crowdsourcingWhen we eat in a restaurant, we typically choose what we want to eat, but the design of the dish and ultimately how it tastes is up to the chef.

But a company called Dinner Lab thinks that is “idiotic” and is inventing a “new paradigm” for restaurant dining.

The company wants to bring the wisdom of crowds to fine dining, and it does so at about 1,500 events a year, in 20 cities. Soon it will try this approach in a more conventional setting: a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The company plans to open at least one, and perhaps as many as three, in locations and with menus determined by the input of thousands of diners….

When you attend a Dinner Lab event, you are given an index card and asked to rate each dish’s creativity and taste, as well as each drink pairing, on a scale of one to five. You also decide whether or not the course was “restaurant worthy.”…

The scores are fed into a computer, and each week the numbers are crunched and the results are relayed to chefs, along with suggestions gleaned from the comments space on the cards and from emails sent in by diners. Maybe some people thought the burnt pepper sambuca sausage with fresh mustard was a little dry. Perhaps the chilled avocado and yogurt soup lacked zing….

It is the job of Dinner Lab’s chefs to take this information and to learn from it, tinkering with and improving recipes.

As an event, this actually sounds like fun. Chefs cook in the middle of the room, discuss their concoctions with diners, diners are encouraged to think about what they are eating, and there is plenty of convivial interaction:

The meals are designed to maximize interaction. The process of scribbling scores inevitably leads to discussions. Long tables help, too, as do family-style courses.

But a new paradigm for restaurant dining? Why think the wisdom of crowds is better at designing recipes than creative chefs? The end result is what the “average” diner prefers. This may be a safe way of designing dishes that avoids culinary disasters since these will be eliminated through the crowd’s vote. But how many creative, unusual dishes will fall by the wayside as well. This cannot help but result in lowest-common-denominator cooking

It used to be “design by committee” was a pejorative because when committees design something the compromises necessary to get agreement lead to less than optimal results. But apparently today, if the committee is large enough, the results are unassailable.

The problem with this way of thinking is that when you aggregate many random opinions, you get an average opinion. But this is not wisdom; it’s just statistics—the law of large numbers—and has little to do with originality, creativity, or high quality.