it's never as good


What is it about the second time around experience that never quite lives up to the first? For some reason it's just never as good as the first. Is it because a particularly well received first experience tends to be so new and fresh and all around awesome - or is there something else going on? I'll never forget that feeling of seeing Star Wars for the first time - OK I was only 6 years old and easily pleased - but still! Or the first time I enjoyed a passionate teenage kiss with an actual real - not imaginary - girl; my adrenaline, serotonin or whatever the natural chemicals are that flow through an adolescent boy, went helter-skelter. Similarly, when first experiencing truly great food or drink - one of those special dishes where the mere thought of it makes my mouth water and I feel warm and content thinking back to my experience - but for some reason when revisiting them I’ve experienced a spate of anti climaxes. They haven’t all been bad - not for a moment. Take for example Spuntino’s Mac & Cheese. 
I’d go so far as to say it’s the best Mac & Cheese I've ever tasted. The first time was one of those experiences I would love to relive again and again.
Spuntino’s is a firm Ambassadors of Food favourite, located on the Soho end of Rupert Street in central London, it’s part of the same group of excellent restaurants which includes Mishkin and Polpo - their founder Russell Norman clearly knows his stuff because we’re fans. We’d just finished some delightful zucchini, chilli and mint pizzetta and almost too casually decided to try the Mac & Cheese we’d heard so much about.

We simply weren't prepared for just how magnificent this particular offering of a popular comfort food dish turned out to be. The recipe sounds straight forward enough - fontina, Gruyère and parmesan cheeses are combined beautifully, macaroni pasta, sautéed leaks a touch of Dijon and a practically perfect grilled crumb topping - but the execution resulted in something that was so much more than the sum of its parts.

I tried to resist returning too soon, because I’m all too aware how things are rarely as good as the first time. Nevertheless, last week I found myself at a sudden loose end for dinner - I was oh so temptingly close to Spuntino’s and - I succumbed to temptation and wandered-in. Seated at the bar - where most of the seats in Spuntino are located - I ordered a glass of house red (which was excellent BTW) and a Mac & Cheese. At this point I should mention that several factors came into play which account for why this second time around experience didn't match my sublime first one. I was too eager and clearly didn't give the extremely hot dish time to cool properly; this was a schoolboy error and a slightly burned mouth is never a winner. Secondly, I didn't have anything to contrast the richness of the Mac & Cheese. With 20/20 hindsight, the pizzetta we’d had as an accompaniment on the previous occasion was an ideal foil because the dryness of the base and simple freshness of the zucchini were such an elegant contrast to the lush and over indulgent Mac & Cheese. But, this time around I had none of that - just wine and water. Lastly, I think the dining company one keeps, matters; after all, food and drink is a deeply social experience. Whilst there’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating alone, on the previous occasion I was  joined by one of my fellow Ambassadors of Food, whereas this time I only had my own somewhat burned mouth to enjoy the dish with. Having said all of the above - it’s remarkable how consistent the two dishes were and but for factors of my own making, equally delicious and highly recommended. Nevertheless, as I wandered away from Spuntino’s that evening, I couldn't help but think how the first experience of their Mac & Cheese was so much more sublime.

By contrast, Bone Daddies Vegetarian Mushroom Ramen was another second time flop - but this time for altogether different reasons. The first time I tried the sensational dish with Mushrooms, Garlic, Thyme, Mushroom Broth and Ramen noodles, I was also accompanied by a fellow Ambassador of Food. The simple looking bowl of colourful fresh ingredients was magical. From the delightfully tasty shiitake mushrooms, to the poached eggs and asparagus - all of which were cooked to perfection - the noodles had just the right texture and the broth was utterly delicious with a deep almost meat-like mushroom flavour.

The second time I ventured into Bone Daddies on Peter Street and ordered the same dish, was a sorry experience. The bowl was dirty with some greasy residue. The noodles were clumped together and seemed to be those cheapo supermarket variety. The lone half an egg was overcooked, the quality and flavour of the vegetable ingredients was a pale imitation of the knock-out dish I’d previously experienced. In fact I mentioned all of this to the waiter and - well the response was less than caring and more than a little disappointing.
In contrast to the Spuntino’s experience, what I was experiencing here was deeply inconsistent execution of the dishes between my first and second visits. 
IMAG0583.jpgPerhaps it was because the first experience shone so brightly as an unexpectedly glorious party on my taste buds, that the repeat simply couldn't match it. Or perhaps the chef had an off day - but one can only go on one’s experience. We know the team behind Bone Daddies are highly professional and caring and we thoroughly enjoyed their sister restaurant in Covent Garden, Flesh & Bun. All things considered we will definitely give Bone Daddies another crack of the whip because that first experience was so memorable for all the right reasons.

