Gastrocrats Beware: Luxury Foods Aren’t Worth It

Very few of us can actually appreciate the most expensive dishes and ingredients

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News came this week that Masa Takayama, the legendary sushi chef behind New York City‘s most expensive restaurant, Masa, will be opening Tetsu in Las Vegas. Eater National, the nerve center of restaurant junkies across the country, immediately asked whether it would be more expensive than the previous restaurant in that space, Shaboo. That restaurant was called “probably the U.S.’s most expensive” by Bloomberg News; Eater wondered whether Masa would go one step further. The question that never really comes up is whether it would be worth it. And the answer is: almost never, for almost all of us.

I often feel that it would be a moral act, as well as an ace marketing move, to make a certain class of goods unavailable, except by examination, and see how much people would pay just to see them. The marketing angle is simple enough to grasp: scarcity is what makes certain things valuable, even if they aren’t that good. One need only look as far as shark’s fin soup, blowfish or off-year truffles for evidence of that. Much of the demand for those dishes comes from the mindless urge toward conspicuous consumption, an act so common today, especially among the moneyed gourmands I call gastrocrats, that we sometimes forget that the term was one of social pathology when it was first coined. Every year brings us a new crop of ludicrously overpriced dishes, created specifically for a particular class of diner; the gastrocrat culture is practically its own ecosystem at this point, with its global nerve centers in Tokyo, the Basque region of Spain, London, Napa and a few other places.

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What’s especially heinous about many of the things that gastrocrats eat is that they aren’t that good. Some are stunt foods like the $666 Douche Burger — semi-ironically offered by a New York restaurant recently — and some are great, but great in a way that only the keenest of aficionados can discern.

Let’s take sushi. I truly believe that less than 1% of foodies — including professional food writers — can tell great sushi from good sushi (this excludes me, by the way). If you give us a manager’s special unagi from the supermarket, the kind that has Heinz 57–style sauce on it, we will know it’s bad. And we might even be able to tell apart Masa’s sushi when placed next to that of a mid-level sushi joint in our hometown. But basically, if you give us a piece of nice-looking, very fresh sushi and say, “This was prepared by the master! He is officially recognized as a Living National Treasure in Japan and trained for 50 years before he was even allowed to touch the fish,” not one of us in a hundred will actually feel let down. More likely we will close our eyes and sigh and kvell and call it some version of orgasmic.

Sushi is a germane example, because there is such mystique around it. For example, the hand-forged knives used by the best sushi masters are essentially samurai blades, created with techniques dating back 700 years or more. Are they better knives than what Shun or Henckels makes? No doubt. Can I personally really appreciate the difference? Not really; any good knife will take an edge and keep it if you treat it carefully and only use it on occasion. The best sushi knives cost thousands of dollars — a fortune for me but pocket change for the 1%. They are too special, too rare; you shouldn’t be able to just buy them for show-off purposes. The fact is, I don’t deserve a knife like that.

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Which brings us back to luxury foods. Putting a high price on them makes them irresistible to gastrocrats, but it cheapens what they are. There are only so many bottles of 1982 La Mission Haut-Brion around; there will never be any more of them. So they should be drunk by people who can really appreciate them (again, that doesn’t include me). In Dan Collins’ recent book about wine fraud, he tells of an L.A. wine purveyor who relabeled 1983 Haut-Brion bordeaux as the far more celebrated, and far more expensive, 1982. A scandalous ruse, to be sure — but the point is that he knew most of the people he was selling to wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. And that was with one of the most famous wines in the world.

Meanwhile, chefs in California have had to resort to giving away foie gras after it was banned, because it’s expected of luxury restaurants, but how many diners really felt a pang at missing out on it? Foie gras is no longer “the supreme fruit of gastronomy,” as it was to Belle Epoque gastronomes like Charles Gérard. It’s merely a signifier. The few of us who truly love it often find it grossly overused.

I think if more retailers and restaurateurs required a tasting exam from a customer, or even a written essay, on why he or she should be allowed to buy the luxury item, it would be great for society and for business. There would be outrage, yes, immediately followed by a huge uptick in demand; and the rest of us would be spared the sight of fat cats ordering rare and wonderful things with no more pleasure, and no more appreciation, than a toddler slurping on Yoo-Hoo.

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23 comments
Janette
Janette

I knew it! I knew that was an '83!

Janette
Janette

I knew it! I knew that was an '83!

Aeropage135
Aeropage135

@Debra: There is no reason to conclude from anything in the article that the author cannot enjoy superior food and cooking.  There is only reason to conclude the author disputes mere claims to superiority have validity.  While you might be unable to avoid an ingrained habit of empty pretentiousness, and I can accept that, I have much more of a problem with non-sequitur inferences, as they teach irrational thought processes.

