Tuesday, February 14, 2012

You paid how much?

$500 for dinner?

I struggle with this.

What the hell am I talking about? Well let me start by telling you over 6000 people scrambled to do just that. And just over 1000 were granted the honor of doing so. OK, I admit that's a bit harsh. "honored" is just me being snarky. To be fair purchasing a $500 dinner was not bestowed upon individuals, but rather, much like tickets to a concert or Championship game if you were first in line you got the tickets.

Tickets? For dinner? Huh?

As some of you know Next, the restaurant opened last year by Chef Grant Achatz and business partner Nick Kokonas, doesn't take reservations but rather sells tickets. More about that process here.

Anyway, the most recent incarnation of Next is a tribute to elBulli, the now shuttered restaurant by chef Ferran Adria in Roses, Spain, once considered the best restaurant in the world. Getting into elBulli, if you can believe it, was even more difficult than getting tickets to the Next tribute to it. Only open from June through December, elBulli served just 8000 guests per year. Over 2 million people tried to obtain these prized reservations. The cost for the meal was roughly 250 Euros (about $325) per person. elBulli was a temple to molecular gastronomy, or as some call it, modernist cuisine. The world's finest young chefs would apply to work the 6 months in the elBulli kitchen for no pay. These internships, called stages in the restaurant business, gave many of today's great chefs experience with molecular gastronomy, from the finest practitioner of it in the world. Grant Achatz was one of these stages. Along with his time at The French Laundry, his time at elBulli helped form him into the great chef he is today. Thus it's appropriate that he pay tribute to Ferran Adria and this legendary restaurant.

Now, as you know from this blog, a $500 meal isn't exactly a Lesser Cuts meal. OK, I can live with that. Not everything you eat should be cheap cuts. But there's something about the thought of paying $500 for dinner that just makes me uncomfortable. Maybe it's my Midwestern sensibility. Anyway, when pricing was announced for Next elBulli I thought, gee that's priced out of my league. I'm not all that into molecular gastronomy even though I've had some fun and amazing dishes prepared using techniques considered modernist. But I've also had some dishes where these techniques actually made a dish worse. Give me a good braised short rib. You can keep the foams and airs.

Anyway, a friend of mine is a huge fan of modernist food and badly wanted to try to get tickets for Next elBulli. Since he really doesn't know anyone else who would spend $500 on a meal,I told him if he got the tickets then I would go with him. But getting the tickets was on him. Well as luck would have it, he scored tickets and now I'm paying $500 for a dinner that won't happen until late April.

Every time I think “I paid $500 for dinner” I shudder. Sure there are people who can easily afford or justify this. I'm not one of them. This one meal will require sacrifice on my part. Saving a bit here and there, a few less nights out with friends, watching my personal expenses a bit more over the next few months, but I will be able to afford it. It will mean financial sacrifice for me, but ultimately I will be able to afford it. And that actually brings about a bit of guilt.

$500 for dinner? That's $1000 for 2 people to eat one meal. There are 16 countries in the world where the average income is less than $1000 per year. PER YEAR! And we're going to spend that on one meal! That's why it's a bit of a moral struggle for me.

But a meal like this is a once in a lifetime chance. Maybe even less than that given the odds stacked against people trying to get these tickets.

A friend who also got tickets to Next elBulli asked me what my expectations were for this meal. My response was if 2 of the 29 courses are “misses”, or if 5 or 6 are simply “meh” I'll leave disappointed. Now, I'm not going to look for disappointment. This is a meal prepared by one of the best chefs in the world, paying homage to the greatest restaurant in the world. It should be amazing. For the cost, I expect it to be transcendent. When I told this friend about my expectations for this meal he said that bar was set pretty high. “It sure is.” I replied “But I didn't set it, they did.”

Another conversation, with a friend who will not be experiencing this menu, revolved around the fact that people are often quality blinded by price, exclusivity, or simple ignorance. I'm not one of these folks. If something is great I'll say so, if it's less than great I'll say so. But a lot of folks can't do that. The soup at Next Tour  of Thailand was one of the best dishes I have ever eaten. However that isn't the case for some of the things I've eaten at Next.  On Next's Facebook page you can read reviews of Next Childhood where people loudly proclaim it the "best meal" of their life, and "perfection!"  Well, having experienced each of Next's incarnations I can easily say that, while creatively the most ambitious, and by far the most dramatic, Next Childhood was also the least successful menu from a culinary standpoint. The chicken noodle soup dish which many exclaimed as "fantastic", was a salty mess, and the mac and cheese that so many raved about was served to me with pasta so undercooked I should have sent it back (I totally chickened out!). But the theater of the meal was spectacular. Even though the chicken soup was not a good dish, the way it was served made me laugh. It was a gigantic bowl, making me feel like I was a child eating out of a bowl that seemed enormous. Just brilliant. I actually giggled out loud when the visual effect of the huge bowl dawned on me.Too bad the soup didn't reflect that. Now I'm sure many Next fanboys and girls will proclaim me a heathen for making such blasphemous proclamations but the fact remains, I can see when the emperor has no clothes. And I'll say so, and I'll tell you why.

So will I feel the four hours and 29 courses of Next elBulli is worth the $500 ticket price? I don't know. Can any meal really be worth $500? I'm struggling with that.

I'll probably struggle with the idea until that night in April when I dine at Next elBulli. Perhaps longer.