Hopefully it will be third time lucky!

These are just a couple of examples - but is there even more to it than mere consistency, company and environmental factors? Time itself is an extremely strange concept - as anyone who’s seen the recent film #Interstellar can confirm. Aside from Einstein’s mind-blowing theories about space-time, when we discuss our perception of time we’re referring to a number of different processes. There’s the psychology of time perception and also various metaphysical theories about the nature of time and causation.

Anyone who has read some of our previous articles will know that we enjoy going on the occasional tangent - so if you’ll excuse me - we’re going to take an extremely brief look at the nature of time and perception.

The German psychologist and neuroscientist Ernst Pöppel, referred to various temporal experiences - that is fundamental aspects of our experience of time - as “elementary time experiences”. These experiences include basic time elements such as past and present, duration, and changes over the passage of time. In addition elementary time experiences include the order of things and what Pöppel called non-simultaneity.

In the 4th Century St Augustine discussed the nature of time in one section of his autobiographical work ‘Confessions’, where he considered what is really being described when we refer to something as having a long or short duration. Clearly what has passed has ceased to be, and what doesn't exist cannot have any properties such as duration or length. But similarly it cannot be present, because strictly speaking the present has no duration, although debating that is perhaps a longer philosophical discussion for another ‘time’. Augustine’s answer is that when we measure duration, we’re really measuring what’s in the memory. The logical and great conclusion is that the future and past exist only in the mind.

Now - there’s a great deal more to the perception of time and if this is a subject that interests you I strongly recommend reading Robin Le Poidevin’s brilliant piece, "The Experience and Perception of Time" from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy but for now the above are some of the key principles I wish to focus on.

Our perception of time is necessarily part of our human experience. As all our experiences occur in our mind it is understandable why our perceived experiences relate to each other. I find this happens especially clearly with music - which may be one reason why an artist’s image is so important to an audience’s emotional reaction. For example, I recall being a schoolboy and purchasing Suzanne Vega’s eponymous début album, and reading something particularly sad, heart wrenching and emotional whilst listening to it (actually I was reading “Bunny - The Story of Playboy” but the section I read whilst listening to the album was about Linda Lovelace and how she was violently raped, abused and forced into a horrific life of torment). The upshot is that whenever I hear those songs by Suzanne Vega I immediately feel sad - even though I know the reason is an association formed in my mind from reading a particularly sad part of a book whilst listening to that music.

Naturally things get even more complex when we factor-in the nature of language. Descartes concluded that language defines our reality - and a fine example is that in some Native American cultures when someone says “I’ll see you tomorrow”, their concept of “tomorrow” is the next time it rains - which may be many months away - but again, that’s wider subject for another time.

The upshot is that a combination of factors is at work to determine how we perceive any particular experience. And, many of those factors exist in our minds and memories. From the language of food, to the associations we may have with particular ingredients or surroundings. Therefore it’s not so surprising why a second time experience might be somewhat of a let-down if one of the factors is significantly different. The most vital of these is necessarily one’s self and state of mind.


Let’s remember that beautiful moment in the animated film ‘Ratatouille’ when Peter O’Toole’s character, the austere food critic Anton Ego, tastes the simplest and most humble dish of Ratatouille. Monsieur Ego is transported back to an idyllic childhood moment where he samples his mother’s home made cooking and both he and the audience are utterly delighted. That in a nutshell is the nature of time and perception and how they play in our minds.
This is also one reason why food has become such a human and artistic form of expression.
As Douglas Hofstadter's book Gödel, Escher Bach made clear, there’s an “eternal golden braid” linking mathematics, art and music - I suggest food may be added to the equation, because it necessarily plays within the great canopy of time itself - our minds are filled with the memories of sensory experiences, whilst our tummy’s growl and taste buds yearn for another dose of that strange magical combination of internal and external factors which make a memorable meal.

You Might Also Like