By Ezra Klein
A week or so ago, the food writer Michael Ruhlman mocked Kelly Alexander for praising The Cheesecake Factory on NPR. In response, Alexander laid down a wager: Ruhlman had to go to The Cheesecake Factory, order the miso salmon that so impressed Alexander, and try it. If Ruhlman could honestly say “it doesn’t rock,” Alexander would purchase 15 copies of his new book.
Not only did the miso salmon rock, but so too did the crispy beef. The spaghetti carbonara and chicken piccata Ruhlman’s party ordered were also pretty good. And of course they were. The Cheesecake Factory isn’t accidentally popular. They spend millions each year on food research. They have access to a tremendous quantity of data on consumer preferences. They have the money to test new products and experiment with new dishes and refine their flavors. They have central processing plants where food is par fried and broken down with sugar and salt injections. People should read David Kessler’s The End of Overeating to get an idea of the resources that go into creating the flavors for chain dishes. They’re not screwing around.
Foodies have an unfortunate tendency to alight on a Unified Field Theory of Corporate Food: It’s bad for the environment and bad for workers and bad for animals and bad for waistlines and, above all that, a fraud, because it also tastes bad. This would be convenient, if true. If people weren’t actually enjoying what they were eating, then getting them to change their eating habits would be pretty easy. But it’s not true, of course. They keep going back to the Cheesecake Factory because, well, they like it.
Which is not to say they’re operating off of perfect information. The Cheesecake Factory is notoriously tight-lipped about their nutritional information. Unlike most chains, their Web site doesn’t offer the data. But in Washington State, calorie disclosure laws force chains to make that information accessible on request. One resident scanned in the information and sent it to Calorie Lab. Which gives us some insight into what’s going on here.
If I had gone to the Cheesecake Factory with the intention of ordering relatively healthfully, it’s pretty likely that the miso salmon would have ended up on my plate. A heart-healthy fish with a soy-based glaze? What could be better?
A lot, as it turns out. On first glance, I would have figure the salmon for the lightest entree, followed by the chicken piccata, the carbonara, and the crispy beef. Not so. The salmon weighs in at 1,673 calories — which is to say, a bit more than 75 percent of the food an adult male should eat in a day. The piccata is a comparably slim 1,385 calories. The crispy beef is 1,528 calories. And the carbonara? 2,191. The answer might be that someone looking for a healthful meal shouldn’t go to the Cheesecake Factory. But insofar as you’re already there, or your family wants to go there, making a good decision isn’t a particularly straightforward proposition.
This is why the obesity crisis is such a tough issue: Calories are delicious. The Cheesecake Factory isn’t doing anything wrong, either ethically or culinarily. Human beings are wired to prefer abundance, salt, fat, sugar, and value. The Cheesecake Factory is giving people the whole package. Changing people’s eating habits so that type two diabetes don’t become the new chubby would be easy if the food was actually repulsive or the value was bad or it was all, in some other way, a trick. But it’s not. The food is enjoyable. The value is incredible. The cost is long-term, and remembering that we might get diabetes down the road is pretty hard when eons of evolutionary wiring are telling us to eat this stuff now now now now it’s right here now now!
People go to the Cheesecake Factory because they like being there, not because they’re being deceived. The only catch is that they really don’t know how bad the food is for them. Study after study shows we wildly underestimate caloric load of our foods, and we underestimate by more as the meal becomes larger. It’s not clear that nutritional information on menus would actually change eating habits. But it would at least give people a place to start. Diners know what they like. They know how much money they’ll have to pay to purchase it. No reason they shouldn’t also know what it’s going to cost their waistline.