Today, the revered Ed Levine posted this in his blog:
He made this statement as part of a larger discussion about the appropriate cost of food. Is $350 before tax, beverage and tip a reasonable amount to pay for dinner at the legendary sushi bar Masa? Is it okay to pay outsize prices for mediocre food at a restaurant like Cipriani's where you're really going there to be seen and not to enjoy very special food?
I interpret Ed's statement to mean that deliciously fresh (or rare--not in the steak sense) raw materials, combined with the skill and imagination of a gifted chef (and possibly the salubrious intent of the restauranteur and the waitstaff) should earn top dollar.
I wish I could agree with him, but I don't. To me, the values worth paying for in a restaurant meal or food for my own kitchen are:
Does it (or will it, when prepared) taste good? And can I be sure of that? (At this moment in my career as an eater, I don't know if I could actually identify bad Curry Goat. Someday, perhaps.)
Is it going to fill my tummy, give me energy, and delight my tastebuds? (Honestly, I'm pretty broke, so I won't spend money on food that only does one of these).
Will it please my senses? (Like the yellow of an heirloom tomato against the green of a well-made pesto. Or the lightly-browned crust of a perfectly toasted Pop Tart.)
Is it, on the whole, good for me? I don't mean it has to be wheat bran. Only that it won't make me sick, thus ruining whatever plan I had for the evening, the rest of the day, or however long it takes me to get over salmonella poisoning.
I am not one of the world's fugu eaters; I do not like my meal spiced with risk. And by the way, this means that sometimes I pay more for my food, because I'm paying for it to be professionally cleaned or served from a relatively clean kitchen.
Tony Bourdain, please leave me in pathologically hygienic Singapore on your next trip to the Far East.
And one more very important value: will I be able to blog about it? Is it photogenic? Will it make good food porn? this blog is a business to me. I try to write about things which will attract readers. Sometimes a good foodie adventure is worth the money, when it brings eyeballs to this page and clicks to my Google ads.
Of course, I also have my indulgences.
Every few weeks I buy 8 ounces or so of salmon roe, also known as the big orange caviar which are served in sushi. I eat it with sushi rice, yes, but I also mix it into salad and top cold soup with it. When I'm very tired and rushed I spoon two tablespoons of the roe over one tablespoon of Greek yogurt, eat in in tiny bites, and rise sated. I actually have a miniature cafe au lait bowl which holds about a quarter of a cup and a tiny mother-of-pearl spoon--the latter not for show, but because a metal spoon makes caviar taste awful.
True, salmon caviar costs about $2 per ounce and that's expensive for anything. But to me the expense is worth it.
When duck eggs are season--which is nowhere near often enough, since, for reasons I don't understand, ducks actually have to be in the mood, whilst chicken hardly even knew they're doing anything--I buy a half dozen of them every week, usually at 50 cents per egg, from Quattro Farms, which I am proud to tell you is also Mario Batali's egg supplier of choice.
A duck egg tastes much richer and more flavorful than any hen's egg, even Quattro's. There is greater proportion of yolk to white in a duck egg, and the yolk cooks up firmer and rounder, if you're making a whole-yolk preparation.
It's also more difficult to overcook the yolk of a duck egg, although the white seems to get done much more quickly than a hen's egg white.
For all of these reasons, duck eggs are well worth their expense to me.
Sometimes half-a-pound of fresh tuna is worth the six dollars it costs at my local reliable fishmonger's, because I need a quick, clean protein hit of a tuna tartare over a bowl of sushi rice more than I need to do laundry. My strength and health are important, because I need to be strong in my classes, with my daughter, in my internship, all the time. I need to sleep more peacefully and rise more refreshed, and good (if expensive) nutrition can do that for you.
Good food very frequently costs more, when it suits my values. So no, I don't actually appreciate (or even care about) the values of the person who harvests or prepares it for me.
Then again, Ed eats in restaurants much more than I do. I'll have to look at this question again when I can do things like that.