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The Hidden Persuaders

Obesity? Yes, it's an epidemic in this country, but here's the good news for full-service restaurant operators. It's not your fault. Nor is obesity the fault of food manufacturers, food marketers or any of the usual suspects nutritional activists call out. The worst that can be said about restaurants is that they are inadvertent enablers of obesity, and not particularly frequent ones at that. Ultimately, overeating is something people do of their own volition.

Want proof? Good, because Brian Wansink's Mindless Eating (Bantam Books; $25) is loaded with it. Much of his data is drawn from cleverly arranged realworld eating situations Wansink regularly convenes in his Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, where he is a professor. Other data comes from the relative handful of similar labs located across
the country, including the Spice Box, a research restaurant run by the University of Illinois's Hospitality Management Program, and the U.S. Army's Natick Labs, where they work on coaxing soldiers to eat more food while deployed so they can fight more effectively.

Wansink's lab and the others do their work in much the same way. They develop a food consumption hypothesis, get a bunch of people to come in and eat, then note how much gets eaten or left behind, sometimes asking the subjects how much they thought they ate. The experiments typically show that people really don't pay much attention to what they eat.

"Every single one of us eats how much we eat largely because of what's around us," Wansink says. "We overeat not because of hunger but because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers. This list is almost as endless at it is invisible."

The result is what Wansink characterizes as "mindless eating," a phenomenon he sees as dangerous. "We are almost never aware that it is happening to us."

Note that Wansink isn't peddling a diet here. He's an academic who is merely suggesting that people who want to eat less become more aware of the signals and cues that cause overeating and do what they can to remove them from their life.

So what can this book do for restaurant operators, beside get them off the hook with the food police? Plenty. The results of his experiments can guide your thinking about how and why to name and describe certain menu items, how they should be priced and how large a serving dish they should be put on or in.

His work on what psychologists call "expectation assimilation" and "confirmation bias" is particularly enlightening: "Our taste buds are enlightened by our expectations," he says. "Basically, if you expect a food to taste good, it will. At the very least it will taste better than if you had thought it would only be so-so." Several experiments which see foods with evocative names rated much higher than identical foods with less-attractive names prove his point.

Even though it's focused on helping people eat less food, Wansink's book is packed with information that will enable you to sell more food, or the same amount of food at a better price, while customer levels of taste satisfaction remain the same or increase. This book isn't written for restaurant operators, but careful readers will find plenty of valuable information in it. At minimum, be sure to bookmark "The Name Game" chapter so you can refer back to it the next time you rewrite your menu.

The Kitchen Table By Randy Evans
Bright Sky Press; $29.95

Randy Evans faced a big challenge when he became executive chef at Brennan's of Houston, a restaurant whose 40-year-run gives in landmark status in that
town. The 31-year-old had to faithfully reproduce the restaurant's Texas-Creole standards to the liking of legions of returning guests. But he was also charged with making the food more seasonal and energetic. This book documents what he came up with, offering 83 recipes specially concocted for guests who enter the back of
the house to sit at the restaurant's "Kitchen Table." Most offer a nod to the classic items that were their menu predecessors, adding new tastes and textures courtesy of items sourced from Texas-based artisan purveyors. Keep in mind that each recipe here has a real-world track record: it's been a success at a legendary restaurant where the clientele is discriminating and the culinary standards, set and enforced by the Brennan family, are high. It's no wonder RestauRant Hospitality chose Evans as a Rising Star chef last year. And it's no wonder this book won the cookbook Gold Medal at the 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards last month. Check it out.

Vegetables: Recipes and Techniques from the World's Premier Culinary College
By the Culinary Institute of America Lebhar-Friedman; $40

We're heading into prime time at your local farmer's market this month, when the stands will be overflowing with tempting options. But buying vegetables in person is a lot different than ordering them over the phone from your produce distributor, and the CIA's book offers plenty of help on this score. It's even more useful if your approach is to hit the market, grab what looks good and then figure out how to use it once you're back in your kitchen. This 294-page book provides 170 recipes that will help you transform the vegetables you've bought into menu items that maximize eye and taste appeal for your customers. If you want to buy local, buy seasonal and buy sustainable this summer, this is a book that can serve as your guide.

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