Monday, February 04, 2013

Dining for the 0.1%?

I wrote the regular essay again for the City Paper's upcoming Dish issue, and this time around I tackled the topic of the increasing tone of informality that's overtaking the fine-dining world,  which led me to wonder why it is that we go out to eat big-ticket meals in the first place. That piece won't hit the streets for another week or two, but the topic of class in dining--high vs. low vs. middle--is still very much in the front of my mind.

And so, I couldn't help notice this line from a not-so-recent (May 2012) piece in the New York Times about superchefs Thomas Keller and Andoni Luis Aduriz:

While their restaurants may be accessible only to the world’s 0.1 percent, chefs at top restaurants influence the entire global food community with the way they think, write, tweet and talk about food — not just the way they cook it.
We, of course, have heard a lot about the 1% in the various political debates over the past few years,  and when you move that decimal one more place to the left, it suggests that the folks dining at Keller's and Aduriz's establishments must be among the very rarified elites indeed. You know, the kind that actually own their Gulfstream jets instead of just timesharing them.

But I don't think that's necessarily the case. Yes, only a very slim majority of the population will ever eat at one of these restaurants, but it's not because they're somehow "inaccessible" to ordinary people.

Ordinary middle-to-upper-middle-class Americans, that is. The current prix fixe menu at the French Laundry, Keller's flagship restaurant, is  $270 per person. This is an awful lot of money for a single meal, I concede--more than the annual per capita income in some Third World countries. But, any number of not-super-wealthy Americans regularly shell out that same amount for a deep sea fishing charter or a night at the blackjack tables or a shopping spree to a high-end mall--all of which are one-day treat-yourself-to-a-good-time type of experiences. They are quite accessible experiences for a large number of people . . . assuming, of course, that they highly value that sort of thing.

Several years ago, I was on the road for business with two colleagues, and we got to talking and it turned out that all three of us liked good food and sought out nice restaurants wherever we traveled for work. These were not wealthy one-percenters--middle-management corporate types, yes, but not craven plutocrats sitting atop the financial heap. And yet, as it turned out, both of them had been not only to the French Laundry but to Per Se, too--places I've not yet made it to myself (and, yes, I was duly jealous.)

Only a very narrow sliver of the elite could afford to eat at such high end restaurants on a week-in and week-out basis, but isn't that missing the point? Aren't these supposed to be rare, once-in-a-blue-moon, talk-about-if-for-years experiences, not a regular mode of eating? What ever happened to the concept of the big night out when you throw caution to the wind and just let it rip?

I've belabored the point enough, but what it comes down to is this: in our ongoing conversations about food and ethics, I'm increasingly worried that we don't even even have the terms of the debate right. When it comes to farm-to-table issues, shouldn't we be slugging it out at the daily meal level--at the grocery store and the mid-priced eateries, places with enough volume and scale that it might make a noticeable difference on the market? That's certainly where my attention is increasingly being drawn.

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