Despite the lure of adrenalin-infused fast-lane pastimes, the overwhelming factor in the day-to-day lane remains familiarity. We cosy up to things we know; appallingly constructed television dramas; the voyeurism of reality shows; food that hugs the inner you which doesn’t want to explore a taste experience while you’re clutching your favourite pillow on the sofa. It’s why children suck their thumbs: it’s always the same.
Familiarity is what drives the fast food industry. Every “graduate” from a McDonald’s “university” can ensure that whenever—and wherever—you buy a Big Mac, it will always look, smell and taste the same. And the same goes for pizza chains, chicken franchises and coffee outlets. This is a problem for the people selling good, clean food and who want a regular flow of clients through their door.
In the magazine business, it costs a whole lot more to win a subscriber—yes, such people do still exist—and restaurateurs know that it costs much more to win a new customer than it does to retain an existing one. And we’re not just talking of the financial outlays. Chefs want to get new people in to try their food, and they really want them to come back. But a culinary experience is fraught with so many levels of subjectivity and indefinable needs that do not make sense, even to Freudian psychoanalysts. But one thing is clear: familiarity conjures contentment.
A group of thirtysomethings, gathered in the Snug, the bar attached to Societi Bistro in Cape Town, one night last week to celebrate. They’re all professionals, immaculately casual, greeting one another with full body hugs and various levels of cheek to air kisses. They carried iPhones—dissed Blackberrys without even bothering to consider a comparison—and outdid each other with sly insults. Sexual innuendo slithered through the conversation like beads of sweat running down the bodies at a Bikram Yoga session. They drank champagne and beer on the house and when the cash bar opened most switched to red wine.
There was talk of going on for sushi, but no one could get any one to listen long enough to make a united effort to leave. Then a couple ordered a pizza. It was thin crust—the house speciality—and it was covered on one half with generous pieces of chicken and on the other with leaves of rocket. It hinted of cheese and fresh greens, wood-fired dough, slightly crispy on the edges. The couple sat and stared at it. “It’s ugly, says the one. “Look at that chicken. That’s not pizza,” says the other. And then they went off to eat in an Asian restaurant—not because it’s cheaper (though they perceived it to be)—but because I suspect it offered food that was recognisable—though not necessarily identifiable. (Goo swamped bell peppers, chillies, onions, a meat and a side dish of rice.)
Now, for a restaurateur to watch a slapper of thirtysomethings walking out and taking their money elsewhere, it hurts. It doesn’t matter that the dinning room was almost full, seeing a captured clientele leave is like mistakenly hitting the “Delete All” button when you’ve highlighted your “Holiday Picture” album. What can the restaurateur do?
Change the look of the pizza? I don’t think so. The place has a reputation for good, clean food. The chef’s pizzas have perfect thin-crusts—firm but not so they will crack—and combines them with fresh and cooked toppings. There is none of the cheese and tomato smothered dough that sacrifices taste for texture and texture for sensation. The pizzas he makes are not complicated: they are essentially simple yet require a practiced hand and trained sensibility of what works.
So how does a chef of this calibre cater for a client who wants a pizza to look like “other” pizzas and yet retain his distinctive style? It must be tempting to serve the visual equivalent of a cardboard cut out dipped in red and yellow sauce. These thirtysomethings were pulling late nighters at college 10 or 15 years ago when fast food pizza was coming into its own—Domino’s launched here in the late 1990s and Butler’s has been around a few years longer—and that has shaped their sensibilities. But they’re also an intrinsically functional group and they define stuff by how easy it is to use—hence the love affair with the iPhone.
Is there a pizza equivalent of the iPhone? Perhaps. The thing food has over technology is that it is not only fun to play with, it’s fun to taste. There’s only so much tactile pleasure you can get from swiping your forefinger across a glass screen. Maybe pizzas should be offered in different shapes: rectangle rather than just circles. The problem remains one of perception: the couple thought the pizza looked “ugly” and so they concluded it would taste terrible. Maybe if you are going to be innovative with pizza, a chef must also be concerned with presentation.
Maybe there should be more customer customisation on offer. After all, it’s only recently when you could only order coffee, black or white with or without sugar. Now, you get espresso, cappuccino, and Americano; you get mocha, macchiato and latte; you can have a Grande skinny caramel cappuccino or a breve vanilla iced latte; you can stick to café au lait but have that skinny and/or tall, or go for an espresso con panna. The variations are endless.
But the barista’s job is easier than that of the pizzaiolo. The pizza’s ingredients are more variable, they depend on what’s available and they rely on subtle correlations, like the flour used for the dough, the heat of the oven, the freshness of the tomato, and the clarity of the cheese. And it is essentially a simple cuisine. The pleasure of biting into fresh rocket and crunching the crisp crust dough and everything else in between is a joy of tastes and textures, as comforting and re-assuring as feeling a hot water bottle between crisp linen sheets on a winter night. You’re enfolded. It may not have looked like a familiar pizza but it tasted familiarly delicious.