Why I invest in fine dining
The noted British chef Heston Blumenthal recently attracted huge media coverage in Australia (and beyond, thanks largely to social media) about the $525 per head price tag to dine at his relocated Fat Duck when it opens at Melbourne’s Crown complex next year. Such is the demand for the 16,000 covers available during Fat Duck’s antipodean stint, the restaurant instituted a ballot system. Greedy Girl is still waiting, fingers crossed, to see whether she and gluttonous husband will splash out $1050 (plus drinks) for one night’s entertainment. She’ll be happy to pay it.
Why? Because fine dining is more than the act of lifting a fork to one’s mouth and sending the various victuals down the hatch. It’s a combination of art, of theatre, of gastronomic wizardry and, on many occasions, sheer fun.
At this level, the dining experience is rarely inexpensive. The best ingredients, talented chefs, waiting and wine staff who see what they do as a profession rather than a job, high quality fittings and fixtures (Vue de Monde in Melbourne features Christofle cutlery – Google that for a spine-chilling idea of the cost) all don’t come cheap. Greedy Girl’s colleague (let’s call him The Actuary) scoffed at the idea of paying $525 for the Fat Duck. He spoke glowingly of a recent dinner, at a steakhouse, where he had all he wanted – for around $50. Applying the principles of his trade, he said he could not conceive that paying 10 times as much would be 10 times as good.
And therein lies one of the biggest reasons Greedy Girl and, her partner in crime, gluttonous husband appreciate fine dining. They’d rather shell out for something completely extraordinary rather than dole out smaller amounts for food they could basically prepare and consume at home.
Around the world, we’ve had some absolutely amazing evenings out – which have expanded our minds. It’s rare for Greedy Girl to refuse to eat something. Yes, she’d prefer not to have beetroot, or pineapple used in a savoury context, but she’s more than prepared to give the chef the benefit of the doubt – to experience dishes that elicit wonder, delight and surprise. For instance, on our first visit to Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York City, she passed up the signature Oysters and Pearls; at The French Laundry in California, she succumbed, despite not being a huge fan of oysters. It was mind-blowingly good.
Another occasion was on our first visit to Tokyo; having eaten Japanese food countless times, Greedy Girl was totally unprepared for the sheer excellence, inventiveness and plate-lickingly-good treats at Narisawa. From the bread that proved and baked at the table, to the potentially lethal puffer fish fugu and the most delicate, yet intensely-flavoured macarons as a final tribute, Yoshihiro Narisawa’s cooking was masterful. The dining experience took close to five hours. At around A$210 a head it was more satisfying than any concert Greedy Girl has attended in recent times.
Undoubtedly, a price tag does not guarantee excellence. Having enjoyed a smattering of three Michelin-starred meals in her dining adventures, some have been, frankly, a little underwhelming. Given Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband travel for weeks at a time and pack in the dining experiences to maximise our far-flung adventures, the food needs to be spectacular to have an impact. At some restaurants, the experience has been patchy – some good dishes, perhaps a great dish and the rest perfectly edible. By comparison they could be ‘damned with faint praise’.
But there’s nothing like the ingenuity and fun of dishes to bring jaded tastebuds back to life – the molecular Xiao Long Bao at Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, the helium-filled edible balloons made from green apple at Alinea in Chicago. Both of those evenings were hugely entertaining, thanks to the food, the service and the ambience.
But more importantly, it’s how these experiences shape you as a cook. Gluttonous husband now has a range of ‘cheffy’ toys in the home kitchen, including a sous vide machine. One taste of our sous vide lamb cutlets will convince you that this is no fad. Plump, juicy, soft, delectable. Indeed, a key reason for starting this blog was to record dishes and experiences, and then dissect them to try to incorporate some of the ingredients and techniques at home. It’s made our lives so much richer.
While there’s something quite delightful about sitting down to a perfectly-cooked steak, Greedy Girl has to ask – it is worth paying around A$50 for it in a restaurant in Melbourne when it’s so simple to do that at home for a fraction of the cost? Greedy Girl would rather save to have a special dining experience occasionally than shell out each week for a meal that could be prepared just as well (or even better) at home.
Who’s with me?