Down With Runway Food

I was watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown recently, and he was in Vegas at a fancy José Andrés restaurant-within-a-restaurant that had roughly two and a half seats and likely charged hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for a single meal. Bourdain was presented with an "egg" that was not an egg, but was, in fact, some kind of truffle dish made to LOOK like an egg. It looked really good. I would like to eat that one day. The problem, of course, is that I never will.

Slate once made fun of food writers and TV people who ventured over to Spain to eat at the world-famous El Bulli restaurant, all so they could tell you about eating at a place you'll never get within 50 miles of even seeing (the restaurant is now closed for good). That "I Ate at El Bulli" syndrome has now mutated and branched out to any number of fabulous, utterly inaccessible places around the globe: Noma in Denmark, Alinea in Chicago, etc. The shrines are multiplying. These are all $200-a-head joints run by some modest-but-insane savant (often Spanish) working with 68 dead-silent acolytes in a pristine kitchen/lab, and the chef is always a man hell-bent on using food to change your PERCEPTIONS of the universe, and the media follow suit in praising their efforts. "It looks like an ordinary strawberry, and then you take a bite and realize… CARROT PUREE. O ho ho, such whimsy!"

This is known as "molecular gastronomy" to most foodies, but let's call it what it really is: runway food. It's the weird trapezoidal stilt gown on a Paris runway that ends up on your Marshall's rack in the form of a normal blouse that's the same color. It's trickle-down food, meant to be enjoyed in its proper form only by the wealthy and the well-connected, and then made available in bastardized form to you, the common man (big-name chefs who open a casual joint always treat it like it's some benevolent act of charity to a neighborhood).

These chefs (seriously, could not one of them apply his or her genius to building a cleaner oil rig or something?) drone on and on about how their food will open hearts and minds, all the while ignoring the fact that the people CONSUMING their shit are mostly rich assholes and/or hipsters emptying out the last of the trust fund. Those diners are not there to open their minds. They're there to brag, or to impress fellow diners. And if they do have a transcendent dining experience, it doesn't inspire them to go out and change the world. It inspires them to have a glass of brandy, fart, and then go to sleep. It's an exercise in pleasure, no matter how high-minded its presentation may be.

Like high fashion, this is an insular world that doesn't realize just how insular it is, and it's getting irritating. Daniel Riley at GQ noted that eating out has become a never-ending competition between dickhead experience collectors, and anyone short on money and/or time is unlikely to ever keep up.

I'm all for passion and creativity and stretching the very limits of cuisine to 38-page bread recipes, but paying $500 a head to eat a trout fillet shaped like an edible flower should be recognized for precisely what it is: an extreme luxury good, first and foremost. It's not a grand statement of human progress. It's not a re-awakening of world culture that will cause the children to hold hands and sing in unison. In the end, runway food is like a Ferrari. You can admire the craftsmanship involved, but the dude driving away in one is probably a complete asshole.

Art by Sam Woolley.

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