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A defense of "extravagant" dining


sara
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I wonder, is the William Grimes who today wrote:

In nearly five years of reviewing restaurants for this newspaper, I spent that much, and sometimes more, on dinner. Invariably, the ensuing review, with its heartfelt evocations of foie gras, caviar, Kobe beef, truffles and Champagne, would provoke outrage in a certain class of reader. The letters, and occasionally the voice-mail messages, all expressed the same sentiment: How could you? In a world where millions of children go hungry, where famine haunts broad swaths of Africa and Asia, where the $200 spent on a bottle of Bordeaux could go far to alleviating a destitute family's misery -- how could you?

I wanted to feel guilt. Honestly, I did. But among the many emotions I experienced as a reviewer -- happiness, annoyance, amusement, boredom, bliss, rage -- guilt never figured.

the same William Grimes who in 2000 wrote of receiving the check at Alain Ducasse New York:

I accepted mine with stoic calm. But then again, it wasn't coming out of my pocket. Taking pen in hand, I affixed my signature to a bill that totaled nearly $1,500 for four diners, tip not included. In one Olympic clean-and-jerk motion, I had broken all previous records by several hundred dollars. I felt the kind of mad exhilaration that criminals must feel when they've done something terribly, irrevocably wrong.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I found it to be a very thoughtful article and he did a great job of taking the air out of the arguments against fine dining.

I enjoyed parts of the essay so much, I added a quote to my signature line. :laugh:

"Some people see a sheet of seaweed and want to be wrapped in it. I want to see it around a piece of fish."-- William Grimes

"People are bastard-coated bastards, with bastard filling." - Dr. Cox on Scrubs

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I enjoyed parts of the essay so much, I added a quote to my signature line. :laugh:

I did the same thing--tho a different quote! But I strongly considered using the one you chose!

Food is a convenient way for ordinary people to experience extraordinary pleasure, to live it up a bit.

-- William Grimes

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I don't buy it. Getting pleasure from food (something I try to do as much as I can) doesn't need to be expensive. For most of human history the best food was the exclusive preserve of the wealthy aristocratic classes. Only recently has this begun to change. Spending very large amounts of money in restaurants is as much (or perhaps even more) about being made to feel like an aristocrat as it is about the food itself. Isn't that part of what you're paying for?

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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I don't buy it. Getting pleasure from food (something I try to do as much as I can) doesn't need to be expensive. For most of human history the best food was the exclusive preserve of the wealthy aristocratic classes. Only recently has this begun to change. Spending very large amounts of money in restaurants is as much (or perhaps even more) about being made to feel like an aristocrat as it is about the food itself. Isn't that part of what you're paying for?

Even if this is the case, what is wrong with the impulse to feel like an aristocrat for a few hours?

Bill Russell

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From the article: This sort of objection never seems to come up when box seats for the World Series or front-row tickets to a David Bowie concert are involved.

I have friends who think nothing of dropping thousands of dollars for tickets to a ball game, or others who think that a $700 baby stroller is a reasonable purchase. My luxury is spending money on dinner. I drive a Corolla. I wear reasonably priced clothes. But I love fine dining. Yet I also have been told "but that's so much money just for dinner." Dinner is my entertainment. And I don't think it's any less reasonable to pay for eating Thomas Keller's (or Jonathan Benno's) cooking than it is to pay to watch LeBron James. I was glad to see someone say it in print.

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Even if this is the case, what is wrong with the impulse to feel like an aristocrat for a few hours?

Perhaps nothing, in itself; nor am I against the idea of restaurants generally. It's just that this aspect of the 'fine dining' experience (and the attendant 'extravagant' cost) was sidestepped by Grimes. His argument was that guilt over the extravagance was a denial of pleasure, which I think is not true.

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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It's pleasure to eat in a fine restaurant. It's a pleasure that I find increased with each meal, perhaps because as I became more familar with the nature of fine dining I was more able to appreciate it. Not to ever eat again in the finest of restaurants would be to deny myself a pleasure. The cost of such diners is far out of proportion to what I spend on the rest of my life's needs, but so what. I enjoy a great meal more than I would box seats at the super bowl, world's series, or opera. Unlike Mulcahy, I don't even own a car.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I liked his point that everyone enjoys a little extravagance, and that fine food is an art which people should be lauded for supporting (just as we praise those who support symphonies or museums).

