Chefs Get Diner Feedback


By Ryan Erskine

Photo copyright Aaron Lyles. Courtesy of Dinner Lab.

Traditionally, the newspaper food critic held the power of the taste bud. A New York Times critic might write a scathing review of one restaurant–The Four Seasons, say–that another newspaper critic would give four stars. This isn’t to say that either food critic is wrong, and that’s exactly the point, complains Dinner Lab CEO Brian Bordainick.

“We rely on [food critics] to guide our culinary taste when their taste buds aren’t more advanced than yours or mine,” says Bordainick. “It’s just a preference. I don’t care what one person has to say about anything. When you have multiple people saying something and then look at that data–that’s when it becomes powerful.”

Dinner Lab works like this: they bring adventurous eaters and undiscovered chefs together to create a unique dining experience. Chefs get the chance to try out new menu concepts and experiment with new dishes while diners get to enjoy the experience and give their feedback throughout the meal. The idea is to give people a new social dining experience and to give chefs the information they need to tweak their recipes.

Dinner Lab got its unofficial start in 2011 when Bordainick was trying to fill a void in New Orleans for quality ethnic food and great late night options. He decided to combine those two things and started hosting midnight events with great ethnic food at random locations. It was a big success but people showed up completely inebriated.

“We could have served them hot dogs and they wouldn’t have cared,” jokes Bordainick.

Since then, Dinner Lab has moved their events to more conventional dinner hours and allowed their chefs to cook anything they want. But one thing that remained the same was their unorthodox event locations.

“Our company is all about chefs aspiring to be something they aren’t yet. We want our locations to tell that same story of underutilization,” Bordanick explains.

The result is a series of dining experiences that take place in warehouses, empty buildings, or construction sites–anything but a typical restaurant dining room. The locations reflect the chefs’ ability to collect important feedback on their recipes without taking one step into a restaurant.

Bordainick compares his company to the music streaming service, Pandora. Pandora uses troves of data to make smart recommendations about what song the user will enjoy next based on the listening history.

“The music industry has this data thing figured out,” Bordainick says. “Pandora is able to hone in on this concept but nobody has done it in the food industry because the restaurant process is so antiquated.”

Dinner Lab has collected an impressive amount of data so far. At an event, diners score each of five dishes from 1-5 on different criteria: taste, portion size, creativity, restaurant-menu quality, and a free-form feedback section.

Take that feedback and multiply it by the 120-200 people Dinner Lab serves at each event. Over the course of its two-year existence, Dinner Lab has served 7,000 original recipes, some of which have been reviewed by upwards of 1,000 people. Aspiring chefs can take advantage of this goldmine of data to transform recipes and inform culinary decisions.

Photo copyright Aaron Lyles. Courtesy of Dinner Lab.

If a chef is cooking a specific food for a particular market, he might look at Dinner Lab’s historical data and see how that food did in Nashville and then compare it to the San Francisco market. Or he might look in one particular market and see how various dishes fared. The idea is to empower chefs to make creative and artistic decisions that are informed by solid data.

“We managed to make food really dorky,” Bordainick says. “I don’t think anyone has thought to do this before because of the argument that food is art. I get it–it is art. But wouldn’t you want to know as much information as possible to make those creative decisions?”

Hundreds of chefs have benefitted from Dinner Lab’s customer base, which is already one of the largest culinary networks in the country. When asked about the future of this growing network, Bordainick excitedly predicts a future where people will interact with chefs in revolutionary and low-cost ways.

One of his ideas is for groups of friends to rethink their night out. Instead of paying $50-60 each at a restaurant–and getting charged for wine–that same group could hire a professional chef to teach them how to make an amazing recipe they found online. People would learn to cook something delicious in the comfort of their own kitchen and save money in the process.

“If we can start paying chefs to do something like that, then its worthwhile for the chef and affordable for the consumer,” says Bordainick. “Chefs can wonder if they even want to work in a restaurant setting. Those are the value sets we’re trying to change.”