We joined family for a beautiful summer BBQ the other weekend, and we were chatting about great restaurants and dining experiences. Two of the guests described upcoming plans to eat at an extremely well-known and respected – nay, revered – restaurant in Napa. While they’re looking forward to the meal of a lifetime, they lamented the pricing of the meal, for which the chef’s tasting menu will cost $310 per person before the wine pairing.
Why, they mused, would they want to spend so much money on food – “just food?”
I’ve heard that before – why pay so much when the food could be prepared elsewhere for a tenth of the cost? Why try so hard to get a seat a restaurant months ahead? Why pay so much money just for an ingredient that you yourself could probably cook?
After my internal chef stopped feeling insulted, and I thought I would explore why it’s worth the spend the hard-earned money at these top seeded restaurants.
First, I’d like to challenge whether one chef can replicate or should replicate another chef’s dish. Arguably, every food ingredient is handled differently in each chef’s hands, even if he or she is aiming to create a comparable dish. My interpretation of even a classical dish will vary just slightly from the next chef’s. So, no, you couldn’t get the dish elsewhere.
Expand that out to whether a diner could actually prepare the dish. I would venture that no, you wouldn’t be able to create the dish that is served at that restaurant. Cooking, especially food service, is more than just rendering a dish edible and applying appropriate heat (not burning the !@#$%* out of it). There is an artistry and a science to achieve the finished, plated dish that will cost much more than if you purchased all those raw ingredients yourself. And it should.
I have spent a pretty penny with Josh at a few incredible restaurants, but usually I’ve been on the cooking side of meals that take a price tag like that. The artistry and pure skill that it takes to to execute a dish that chef Thomas would place in front of his guests. That is what I focus on – the execution of a dish through the careful manipulation of the food ingredients.
When I worked for the Modernist Cuisine team, I glimpsed the volume of effort it takes to prepare the high end meals, and I bent my shoulders over some of the dishes that I will likely never afford to eat. The (seemingly weekly) 16-person dinners that we cooked during the promotional period of MC at Home took a full work week to prepare, and some of the items we had prepared in bulk weeks before, such as the fermented items and the brined meats for smoking.
Next time you want a brunoise of a centrifuged celery juice gel, you just let me know. I’ll give you some restaurant recommendations.
Avid home cooks may spend a few weekends working on a food project, and many foodie friends have become obsessed with creating the perfect ___(insert ingredient name or finished dish)__. What they do is done on their free time, recreationally, and probably with a glass of wine or whiskey near at hand.
That is literally the opposite of restaurant cooking, and I doubt many foodies would confuse their efforts with professional cooking.
When foodies work to perfect a dish – even over years – how many iterations or attempts do they make? 25?
On a relatively steady weeknight (not a weekend), the saute cook is probably going to make the exact same order over fifty times, and if the restaurant is cranking on a weekend, she might actually make it 100 times or more.
When we planned a single dinner with Chef Wayne Johnson, we met twice just to play with concepts, made the dishes twice each at least (and that’s if we nailed it the first time), and then we prepped for the event. We would cook, evaluate, brainstorm tweaks, and go execute again. And repeat.
Beyond the waxing eloquently about the artistry of fine dining, I have to admit it also comes down to basic economics. Customers are willing to pay the chef — the restaurant — the price posted for the privilege and pleasure of tasting the menu that she has crafted. If customers didn’t feel that it was worth it, they wouldn’t eat there, and the restaurant wouldn’t be able to continue the pricing structure. However, customers do pay it, and the chefs design menus worthy of the bill. If you can’t afford it (like me) then you don’t get to eat there. Simple economics.
Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments below.