe you would be) at the icing when it shows up thick.

Cutter managed to squeak by another week, but that got me thinking about all the other ways people can and should market food in the food service industry. Here are some tips.

Don’t use dollar signs or .99 cent pricing

Dollar signs make people think about money, and .99 cent price endings make food look like value meals at a fast food joint. .95 is better, or really, use some totally different number, like $7.35 instead of $6.99. $7.35 seems friendlier, more down to earth and honest, like food should be.

Be descriptive

Sometimes on Master Chef, cooks are really descriptive and you should be too, too. Instead of saying, “A meatloaf with mashed potatoes and fried okra”, say, “A delicious half-pound of meatloaf stuffed with fresh onions, savory herbs, and topped with a sweet brown sugar and tomato ketchup glaze, all served with a generous heaping portion of Idaho russet potatoes and crispy lightly-fried okra. Just like grandma used to make.”

The more adjectives in describing food, the better. It makes the reader sense the food before it’s even present. And throwing in a chime about personal or nostalgic cooks is a plus, which brings me to…

Connect the reader to the food via their family

Using things like “Aunt Jemima’s”, “Uncle Ben’s”, “Aunt Millie’s” or “Grandma’s” isn’t a trite marketing gimmick. It works to associate people with food and their family. A little dash of nostalgia goes great with a little sprinkling of sugar.

If writing a menu, use expensive items to adjust behavior

Most of us would feel awful, weird, or gluttonous if we went to Ruby Tuesday’s and ordered the most expensive dish on the menu, which is probably a surf-n-turf dish. But that $25 meal makes the $9 meals seem really chip. The result is most people walk out of there spending $12-$15 on a meal, which is what the restaurant wanted all along anyway.

Limit choices

One thing that holds true on Master Chef is limiting choices for what’s on a menu. We hear that all the time and on Gordon Ramsay’s other shows like Kitchen Nightmares and Hell’s Kitchen. Too many options stretches the kitchen and staff thin and makes deciding harder. Which slows down service and table turnover and usually makes managing ingredients harder, too. So pick about a 6–10 dishes at most for your menu’s entrees, and about half that for appetizers, salads, soups, and desserts.

Do that and you’ll make your dishes confident, sexy, and taste better.

About the author

Justin Harter

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