Pet Peeves: Expensive Ingredients and a Lack of Taste

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2012, 9:36am

A press release was issued recently on behalf of the Hansar Samui hotel in Koh Samui, Thailand, about its new chef's table.

Apart from the table itself - "an exquisite hand-made table of solid golden teak wood which is 6.3 metres long", since you ask - the release goes on to list the ingredients for which the chef, Stephen Jean Dion, had gone shopping.

They include foie gras "from the Soulard farm in France's Perigord region which is famous for having the best quality available", Bresse royal pigeon, "a much sought after French delicacy featured on many top three-Michelin-star chefs' menus", and oysters from the French Gillardeau company which produces "only 'spéciales' oysters that are fleshier and, consequently, more expensive".

The list goes on, but nowhere is a dish mentioned. It's as though what the chef does with all this high-priced fare is incidental. This is a recognisable trend in the restaurant business - an emphasis on the provenance of food is eclipsing what used to be regarded as the serious business of the trade. Cooking it.

Restaurant prices are being justified not by how well the food is cooked and presented, but by the supposed discernment with which the chef has sourced the ingredients.

Sometimes this takes the form of green credentials. Ingredients are "organic", "sustainable" or for some other reason which is not quite plain, necessarily more expensive.

Seasonality also makes it possible to raise prices without doing anything interesting with the food. When was the last time you saw anything creative done with half a dozen spears of asparagus?

If ingredients are rare, so much the better. They can be called "luxury foods" and marked up more.

Umberto Bombana's annual white truffle extravaganza is hard to object to, since it raises a lot of money for Mother's Choice, which is an excellent cause, but there are plenty of truffle dinners at which preposterous sums are charged for ordinary dishes, because a few fragments of fungus have been grated over the top.

Eating them seldom lives up to the hype. Even Bombana, the "worldwide ambassador of the white truffle" seems to have some doubts in the just published Krug Guide To Truffle Season in Hong Kong.

"When you consider the cost of truffles - sometimes I am ashamed that they are so expensive - but once a year the cost can be justified if you want to experience them," he says.

Would those truffles still be such a great delicacy if there were a few more of them in circulation?

Today we pay restaurants large sums of money for oysters, to which they have to do little more than open and present on a mound of crushed ice - but there was a time when you could buy them by the bucketload for a song.

Oysters are an interesting example of the relativity of luxury. In the early 19th century they were plentiful, and a staple food of the less well off in coastal areas of Europe and North America.

However, oyster farming methods designed to maximise production instead, over time, wrecked the oyster beds. Vastly reduced production led to vastly increased prices, putting them beyond the reach of the working classes and making them an indulgence of the affluent. But they are still the same molluscs.

The same is true of caviar. In the 19th century sturgeon were so plentiful in North America and Russia that bars gave the stuff away to customers, hoping the saltiness of the fish eggs would make them drink more. Now tiny tins of caviar cost thousands of dollars, but they're still the same eggs.

Food inflation, however, seems to be irreversible. Beware the words "market price" on a menu. They generally mean "as much as we can get away with gouging you for while blaming an absent third party".

Once a high price has been established, the supply may increase but the "market price" on the menu never goes down. There is currently a glut of Maine lobsters, and prices being paid for them at source are some 70 per cent below the market peak. Not a lot of this saving is passed on to the customer.

Good-quality farmed caviar production is increasing in a number of countries, as suppliers work to compensate for restrictions on catching sturgeon in the Caspian Sea - but we are still paying for those cultured eggs as though they, too, were beyond price.

Assembling a few expensive ingredients on a plate is a creative cop out, and one which in recent years has led to some extravagantly silly menu items, as chefs compete to stretch the limits of what a customer is prepared to pay.

How much is the most that could be charged for a hamburger? Restaurants compete to produce the most ridiculously overpriced version of the fast food classic.

Locally, the Steak House at the InterContinental was a contender for a while with its Devil Hug burger, priced at HK$1,088, but that is no longer on the menu.

In Las Vegas, Hubert Keller's Fleur de Lys serves a burger made with Kobe beef topped with foie gras and black truffles. This is offered with a bottle of 1990 Chateau Petrus for US$5,000 - complete with a certificate proclaiming that you have had the world's most expensive burger and wine pairing. The burger on its own is yours for US$75.

In London, even Burger King got in on this act with a £95 (HK$1,190) pattie made with wagyu beef topped with white truffles in a saffron and truffle bun. This tops Keller's burger on its own, but the Petrus is not an option, even in a polystyrene cup. However, the onion "tempura" - not rings, please - are made with Louis Roederer Cristal champagne.

Available only in one London branch and called simply "The Burger", it is, of course a publicity stunt, but if you do buy one the profits go to the charity Help a London Child.

Pizza? A white truffle pizza served in 2005 at Gordon Ramsay's Maze restaurant in London was priced at £100, not payable to charity, and was certified by Guinness World Records as the world's most expensive.

Then the stakes were raised. A pizzeria in Malta sells one for about £1,800. This indulgence features white truffles - yet again, if they are so damn rare how come they crop up on menus so often? - and edible 24 carat gold leaf.

Manhattan's Belissima restaurant sells a pizza topped with caviar for US$1,000.

And the excess goes on. In London, in 2009, the Bombay Brasserie, to coincide with the DVD release of Slumdog Millionaire, produced a crab, lobster and abalone dish with Beluga caviar and gold leaf and priced it at £2,000.

These dishes have one thing in common besides ridiculous price tags. It is difficult to imagine deriving any great pleasure from eating them.

There is nothing creative in this. We expect restaurants to buy good quality ingredients, but also to do more than sling together the most expensive they can find and call it a dish. It isn't really true that the best things in life are free. But they can be a lot cheaper than this.