At the same time, I thought he was a little disengenuous in places. He had a toss-off line which was something like, "income disparity may be immoral, but that's not my issue to discuss," which I took issue with -- if you're going to address the fact that some people can barely afford McDonald's, and other people spend $200 on dinner, you need to actually tackle the underlying issue.

I also found the piece frustrating because I couldn't identify with it. I will never eat a meal that expensive; as a result, it made me feel envious and alienated. I'd rather read about foods I could imagine eating someday...

The piece was certainly well-written and witty, though.

***

Online Food Writing Workshop: http://www.inkberry.org/onlineworkshops.html#food

***

Online Food Writing Workshop: http://www.inkberry.org/onlineworkshops.html#food

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Could you imagine feeling as if you were living vicariously through his words though?

I don't make it a habit of dining out regularly at places like ADNY and Trio...but I know I appreciate the reviews and discussion of those who have done so and do. When people write about their experiences at those places, I think of it as a service provided to those less fortunate than themselves.

Pleasure can be derived not only in experiencing the moment but also by reliving the experience through the eyes and words of those who have done so.

My two cents,

Soba

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Great article. I've never felt the slightest guilt in spending $200 or more for a great dining experience. I contribute to charity, I am not rich, I earned the money, I didn't steal it, it's mine to spend however I wish. Bon Appetit!

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I definitely agree with Grimes theory, anyway -- I had to go through a couple years of belt-tightening in which all luxuries were almost completely cut, and I felt unbelievably depressed and impoverished even though I was meeting all my expenses. Without the occasional splurge, life just gets awfully gray.

However, while I agree with the principle of a splurge in general, the thought of it being a several hundred-dollar price tag rather than just a hundred-dollar one just seems...well, silly. If anyone wants to drop a grand on dinner, well, okay, but I can feel just as extravagant on a $50 dinner, so why spend that much more for the same extravagance?

It has been observed that I'm a real New Englander when it comes to money at times, though, so that could be part of it.

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Great article.  I've never felt the slightest guilt in spending $200 or more for a great dining experience.  I contribute to charity, I am not rich, I earned the money, I didn't steal it, it's mine to spend however I wish.  Bon Appetit!

I second these sentiments. One man's extravagence may be some else's just desserts. So long as the money spent on a great dining experience is come by honestly it really ain't nobody's business other than the customer, his/her investment advisor and, perhaps, his/her spouse!

What would be a moral turpitude is being charged a high price for food and a dining experience that didn't deliver.

Edited by FunJohnny (log)

Oh, J[esus]. You may be omnipotent, but you are SO naive!

- From the South Park Mexican Starring Frog from South Sri Lanka episode

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What's interesting is that according to another article in the same issue of the magazine, people from the lowest socioeconomic quintile (lowest 20%) and people from the highest socioeconomic quinitle (upper 20%) spend nearly the same proportion of their income on eating out (just over 5.5%). I'm surprised Grimes didn't reference this data in his own piece. Certainly what the lowest 5th buys with their approx $1K/yr spent on restaurants is quite different than what the upper 5th spends with their $4.5K. But I think the proportionality is quite telling...

Here's the other article:

Parsimony

(The hard copy of this piece has the chart with the data I'm referring to)

Edited by sara (log)

Food is a convenient way for ordinary people to experience extraordinary pleasure, to live it up a bit.

-- William Grimes

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What would be a moral turpitude is being charged a high price for food and a dining experience that didn't deliver.

I'm not convinced that's a moral issue. You can pay $95 for box seats at Yankee Stadium, with no assurance as to the quality of the game, or whether all the Yankees' regular players will even be in the lineup that day. There's a lot more consistency of output at most restaurants than at comparably priced sporting events.

Most Broadway musicals these days have a top ticket of $100 or higher. Unlike a Yankee game, a musical at least follows the same script every night. But like anything involving human effort, theatrical performances aren't identical every time out. If the cast give an underwhelming performance, or understudies are inserted that evening, you're still out $100. This is the chance you take in choosing that type of entertainment. If you want it to be identical every time, rent a DVD.