Debra From The South
Debra From The South

I am sorry your taste buds are so undeveloped that you cannot enjoy superior food and cooking. While of course price and value are not the same thing, often it absolutely is. Your article is simply nonsense, of no journalistic value. You could simply have said "I don't think luxury food is worth it to me, but hey, that's just my own opinion and has no basis in any actual value, ability to discern flavors and I cannot possibly pretend to tell others what is value for their money." The end.

Debra From The South
Debra From The South

I am sorry your taste buds are so undeveloped that you cannot enjoy superior food and cooking. While of course price and value are not the same thing, often it absolutely is. Your article is simply nonsense, of no journalistic value. You could simply have said "I don't think luxury food is worth it to me, but hey, that's just my own opinion and has no basis in any actual value, ability to discern flavors and I cannot possibly pretend to tell others what is value for their money." The end.

Christina Wodtke
Christina Wodtke

I remember a conversation with a woman about French laundry who was unimpressed. When I pressed her to describe what she had eaten (I have also eaten there) I realized she couldn't taste half of what was occurring. She should have never spent the money to go there. 

We accept there are nearsighted, farsighted, tone deaf... why not taste deaf people? 

Now organic, local, sustainable is different. It isn't just your experience that is changed, but the health of your body, your earth and your economy that is effected. We should vote with our wallet, so our children will have enough to eat (and maybe even be able to appreciate how it tastes as well).

Baron Destructo
Baron Destructo

I'm sorry.  What was the point of this article?  It's titled "Luxury Foods Aren't Worth It" so I was expecting the writer to make this point somewhere over the course of this meandering piece.  

"Is it worth it?"he asks in the opening paragraph, and immediately answer: "almost never, for almost all of us."  Great.  So this take is based on what?  Well, according Mr. Ozersky: "The marketing angle is simple enough to grasp: scarcity is what makes certain things valuable, even if they aren't that good.  One need only look as far as shark's fin soup, blowfish or off-year truffles for evidence of that."  

That's your evidence?  Your opinion that shark's fin soup and blowfish aren't that good?  Many of my Chinese and Japanese friends would offer a very different opinion on the relative worth of shark's fin soup and blowfish, both of which are enjoyed, not due to their scarcity (as Mr. Ozersky would have us believe) but, in large part, due to their texture and place in local food culture.

After touching on a singular case of gastronomic excessive, what he terms the $666 douche burger, he moves on to sushi, making the case that not one of a hundred diners would feel let down by a good piece of sushi purportedly made by a sushi master.  Not only would they not know, but more likely they would close their eyes " and sigh and kvell and call it some version of orgasmic".  Really?  And this is because...?  They're idiots, easily duped?  That seems to be the gist of his argument.

After veering off into a discussion on the merits of sushi knives, our author returns to the subject at hand: luxury foods.  He cites the case of a wine purveyor who relabeled a wine in the belief that most of his customers wouldn't notice.  Sadly for him, and for our author, 100 out of 100 customers DIDN'T notice.

Which I think is the point Mr. Ozersky glosses over.  Just because a lot of people don't appreciate shark's fin soup or fugu or can't tell the difference between a 1983 Haut-Brion and a 1982 Haut-Brion, doesn't mean others don't genuinely appreciate them, or can tell the difference between the 1982 and 1983 , or a good piece of sushi and a great piece of sushi.

By the way, Chefs in California aren't giving away foie gras because it's expected of luxury restaurants.  They're giving it away because they're prohibited from selling it and the demand still exists.  

Finally, the author concludes with the (sarcastic) call for a required tasting exam in instances where a luxury item is ordered.   Why?  So that "fat cats ordering rare and wonderful things with no more pleasure, and no more appreciation, than a toddler slurping on Yoo-Hoo."  

Tell you what, Mr. Ozersky.  I'll promise to genuinely appreciate and enjoy my foie gras and bluefin toro sashimi with a minimum of slurping if you show similar restraint eating your perfectly acceptable dinner.

Which brings us back to whole point of this article: Are luxury foods worth it?  Well, as far as Mr. Ozersky is concerned, no.  And that's about all I learned from reading this article.

Talendria
Talendria

If you can believe what you see on Hell's Kitchen, a lot of people can't even tell what they're eating, let alone who prepared it or where it came from.   I enjoy a nice meal as much as the next person, but I find humanity to be increasingly self-indulgent.  I'm not a big fan of hedonism.

happydayfortennis
happydayfortennis

I would argue that humanity as a whole isn't becoming increasingly self-indulgent, but rather just American culture. The average American eats too much, shops too much, watches too much television, etc., but those are called first world problems for a reason.

ChowT
ChowT

America nowadays with extreme capitalism and all the con job, like Goldman Sachs where it is legal to cheat is one big hype.

A bid hype by the 1% while the 99% suffers.

Talendria
Talendria

It may have started in America, but it's spread everywhere. Even a decade ago I couldn't understand why other countries were embracing American culture at the expense of their own.

