Why You Should Never Order White Truffles in Restaurants

On the surface, people who sell white truffles to restaurants aren’t quite the merchants of luxury one might expect. No Rolex watches, no Cartier jewelry. They fly under the radar like undercover cops or the neighborhood weed dealer. It isn’t unusual to see them dressed down, in sports caps and hoodies, nonchalantly wheeling around their nuggets of buried treasure in carry-on luggage like doe-eyed tourists who fly Spirit Airlines.

Their contraband is meticulously sealed in airtight containers to ensure no truffle aromas might seep out and blow their cover. When you’re shlepping around tens of thousands of dollars of rare earth candy, it’s unwise to make a spectacle of yourself. Unlike most business deals between chefs and their purveyors, the anonymous exchange of truffles for money is shady af.

Oddly, it’s difficult to authenticate the provenance of truffles, which adds to their mystique. Even though you’d expect that chefs would insist on buying the genuine article, the truffle industry lacks a proper ombudsman in the way that consortiums govern Italian wine production with A.O.C designations or Italian cheeses are assigned to a specific D.O.P. Truffles trade on trust.

This means there is always a chance that you’re being sold truffles advertised as from Alba that are actually from Slovenia or Istria, among the very few other places in the world that have soils conducive to unearthing these wild little tubers. White truffles cannot be cultivated. Nature decides for herself where they randomly spore, and she doesn’t make them easy to find.

Provenance aside, the most important reason you shouldn’t order them in a restaurant is freshness. Assuming you aren’t sitting over a bowl of fresh tagliatelle in a restaurant in Piedmont, the truffle you’re eating is likely well past its prime. While the importation of white truffles has become more efficient through the years, they’re still among the most highly perishable agricultural products. Even the most fastidiously preserved white truffle will have lost most of its potency within just a few days.

White Truffles

Chefs in upscale restaurant must front thousands of dollars to put truffles on their menus and sales can be very erratic and inconsistent. Unlike other products chefs would dispose of when spoilage is an issue, they’ll do anything possible to usurp old inventory of truffles before serving the freshest ones. They’ll never admit they do it, but they do. Chefs love serving truffles because they’re a profit machine that requires little effort. Buy them, shave them and overcharge.

Sommeliers in high-end restaurants face a similar predicament when opening expensive trophy bottles. If they perceive that certain wines may be slightly off or borderline, they may try to serve them anyway hoping that the guest will not object. Wholesale cost on an $800 bottle that was purchased by auction five years ago cannot be recouped.

All of this means that the truffles on your hundred dollar pasta dish are likely not the freshest ones the chef has in the kitchen. If the aroma is flat or newspapery, you’ve been suckered. Of course, all chefs aren’t guilty of compromising their standards. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to know which kitchens are trustworthy and which aren’t.

The best way to avoid being served inferior truffles is to dine at restaurants that do more volume. The more they cycle through product, the fresher they’ll be. But it’s never guaranteed. Chefs prefer to buy larger quantities of truffles to get better pricing. That can lead to an unwanted surplus when sales lag behind expectations.

Beware the bait and switch. You might see sexy “show truffles” on display, filling the dining room with their musky smell but those will often not be the same ones the chef is shaving over your dish. Ask your servers if the truffle will be shaved table-side. If they say no, insist they do. Politely ask to smell the truffle beforehand. If its aroma is not potent when you smell it, its flavor wont be when they shave it over your food. Remember, generously covering a dish with shavings of an old truffle will only make it taste more like an old truffle.

Good Food Isn’t Good Enough Anymore

good food

I met a friend for dinner recently at a new Italian restaurant that was getting a lot of buzz. When we arrived for an early reservation, the bar was full and the decor was predictably minimalist and modern. It was the kind of restaurant that made you feel like you’ve been there before even though you hadn’t. The silhouettes in the bar area made it almost impossible to read the tiny font of the menu. Maybe it was the shadowy light, but the cocktail glasses looked sad and shrunken, struggling mightily to make a two-ounce pour look generous.

Delicate handmade pastas were flying out of the kitchen while we sipped on our Campari-less Negronis and waited for our meal to begin. We were surrounded on all sides by privileged millennials slugging back overpriced Rosé. As the parade of delicious pastas arrived to our table—Vongole, Ravioli, Rabbit Ragú—there was a sameness about the whole affair that didn’t feel as special as it did twenty years ago when nobody knew what the hell burrata was and everyone thought salumi was a misspelling. The food was good, but it felt like a meal I’d eaten a hundred times before.

Americans used to be ignorant about food. We’re still ignorant about many things—politics, climate change, soccer—but not about food anymore. Our newfound worldliness is a blessing and a curse. We expect more from restaurants but it takes more to satisfy us. Cooking comfort food has become too comfortable.

good food

This puts chefs in a difficult predicament. Delighting guests that are more food literate can cause restaurants to prioritize innovation over flavor. As they push harder for new discoveries, their kitchens become more experimental but they inevitably function more like sterile laboratories than as incubators for culinary creativity.