Restaurants are really no different, and it's not a moral issue unless the food has been fundamentally misrepresented. You can have your $95 Yankee game, your $100 night on Broadway, or your $100 restaurant meal. All are transitory events of approximately the same duration, with no iron-clad assurance of having a wonderful time.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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I'm surprised Grimes didn't reference this data in his own piece.  Certainly what the lowest 5th buys with their approx $1K/yr spent on restaurants is quite different than what the upper 5th spends with their $4.5K.  But I think the proportionately is quite telling...

had he mentioned that it would have taken all of the controversy out of the article.

during these types of discussions, what immediately strikes me is that $1000 on dinner to one person is the same as $100 on dinner to someone else which is the same as $20 to yet another person with less money. i don't see any moral issues with people spending money on travel, fine dining, cars, homes, or cocaine and strippers for that matter. although i might definitely take issue with people judging others based on how they spend their money.

Edited by tommy (log)
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I'm surprised Grimes didn't reference this data in his own piece.  Certainly what the lowest 5th buys with their approx $1K/yr spent on restaurants is quite different than what the upper 5th spends with their $4.5K.  But I think the proportionately is quite telling...

had he mentioned that it would have taken all of the controversy out of the article.

during these types of discussion, what immediately strikes me is that $1000 on dinner to one person is the same as $100 on dinner to someone else which is the same as $20 to yet another person with less money. i don't see any moral issues with spending money on travel, fine dining, cars, homes, or cocaine and strippers.

"Quite telling" of what, exactly?

I guess Grimes wanted the controversy in his article.

I don't see it as a moral issue either. If anyone can spend $1,000 on a meal, then bon apetit, enjoy it fully. But nor do I see the different instances as being "equivalent" in any sense, and I do get the feeling that we're trying to set up some sort of equivalency here. Why? :unsure:

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had he mentioned that it would have taken all of the controversy out of the article.

Food is a convenient way for ordinary people to experience extraordinary pleasure, to live it up a bit.

-- William Grimes

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Ultimately, the reason why "scolds" have a problem with people spending a lot on dining is because they think that food should solely be used for subsistence, and Grimes touches on this. These are the people who view food as an energy source rather than a pleasure source -- they would have a problem with all of us on egullet because our feelings about food offend their beliefs.

It's interesting to note that people always use the "children are starving" argument. How come when you hear about someone spending $750 a night on a hotel room you don't hear it's indecent because there are people without shelter?

"Some people see a sheet of seaweed and want to be wrapped in it. I want to see it around a piece of fish."-- William Grimes

"People are bastard-coated bastards, with bastard filling." - Dr. Cox on Scrubs

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during these types of discussions, what immediately strikes me is that $1000 on dinner to one person is the same as $100 on dinner to someone else which is the same as $20 to yet another person with less money.  i don't see any moral issues with people spending money on travel, fine dining, cars, homes, or cocaine and strippers for that matter.  although i might definitely take issue with people judging others based on how they spend their money.

i totally agree. indulgence is in the wallet of the spender.

from overheard in new york:

Kid #1: Paper beats rock. BAM! Your rock is blowed up!

Kid #2: "Bam" doesn't blow up, "bam" makes it spicy. Now I got a SPICY ROCK! You can't defeat that!

--6 Train

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and I do get the feeling that we're trying to set up some sort of equivalency here. Why?  :unsure:

i think because it's all relative. someone spending 1k on dinner is next to meaningless when they have 7 million in the bank and 20 million in a retirement fund (assuming they're not in debt). at least to me it is. i suppose not to everyone though, which is why we're discussing this. :biggrin:

Edited by tommy (log)
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"Quite telling" of what, exactly?

Food is a convenient way for ordinary people to experience extraordinary pleasure, to live it up a bit.

-- William Grimes

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These are the people who view food as an energy source rather than a pleasure source -- they would have a problem with all of us on egullet because our feelings about food offend their beliefs.

I have a cousin like this-- he faults me for taking time out of my day to eat, which he views as a complete waste of time. He lives on energy shakes, made in a blender. He won't even allow his girlfriend to keep a dining room table in their home because that encourages sitting down to eat--a waste of time. Needless to say, traveling with him in New Orleans last year was MISERABLE. Every time I slurped an oyster or ate some gumbo he stared me down. :sad:

Food is a convenient way for ordinary people to experience extraordinary pleasure, to live it up a bit.

-- William Grimes

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another part of grimes' article is dealing with one's guilt brought on by no one but themselves. at the end of the day you as the diner have nothing to prove or explain to anyone but yourself. if you're comfortable when you sign that credit card slip, well there ya have it.

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