The other night Gary and I were watching our latest recording of "No Reservations" with Anthony Bourdain. This episode was in a different format, with Mr. Bourdain back in New York having a sort of round table meal with friends well connected in the food industry. They were dining at WD~50, the restaurant of the highly talented chef/molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne.
At the beginning of the meal, Mr. Bourdain stated that he had recently had a definitive dining experience at a sushi establishment where he spent $1800.00 on a meal for two. Of course the questions he posed was obvious: Was he a fool for paying so much? Should he even have been charged that much for a single meal for two people?
I will give you two quick answers to each question. Firstly, I think if you have the means, spend away. Secondly, absolutely there was no reason to charge that much for a meal.
Here is my reasoning for each answer in turn. People shell out exorbitant amounts of money on seemingly ridiculous things everyday. Of course, ridiculous is in the mind of the beholder. There are many experiences that people involve themselves in and pay good money for that I think are quite pointless, silly, and just downright idiotic. Here are a few: skydiving, base jumping, taking guided tours, swimming with sharks, going on cruises (unless it's free), clubbing, political campaigning (did I say that one out loud? How many of you have $600 million? Ahem Ahem.) Here is the thing, though; this is my personal opinion. If getting hijacked by terrorists after being mangled by sharks after your ranger guided tour of Old Faithful is your thing, so be it. You may in turn look at me as if I have lobsters crawling out of my ears when I say I would pay really good money for a wonderful dining experience.
And there of course is the key word: experience. People don't shell out large amounts of money to have nothing to talk about or remember when they're done. They don't want to walk away with just a postcard and a case of food poisoning. They want memories, stories to tell. I feel the same way. I don't go out to eat just to fuel my body and get out of cooking (I happen to enjoy cooking very much). I want to be treated well and to be fed well. I want to walk away singing a chef's or restaurant's praises.
Do I think this experience can only be had by spending a seemingly ridiculous amount of money? Absolutely not. I understand that there are times when you pay for atmosphere, for the reputation of a chef or restaurant, and for costly ingredients. However, I can relate, as well as many others can including the likes of Mr. Bourdain, that I have had many memorable dining experiences without spending large amounts of money. I would be just as happy sitting on a washed-up log on some nameless beach watching the sun set while I tear into fish just pulled of the boat and grilled in front of me. I would be just as happy sitting on the curb next to a taco stand eating mystery meat out of a freshly made tortilla and washing it down with a Tecate. I would be just as happy sitting under a pergola drinking local wine while someone's nonna shapes homemade gnocchi and stirs her ragu made from a centuries old family recipe.
You see, it is really about the experience, and it depends on the type of experience for which you are searching. If I want to dine in the presence of culinary greatness, I am willing to shell out the funds to do so. If I want to appreciate a local culture and its traditions, I will forgo all dining formalities and eat from a plastic bag with no utensils. I want to be amazed. I want the adrenaline rush of being amazed. Ten or twenty years from now I want be able to recall with relishing detail the time that I had. I want to have an experience that sets a new standard of comparison. And if the day comes when I can afford to spend $1800, or I need only spend $18.00 for that experience, so be it.
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