Two Hundred Quid?

Topic: Hugh Hancock amongst other suggestions, gave me this one: “I’d never pay 200 quid for a meal. Discuss.”

I’ll state my position from the off: I have already paid over 200 quid for a meal. Twice. I hope to do it many times more. Having had three-Michelin-star food once, I want to do it again. And again. And again.

When I tell people this, and yes, I do mention it a lot, because the first time I did was a life-altering experience, I get a number of reactions, the most amusingly extreme of which to dat has been “That’s a sin!”.

No, seriously.

A couple of my family members genuinely believe that spending that amount of money on a meal is a sin. In their defence, they are from Northern Ireland, where atheism is either Catholic atheism or Protestant atheism. Anyway, that’s the most extreme form of the “why would you want to spend that amount of money one meal?” camp. It generally varies between those who think one meal cannot possibly have been worth that amount of money, and those who just think it wouldn’t be worth it to them.

Obviously, I can’t entirely rebutt the latter group there, but I can have a go at the former, which I shall do by providing a link to something I’ve written before.

So, as I’ve said before, the sort of meal you get for over 200 quid is not like any other restaurant meal you’ll ever have. In terms of comparable experiences, you don’t want to be comparing it to three course at even a one Michelin star restaurant. I’ve eaten at quite a few of those. I like eating at them. They’re not the same. I wrote in the neighbourhood of 5000 words, the first time I ate at a three-star restaurant. I have ex-girlfriends I couldn’t write 5000 words about.[1]

Anyway, I provide that link about to stop from feeling like I need to wax lyrical about whole experience, and why it specifically was worth the money, because that’s not really what I was asked to do. I was asked to discuss the proposition that 200 quid is too much to pay for food.

I am, I must admit, suspicious of people who say they wouldn’t pay that much for food. I wonder what’s wrong with them. I wonder how they cannot instinctively understand that yes, good food is worth it, and more than worth it.

Because let’s face it, we are a collection of attractive[2] bags of meat on a lump of rock that’s hurtling around at quite astonishing speeds in an essentially meaningless universe. We are biologically required to do a number of things, in order to remain here, and one of them is eat. And since the alternative is not being meaninglessly sexy high-speed meat, well, not eating is pretty much unthinkable.

So, if we’re going to do it anyway, my thinking goes, then it ought to be bloody amazing. And you know, most of the time it is. Think of the fresh crunch of a really good apple. Or that marvellous oozing smoky-salty bacon delight that is a good hot, thick, bacon sandwich, made with good bread, and good butter, and maybe just enough brown sauce to add that fruity vinegary sharpness to cut the other tastes and textures. Or some rich, dark chocolate melting on the tounge, or a cup full, bitter coffee. Tell me at least one of those doesn’t get you going.

But even I would grow bored of eating nothing but bacon sandwiches.[3] And so I want other things, different things.

But that on its own isn’t really enough to justify my suspicion, is it? I mean, I could probably make quite a lot of different kinds of sandwich before I ran out of tasty options. And that’s before I get on to the kinds of food that don’t come installed between 2 slices of bread.

So let’s move away from mere taste. If fact, I’ll even forget about looks, smell, texture and sound as well. Let’s talk about what food means beyond the purely nutritional and sensory.

Food is one of the things we all have in common. Everyone. In fact, it extends beyond the reach of mere humanity – all things that live must also eat. (Or so I was told in Biology in school.) Food is ingrained into us, right down into the animal hind-brain. It’s one of the ways we used to ensnare a mate, demonstrative the ability to feed them. And obviously, it still is. But it’s more than just a means to get laid, or it can be. At its very best, it’s a means to communicate. A means to pass ideas from one mind to another, to evoke emotion. It becomes Art.

And I know that some of you are rolling your eyes and thinking that this is a thin justification. Tough. You’re wrong, I’m right, and I can prove it. What do you call serving all the flavours of a cooked breakfast as a dessert at the end of posh meal? Wit. What do you call serving passion fruit with Fruits de Mer? A pun. What do you call using a variant on a sherbet fountain as palette cleanser, if not an attempt to evoke the playfulness of childhood?

Really good food can be Art, not just because it takes skill to produce, but because you feel the chef is saying something in his choice of offerings. It may not always be that clever or sophisticated, but it is often very, very intense. Smell is the sense most closely allied with memory, remember. Food is something that reaches past all our clever centres of reasoning, to touch our most basic thoughts and feelings. Tell me there isn’t a dish from your childhood that you don’t recall with a misty smile, be it a family recipe that no-one else can do right, or a favourite dish from a beloved restaurant.

Now maybe a master chef isn’t going to produce that dish, but my point is that the really, really good ones, the ones who command 200 quid a meal, have spent years studying the power food has. Eating their food is ever bit as worth trying as reading classic literature or a virtuoso musician. Adoring Nabokov doesn’t mean that Terry Pratchett isn’t still rewarding. Being a fan of Green Day doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy Beethoven. If fact, appreciation of one informs and improves my appreciation of the other. And so with food. And unlike literature, or music, there is no means to mass produce the very best versions yet. There are very few economies of scale to be had – a dish takes the same amount of prepare, and requires fresh ingredients and skilled labour. So the best costs more.

I would also add this final coda: the 200 quid food was also inspiring in the most literal sense. Eating at The Fat Duck (and a few other places) has changed my outlook on cooking. Cooking has never been something I enjoy, and probably never will be. But prior to eating there, I cooked almost nothing. These days, I cook a variety of different things, because I’ve come around to the idea that with enough practice I might produce food that other people enjoy, and even, if I practice very hard, might say a little about the way I see the world. Right now, I’m still at the stage where I’m happy if I don’t burn it to a crisp, mind. But maybe one day…

[1] OK, that’s a lie. I might have trouble writing 5000 words of effusive praise, without revealing things that were very personal about a couple, though.

[2] What, you thought I was going to call us ugly? Look, it doesn’t do anyone any good, thinking like that. Call yourself ugly if that’s what you really want, but I think you’re lovely.

[3] Well, probably.

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