There are more Wagamamas in central London than there are stations on the Bakerloo line. A big part of their appeal, as with any chain, is that you know exactly what you’re getting in all 36 of them. From Hammersmith to Hampstead you sit down to an identical offering of katsu curries, ramen and gyoza.
But on Soho’s Dean Street, in the Wagamama Noodle Lab, that isn’t the whole picture. Alongside the usual suspects are a dozen or so dishes you won’t find anywhere else. They’re edible X-Factor contestants, auditioning for three months. If they make an impact, they stand a chance of joining the immortals on the group’s menu – not just in London, but around the world.
I’m at the counter, road-testing three potential new additions: tuna tataki, beetroot and kimchi onigiri rice balls, and a handsome ceramic bowl of teriyaki mackerel, tenderstem broccoli and sweet potato. Next to my phone is a second handset, linked to the data-gathering platform Yumpingo. Each dish I’ve eaten today has been loaded onto it, and I’ve been asked to rate them with either a thumbs up or a thumbs down in four different categories: Look, Taste, Portion and Value. I give them all positive feedback, except the mackerel, which I enjoyed but found tricky to eat. I type something to this effect into a box at the bottom, then press submit. A totally unwarranted, but very enjoyable, sense of achievement washes over me.
“Yumpingo sends us a report at the end of every day,” explains manager Laurie Severn, who joined the company seven years ago as a student. Around 200 pieces of feedback are collected each day, which over the course of a 12-week trial period adds up to 16,800 assessments of the dishes being trialled. Once the verdicts are in, a committee meets to consider their future. “We ask ourselves two things: does this dish work for the guests, and will it work operationally?” Of the 12 or so dishes on trial at the Noodle Lab each quarter, maybe three will make the final cut.
For Wagamama, the Noodle Lab serves a dual purpose. It ties in nicely with kaizen, the brand’s philosophy of ‘good change’, but more importantly it gives them a point of differentiation in London’s hyper-competitive eating out market. For diners, it provides a glimpse of the future, and gives them a say into how that tastes.
“If you’re coming into central London you probably want to go somewhere unique – not ‘just’ a chain,” says Severn. “This really is different to all the other Wagamamas.” The site-specific dishes here feel more ‘now’ than the rest of the menu: a recent graduate is vegatsu curry (pictured above), made with vegan favourite seitan, and when I visit there’s a coconut ‘bacon’ teppanyaki dish, created in collaboration with King Cook of Boxpark’s Cookdaily.
The Noodle Lab is just one of a few test kitchens – or ‘testaurants’ – to have sprung up over the last few years. Around the corner is Simon Rogan’s Aulis, an eight-seater chef’s table that doubles as a development kitchen for his Marylebone flagship, Roganic. Here, diners sit around a central island to eat the exquisite likes of cep brioche and a single mussel adorned with dill and caviar.
“It’s great to see the reactions, but we don’t take every word as gospel. People aren’t eating food that isn’t finished yet – we consider it ready for the restaurant,” Rogan tells me over the phone. But the operational side of things, he insists, is “really under scrutiny”. “You might have had a particular type of cutlery in mind for a dish that actually turns out to be very awkward, so you have to rethink that. And in this context you can make a little bit of a joke about it, and say ‘ooh, you might as well eat with your hands’. You can do that here. You couldn’t do that in the restaurant.”
Rogan named Aulis after his late colleague Aulis Lehtimäki, who worked with him for a decade. In Finnish the name means ‘helpful’ or ‘generous – and in the ancient world Aulis was the port from which the Greeks set sail for Troy. The linguistic layers might be a total coincidence, but they still resonate: getting to Aulis takes a bit of effort (you’re only given the address when you book), and although the price tag is far from casual, once you’re in it feels like a conversation, rather than a simple approval process. “The diners are a lot more inquisitive about the wheres, the whys and the hows,” says Rogan. “And let’s face it, the chefs are the best people to ask.”
In Shoreditch, the learning process at Wahaca’s Test Kitchen also cuts both ways. “None of the dishes we’ve got on the menu here fit with the stereotypes of Mexican food,” says Oli Ingham, the group’s head of marketing. “For us, this is another way of resetting perceptions.”
Wahaca opened the Test Kitchen at the end of last year, but it’s no stranger to asking diners for feedback. In 2015 they were invited to comment on a ‘beta version’ of the new menu using the hashtag #BetaEater. The 120-seater venue is an extension of the Islington development kitchen where founder Thomasina Miers tinkers, and the first successful dishes are about to make their debut on menus nationwide. “There’s an incredible chargrilled bavette steak taco sharing board with queso fundido,” Ingham tells me. “And the burrito bowls did really well here too.”
Just like at Wagamama, Wahaca presents diners with an ‘intelligent bill’ on a Yumpingo-powered tablet. But the data gathered from it isn’t the only thing used to decide a dish’s fate. “We use Twitter as a customer service tool anyway, and of course we look at what people are posting on Instagram,” says Ingham. “It’s a part of modern eating.” He plays down the extent to which the chefs factor in Insta-aesthetics to dish design, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the whole set-up, with its block-colours and ready-made backboards, seems tailored to the flat-lay shots that are everywhere on the social media platform.
The feedback loop, then, is getting tighter and tighter. Diners’ comments can now be received and acted on almost instantaneously, if that’s what the restaurant wants to do, and the level of detail built into an approach that takes account of shares and likes means that dishes can be finessed in increasingly sophisticated – some might say cynical – ways. Last month the Guardian profiled US start-up Analytical Flavor Systems, which has developed a way of mapping taste preferences using an app (already available to download) called Gastrograph. In the not-so distant future, restaurants will almost certainly be using this kind of technology to tweak dishes so they appeal not just to the average diner, but to specific and desirable groups – influencers, or young, single professionals with a lot of disposable income.
For now, though, even test kitchens still operate according to a more traditional principle. Back at the Noodle Lab, Laurie Severn is collecting my Yumpingo handset. “We actually had a katsu curry ice cream on the menu a while ago,” she tells me. “It didn’t end up getting rolled out, but people keep coming in asking for it.” Does she get the chefs to make it for them? “Of course,” she smiles. The customer, at the end of the day, is always right.