“Our coffee is handcrafted in Sheffield, England’s “City of Steel”, which men of foresight, diligence and enterprise have made famous.”
The recent New Yorker article by Nick Paumgarten on the Damon Baehrel restaurant in Albany, New York highlights one of my greatest restaurant fears and one of the most frequent topics of conversation in the Dayan & Webb kitchen. In the modern world of gastronomy is food simply made better by its price tag, exclusivity, novelty or rarity? How much are our taste buds impacted by the fairytale stories weaved around a particular chef, and can we unpick the threads to truly evaluate food in its own right?
In Paumgarten’s article he starts where we all start when finding out about a new restaurant, with the reviews, the hype that has dubbed Baehrel’s restaurant ‘The most exclusive restaurant in America’. Baehrel’s is deemed by many critics as one of the gastronomic greats of his time, his tiny restaurant is booked out till 2025 and a tasting menu will set you back a cool $430 per person. With just these bare facts I can feel my excitement growing, I do not know what I will be eating but who cares – I want to experience what so few people can. As Paumgarten puts it:
‘its implausibility may be as important to its appeal as any range of textures or tastes’
Then Paumgarten moves on to the story behind the food, the reason for such expense and popularity – and oh boy does Baehrel have this covered too. Baehrel is not just a chef, he is the single handed supplier, forager, chef and host – the sole creator of his gastronomic environment. Where possible ingredients, his so called Native Harvest, are derived from his twelve acre yard. From these harvests he creates his base supplies, everything from dandelion flour to his own take on coffee made from acorns. He is a self-taught chef and a forager learning through years of trial and error. Well, after reading this I am sold – I am ready to pack my bags, sell my grandmother and join the Baehrel circus. Already I am well beyond any possible independent judgement of what Baehrel does. Paumgarten can equally relate to the spell cast by this great yarn:
‘ it was difficult….to tell whether my appreciation, fervent as it often became, had been enhanced by the description of the work …. The tongue is suggestible. New words register as new flavours’.
But as with all stories, the truth is in a cave far away from the riddles we are lead to believe. After dinning at Baehrel’s restaurant Paumgarten starts to pick at the tightly knotted threads of his idyllic story. Firstly, surly it is not possible to serve so many covers as Baehrel claims to using only ingredients from his 12 acres, even if his meat, fish etc are brought in. Secondly, it is difficult to find anyone who has actually dined at his restaurant other than on special one-to-one or small dinning parties pre-arranged by Baehrel. Then with a bit of digging Paumgarten finds out that another local chef claims to have trained Barhrel, not quite the self-taught maverick after all. The beautiful myth that is so quickly believed gradually falls apart and along with it some of the possible delight we may have otherwise found in Baehrel’s food should the story have remained unchallenged.
I feel that Paumgarten’s article acts as a modern day parable to all us ideological foodies: beware the Emperors New Restaurant, all that glitter is not necessarily gold leaf covered chocolate.
The divine combination of hyped reviews (amazing stories behind any brave new venture into the culinary unknown), limited availability (something once reserved for Xboxes at Christmas) and high price tags (the badge of honour that shows how much of a foodie you really are), often leave us salivating with desperation to be a part of the experience. But it can also pre-sell us on something, informing our decision before we have even realised it.
But dose this really matter? At the end of the day sight, sound, touch and taste are all subjective and indeed so related to the emotion of the moment. I for one could rate the same meal in two very different ways depending on the company and my general state of mind at the time of consumption – I therefore implicitly find it impossible to give an untainted judgement on any dining experience. So why should a restaurant not weave its own story, if it enhances our experience and enjoyment we are not losing out but actually gaining. I am not advocating lies or the miss-selling of the truth, but rather saying I have no objection to a bit of smoke and mirrors, a bit of old school magic.