Satisfying more discerning guests also puts undue pressure on the front-of-the-house to entertain. Staying out of guests’ way used to be a feature of attentive service, now it may be perceived as negligence. Table-side shtick makes service feel more like busking, unapologetically drenching guests in manufactured charm lest anyone forget to leave cash in the guitar case on their way out.

I recently dined at a new restaurant reinforced these ideas. The food was quite good and the kitchen hit all its marks, but it felt uninspired somehow. The obligatory Sashimi style raw fish appetizer—stripped naked of its Asian roots—was Anglicized and safe. The compulsory pan-seared rhombus of farm-raised white fish sounded as fresh as a bottle of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio in the early 90’s. A vegetarian dish, blatantly pandering, headlined the entrees but even vegetarians would probably swipe left on its predictable presentation.

Many articles have appeared lately about the “New Nostalgia” that has seen the resurrection of relics of America’s culinary past like the gaudy pomp and circumstance of Chrome trolleys carrying Prime Rib and Flinstonian slabs of Chateaubriand buttered up and sizzling on Mauviel copper pans. It would seem that once certain chefs run out of fertile new ideas or futuristic flavor combinations, nostalgic cooking becomes a convenient style to fallback on.

Perhaps some diners, too, long for the days when chefs didn’t exist to challenge our palates; they were there to simply feed us. There will always be a segment of the population that wishes we could “Make Restaurants Great Again.” But as with American politics in the Trump Era, yearning for yesteryear causes us to build more walls than bridges and too easily forget just how far we’ve come.

Stop Storyboarding Your Restaurant Meals

“May I offer any recommendations on the menu?” the waiter asks cheerfully. “No,” the guest answers, ”We already knew what we wanted before we sat down.” That’s strange, the waiter thought, I haven’t even told them about the specials and they’ve already decided?

Without skipping a beat, the table proceeds to order the most talked-about dishes on the menu. It’s obvious to the waiter that they must’ve scoured the Internet in the days leading up to their reservation to prepare in advance. Even after hearing the specials, they were unwilling to veer from the script. “Everything sounds really good but we’ve just heard so much about the [appetizer] and the [entree] that we have to try them,” they say proudly, returning the menus. 

Technology has drastically changed the way people make decisions in restaurants and has caused table-side negotiations to become more anti-social. Waiters approach tables to offer guidance and routinely find everyone on their phones swiping through photographs of popular dishes. Instead of asking about specific menu items, some guests unapologetically show the photos to the server and ask him to identify it.

The “Show-and-Tell” method has become a very common way for restaurant guests to solicit help navigating the menu from their servers. These guests only care about the most photogenic dishes that look good on their Instagram. Some guests don’t interact at all. They forgo help because they’ve already invested time beforehand researching fan favorites and critically-acclaimed dishes. They willfully trust the opinions of total strangers over the staff’s expertise. 

Storyboarding-restaurant-meals

The “storyboarding” of restaurant meals is a poisonous trend that turns potential great restaurant experiences into pedestrian ones. More diners are planning their meals in advance like film directors who have a particular vision of how their films should look aesthetically. But dining this way negates impromptu decisions that might stray from the original plan but improve someone’s meal. Often the storyline they’ve scripted ahead of time is static instead of the dynamic experience they would have had if they’d approached dining more openly. 

A restaurant visit is meant to be a spontaneous experience. One of the joys of great restaurants is their ability to surprise you unexpectedly. That can’t happen with so much advance planning. Everyone can recall thanking a waiter for a suggestion that changed the course of their meal. One could argue that as restaurants have become more expensive—the cost of bad choices has gone up too—so preparing in advance is a preemptive measure that can help curtail disappointment. Unfortunately, safer choices don’t always mean better ones.

Putting so much faith in other people’s opinions will often lead individuals to make poorer choices for themselves. Ordering based on popularity—instead of one’s own personal preferences—sets these guests up for failure. Just because everyone raves about a particular dish, doesn’t mean that it’s the right dish for everyone. Chefs work very hard on every dish they put on the menu, and it drives them batty when guests only gravitate toward the “signature” dishes. 

Negative reviews on sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor, aside from grumbling about prices, often condemn signature dishes as being “not worth the hype.” In most cases, these diners were let down because they ordered popular items instead of approaching their meal with a blank slate. Groupthink makes diners less adventurous and their choices more monochromatic. Servers are now tasked with trying to force guests into conversation about the menu when it used to be the other way around. 

Luckily, it’s very easy to correct these bad habits. There are simple steps you can take to avoid the pitfalls of storyboarding. First, read as little as possible about a restaurant beforehand so you don’t arrive with too many preconceived notions. Engage the staff and ask about “sleeper hits” not just the “blockbusters.” Be more open to suggestions and willing to take risks with your order. Step out of your comfort zone. Instead of everyone at the table ordering the same famous dish, try to diversify your menu choices by including that dish among a variety of other shared plates. Approach dining out with the understanding that pleasant surprises can’t happen without the possibility of disappointment. It’s always worth chancing because restaurant experiences can only be great if you let them.