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.