Special To CNN: Eatocracy
(CNN) — I can be as casual as the next guy. I’m from Indiana, so I don’t have much choice. The only known Hoosier engaged in high snobbery was Bill Blass, otherwise no one ever got beyond “local boy done good” status — even James Dean.
I have ripped this joint and raised some hell. I’ve been to enduros and hydroplane races and at least one tractor pull. I drank my first PBR at age five and I still have a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off.
But I also know the tragedy that is a grown-up wearing shorts in public. I know the difference between the ballpark and the opera house, between a dive bar and The French Laundry.
As the maitre d’ at Daniel I get to work in one of the finest fine dining establishments in the world. The restaurant exudes charm and flair, a hybrid of modern French-American style be it on the plate or in the service, a place that requires jackets and frowns on jeans.
That being said, it is a balancing act. We defend a standard of dining in a time where a chef can earn three Michelin stars while eschewing silver, crystal and a jacket policy. Upholding a standard is ever more critical as you try to justify separating people from their money on a nightly basis.
Herein, a dollop of wisdom on why fine dining still matters.
1. Forget the special occasion
Everyone wants to celebrate at a fancy restaurant: graduation, engagements, promotions, divorces, mergers, recording deals, sneaker contracts. As far as I am concerned, every morning when I shuffle across the street in my jammies to free-base Americanos, pick up the New York Times and not see my name in the obituaries is a reason to celebrate. Why wait for an occasion? Life is an occasion.
Sometimes it is worth living like there is no tomorrow, because when you get right down to it, there isn’t. Work hard, play harder, have passion; you deserve a glass of Krug and a perfect foie gras terrine for dinner. It should be welcome to have someone take care of you for a change.
2. Fine dining is affordable luxury
Yes, when you start looking at check averages that hover above $200 per person before tax and tip, you start doing math in your head. But when you place yourself in an environment that is at once tactile and serene, where you have one staff member for every two diners, where there is a small army capable of occupying Paris tending to a rare and elegant product, the actual cost is truly not exorbitant.
Break it down per hour: if you hit $250 per person you will most likely be dining for three-plus hours, roughly $80 per hour. You cannot get a spa treatment for that, nor a lawyer, nor a Ferrari, nor a weekend in St. Bart’s.
3. Fine dining has more than one entry point
You can come to the lounge at Daniel and have a bespoke cocktail, perfect canapés, maybe try a few artisanal cheeses. The few restaurants that fall into our category have an entry-priced prix fixe menu, bars and lounges, à la carte options, wines by the glass, dessert tastings. You can dip a toe without taking the plunge.
When it comes to comparable luxury items, it is nearly impossible. There are no starter-priced $400,000 sports cars or villas next door to Mick Jagger on Mustique. Most of us will never touch a private jet or buy a Patek-Philippe watch, but we can pop in for a tasting of white truffle risotto for comparatively little money.
4. Why be obvious?
Anyone can go to a beer garden wearing retro-high tops. Anyone can follow a burger trend. But no matter the blend of luxury ingredients or the rarity of the kicks, the fact remains that it is still a hamburger or a sneaker.
Over a career dating back now over 20 years I have served any number of unique clients who embraced a few stolen moments of pampering at a high-end restaurant. I’ve walked legendary musician Lou Reed through a multi-course tasting menu, opened Dom Perignon Rosé for Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, guided actor Jason Biggs through an entire white truffle and called my mother when I realized Roger Waters from Pink Floyd knew my name.
The common thread throughout is that everyone got dressed, donned a sexy jacket with a high-collared shirt and became willing participants in on ongoing stage show called Haute Cuisine.
5. Sensory emotion
A Walkman, an old Honda, my Rachael Ray cookbooks – the world is full of my cast-off objects. The allure of the material is fleeting and instant. The allure of cuisine endures.
I carry distinct memories of first tastes, such as oysters at Acme in New Orleans, 1928 Cheval Blanc in the studio kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and Laurent Gras’ lacquered pork belly at the Fifth Floor in San Francisco. My mind reels at the list of special meals: white truffles in December, Brillat-Savarin cheese in summer, a surreptitious taste of foie gras while I was running up the service stairs some twenty years ago.
We come together at a table for many reasons — to celebrate, to laugh, to declare war. The material fades but the tastes and aromas linger, direct links to our most primal instincts and the only true sensual pleasure we share in a room full of strangers.
By John Winterman
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