At Cherche Midi, Keith McNally’s latest restaurant, the French fries are truly outstanding. They retain all the best attributes of fast-food fries — uniformly golden, very thin, perfectly crispy — while still managing to feel handmade. They nail the sweet spot on the spectrum between elegant, old-school New York dining, and the generic greasy drive-through that you frequented as a teenager. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the ketchup that arrives, in a small, nondescript ceramic cup, with the fries. Is it Heinz? No, it’s darker than it should be, and not nearly smooth enough. There’s too much spice, not enough sweetness. It is fancy-ass ketchup, and all it does is make you wonder why you can’t just have Heinz — like at McNally’s other restaurants, Minetta Tavern and Balthazar.
Fortunately, Heinz remains the go-to brand at most restaurants, even in establishments like the NoMad Bar, the Dutch, and, surprisingly, Gramercy Tavern, a place otherwise wholly committed to a fully homemade ethos. Even at Daniel, where the seven-course tasting menu costs $220, Heinz is what arrives if a guest requests ketchup. When I called up Minetta Tavern chef William Brasile, he told me, “When customers have strong connections to a product like that, you have to respect it, no matter what your beliefs are,” he says. “I don’t like it when Heinz is not offered. And I do prefer the taste.”
So why, after 138 years, in an era when practically every food gets an artisanal makeover, has no ketchup competitor even come close to replicating Heinz’s success? Why is it that Heinz, and only Heinz, is what we not only love, but what we demand with every French fry we eat?
Because as Malcolm Gladwell once explained, Heinz doesn’t just taste good, or even great. It tastes objectively perfect:
When Heinz moved to ripe tomatoes and increased the percentage of tomato solids, he made ketchup, first and foremost, a potent source of umami. Then he dramatically increased the concentration of vinegar, so that his ketchup had twice the acidity of most other ketchups; now ketchup was sour, another of the fundamental tastes. The post-benzoate ketchups also doubled the concentration of sugar — so now ketchup was also sweet — and all along ketchup had been salty and bitter. These are not trivial issues.
Salt and sugar and umami are primal signals about the food we are eating — about how dense it is in calories, for example, or, in the case of umami, about the presence of proteins and amino acids. What Heinz had done was come up with a condiment that pushed all five of these primal buttons. The taste of Heinz’s ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo.
If anyone has the ability to create a next-level ketchup to knock Heinz off its throne, it’s wd~50’s Wylie Dufresne. But he won’t even try. “I’d like to think, that as a professional, if someone said, ‘Make me a ketchup that tastes better than Heinz,’ I could do that,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean it would be commercially successful. You’re fighting a goliath. You can’t give people homemade ketchup. They don’t want it.”
What’s funny is that the Heinz formula actually predates our cultural awareness and obsession with the very flavor receptors it activates. “We’ve come to understood those fundamental tastes so much more recently, and the role that they play in how and why we like foods,” Dufresne explains. “The conundrum is not that Heinz can’t be beaten, but that Heinz landed on this formula by accident. Staying there is calculated, but getting there appears to be a confluence of things. When Heinz landed, nobody was talking about umami. They got very lucky, with this wonderful swirl that happened to hit all the right notes.”
In other words, Heinz very well might be actual lightning in a bottle, and perhaps the rare confluence of factors that make it not just unmistakably good, but also culturally dominant, just cannot be replicated. This results in competitors like Sir Kensington’s, which falls awkwardly in between two schools of ketchup — Heinz and homemade — and manages to strip away the real benefits of both: It’s still a processed, pre-bought product, which isn’t really what you want in a restaurant setting (like at Cherche Midi), and it’s not nearly as good as Heinz.
Brasile reveals that at Minetta Tavern, McNally actually spends more money to ceremoniously present Heinz in glass bottles. “It costs us more to put that bottle on the table, as opposed to using bulk Heinz,” he says. “You may have noticed that the other condiments are served in ceramic cups, but there’s a glass bottle of Heinz. I think that it allows people to relax into their meals a bit more.” He recalls one memorable customer who really let herself go: “We had a woman who wanted to know if she could have black truffles shaved over her Black Label burger. We did it, and charged her a reasonable amount.” And then, he says, “She dumped ketchup all over the thing.” Even the most refined foods — the most sought-after delicacies and the funkiest dry-aged beef — are no match for the pull of Heinz.