Raymond Chuang
Raymond Chuang

Here's the problem with "luxury" foods--they more for "show" than an actually filling meal. Ever seen the price of a dish at a high-end restaurant and how surprisingly small amount of food they serve at times?

sgtbilko
sgtbilko

"Your food! These cooks, they pound and strain and grind;

Substance to accident they turn with fire,

All to fulfill your gluttonous desire!

Out of the hard and riven bones knock they

The marrow, for they throw nothing away

That may go through the gullet soft and sweet;

With spicery, with leaf, bark, root, replete

Shall be the sauces made for your delight,

To furnish you a sharper appetite.

But truly, he that such delights entice

Is dead while yet he wallows in this vice. "

Thanks, Mr. Pardoner.  Now show your relics, collect your pennies, and move on to the next village.

SaiRVT
SaiRVT

nice article. To be frank I can't really tell much difference in taste. i just eat to survive, so i beleive my tongue is not tht well developed.

BowFarm
BowFarm

The best vegetables are those that are eaten within minutes of being picked. And there are very few restaurants where you can be served vegetables that were still in the ground or on the vine or bush while you were ordering from the menu. It's why I don't find eating at restaurants as satisfying as I did before I started growing much of my own food. Now when it is time to make a meal, I first go out to the garden to see what is good to eat, and base my meal on that. With a large enough garden to go "grocery shopping", every meal is a luxury.

Every Chick Deserves a Mother - Daniel Geiger

Blue-eyed Gal
Blue-eyed Gal

Your entire article failed to work for me, because of that ikura photo. I am an ikura fanatic, and mentally rate sushi bars and restaurants by the quality of their ikura. It's very subtle, and very hard to get ikura just right, and its freshness is generally a good indicator of everything else (although not always; there's one place near me with so-so ikura and good hamachi, which also varies immensely in quality and even in the kind of fish.) 

I'm oblivious with every other kind of food. All wine tastes like mouthwash to me. But sushi? I am incredibly picky, although I pay no attention to credentials or the high-end restaurants; I just keep searching for places few and far between that get it RIGHT.

Perhaps, as with color, texture and perfume, different people detect different gradations in food more readily? I couldn't detect the bumps in Braille well enough to distinguish their shapes, yet a vision-impaired person feels those shapes as clearly as a cube vs. an egg. Perhaps with some foodies, it's the same way.

Josh Ozersky
Josh Ozersky

This is exactly the point of the column. A wealthy boob that gobbles down world-class ikura like skittles does both himself and you a disservice.

El Sabor Asiático
El Sabor Asiático

There's something to be said for avoiding "luxury" foods because you're just not ready for them yet. I've started enjoying bourbon in recent years, but I don't bother buying anything expensive at this point because my palate just isn't familiar enough with bourbon for me to appreciate the nuances. But I'll buy a quality gin that's expensive because I've been drinking gin for years and am familiar enough with it to discriminate.

It's true that we're a very status-conscious society, and there are many, many people who seek out luxury goods and experiences for their bling factor rather than their inherent worth. However, it's the suckers with money who help keep fancy food businesses and fine dining restaurants alive -- in a way, they're subsidizing opportunities for everyone else, so maybe we shouldn't be discouraging people from pulling out their wallets just because they're unworthy of what they're buying. Either way, the money spends the same, right?

Besides -- for many people, myself included, it's the brush with greatness way beyond their ken that, even if they can't fully appreciate it, can still spark a curiosity that can develop into genuine appreciation. The first time I tried sushi, did I know what I was eating? Heck no. Supermarket sushi didn't exist back then, but I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference between that and what the real sushi chef was giving me.

However, the experience of being in a quality sushi restaurant was such a rush that it gave me a lifelong love of sushi. I'm still pretty much of a sushi novice, but I can at least tell the difference between a really good sea urchin roe and an inferior product. And someday I may be able to walk into a place like Masa and truly appreciate the food. I'd hate to have been told, in my ignorant youth, to just stick to California rolls from Ralph's and not waste my money on anything good.

Christopher Boffoli
Christopher Boffoli

I don't disagree with the spirit of this article, but the premise feels to me like low-hanging, populist fruit.  I'm constantly seeing people in my own community who are questioning the pricing of items on the menus of local, sustainable food trucks – with retail prices that accurately reflect the cost of bringing those foods to market by a small businessperson – simply because people have become so accustomed to the rock-bottom prices of fast food dollar menus that are the result of the industrial production of food.  The value proposition of luxury foods seems much less interesting than exploring the real cost (to the environment, to human health, etc.) of much more widespread industrialized food and the extent to which it has poisoned the well of consumer behavior.

Nathaniel M. Campbell
Nathaniel M. Campbell

While most people today think that "gluttony" means over-eating, the way traditional moral theologians understood it was precisely the conspicuous over-consumption of luxury as described in this article.  In fact, the medieval Latin word for "luxury" (luxuria) doesn't just mean "luxury" -- it also means "lust."  But then, most moral virtues don't seem  highly prized by the super-wealthy, anymore -- for they can just buy their way into forgiveness, can't they?

ChowT
ChowT

Like Mitt Romney.