Food and Fine Dining – Philosophy (Interlude)


In recent economic good times, I have noticed some dining behaviour that I can only classify as…perplexing. What I have noticed in many discussions regarding food is that a large contigent of people believe that if they eat something expensive at a fine dining restaurant, it must be good. This issue drives me crazy.

Let’s break this issue down from the roots. Let’s start with the definition of fine dining. There is no clear cut definition – in fact, if you think about it, the term itself is a bit pretentious. What is fine dining? I have no idea. To me, it conjures up images of fancy decor, and a “higher level” of execution. But this is just a label. Anyone can use it. And really, there is no real meaning. Let’s throw the term out.

I have a personal issue with “fine dining” as well. Lately, most fine dining establishments copy techniques and flavours that other “fine dining” restaurants have had success with. They feel they are bringing haute cuisine, a higher level of “food” culture to the masses. Fancy ingredients. Time intensive techniques. And they copy them verbatim. Forget seasonality. Forget about local ingredients that did not have to be picked green, and ripened in a gas-controlled storage facility. It’s like taste has become secondary to technique. But isnt the point of technique to maximize the taste? Shouldn’t the first technique be “use the best ingredients you can get”? Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against those who innovate. But to blindly copy another chef’s technique for nothing more than financial success is cheating the diner.

When did people start to forget about taste? Sea-salt foam. “Mmmm, it’s the essence of sea salt”. Great! I could drink out of the ocean, or lick an Alberta road in winter, and i could get the very same essence. What is good about that? Does it nourish? Excite?  Soothe? Does it invoke any feelings or passions? Calm you when you’re upset? Make you happy when you’re blue? Or is this the same as the interpretative dance that you don’t understand, but pretend to like because it is the cultured thing to do?

Look, my point is really simple. Eat what you like. What tastes good. Think of the evolution of food – from sustenance, to enjoyment. We’re at a place where food serves both purposes – we enjoy it, and it nourishes us. Don’t be afraid to like something, or dislike something, for what it is.

On a Calgary-based blog,  Foodosophy commenter JM wrote an interesting post on how he discovered it was ok to recognize, AND like Ginger Beef for what it is – non-authentic Chinese. While my personal feelings regarding Ginger Beef don’t follow his predilection, I think the opinion is sound. Taste what you are eating. If you like it, there’s nothing wrong with that. From the humble KD, to Ginger Beef, to McDonalds’ french fries, there are many things we “shouldn’t” like, but we do.

In an old episode of Kitchen Nightmares, Gordon Ramsay started a marketing campaign for a pub – the campaign for “Real Gravy”. While I won’t go as far as to campaign for “Real Food”, I would like to petition you all to really taste that ceviche-style, uzu-marintaed black cod with fleur de sel foam and faux caviar. If you like it, great. But if you find it to be mediocre, you leave the restaurant $50 poorer, and having to stop for a burger on the way home, it’s ok to say “I got cheated”. Don’t like it because it was expensive, and fancy. Like it, or dislike it, because of how it tastes.

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5 thoughts on “Food and Fine Dining – Philosophy (Interlude)

  1. Hi,

    Excellent post. I agree with most of what you wrote (in myself once wrote “Food is not only nourish to your body but also your soul and mind.”), though I have one question/comment: Putting aside “fine dining” for a moment and using $50 for reference purposes, what would be your expectations when you go out for dinner?

    I think that is the key to all this: expectations. If I go out for lunch/dinner, I expect good food. However, I don’t think that’s the same expectation from others; rather, I think it usually falls into:

    1) To be able to say “I have been there” (i.e., status). The fancier the ingredients listed, the higher the status. Why pay $10 burguer if you can pay an additional $100 to have it with foei-gras and truffles? Why have a regular drink/soup if you can whip it and make a foam?
    2) To hang with friends, again, in fancy places. If you are having fun with your friends, food might not necessarily matter that much.

    Having said all that, when I go out to eat (alone), I tend to go to mom-n-pop small type restaurants. Unlike larger restaurants, returning customers are their livelihood. And what better incentive for a customer to return than honest, good, tasty food….

  2. KimHo,

    My personal expectations are to have good food – something that tastes good, I enjoy, and fills me up. Because I cannot afford to eat with no budget, value plays a big part of the equation for me. I am a value eater. I’d be willing to pay $200 for a meal, but it had better be a lot better, or at a minimum, different, than that $30 meal. Akin to your point, paying $100 for a burger seems extreme – it’s still a burger. It won’t be 10x better with foie and truffles.

    You make an excellent point though – people’s expectations are different. Both examples you provide are definitely quite common. I guess I should be more clear – for people who claim to love food, I wish they would start to critique with their taste buds, not with their wallets. The post really stems from the frustration of being told to try “this great restaurant” – and yet when i try it, am nothing but disappointed. Take a prominent Vancouver restaurant for example – after being universally lauded, the tasting menu was not good. Food was under-seasoned, lacked punch. Citrus dishes lacked acidity. Braised dishes lacked depth. For your corner bistro, this would not have been great. For a $130 tasting menu? Unacceptable. You must’ve had similar experiences. Well critiqued, well regarded restaurants that ended up being disappointing. I have a graveyard full of them.

    I do have to disagree though – all but the most famous of restaurants need returning customers to survive, and even they can only get away with it for so long. Restaurants, big and small, have no excuse in my mind – they should all be trying to serve honest, good, tasty food.

  3. Foodosopher: Very solid interlude, on an important issue for us foodies. A big part of it definitely does come down to the perception of “did I get what I paid for?” when it comes to fine dining, or any dining for that matter. Much like anything else in life, we all hate to feel cheated, so there are those out there who deny the truth and try to convince themselves that the big chunk of change they left behind for an expensive meal, was in fact justified, when in all likelihood it was not. We just need to let go of our egos and admit when we got screwed I say, and learn from it. 🙂

    I think you could probably start an entirely separate debate on what you mentioned in your comment – being told what’s apparently “great” or good for that matter by friends, acquaintances, etc. regardless of cost, and go and try it and think, “meh?”. A lesson to be learned in just who to trust among your peers…

  4. Interpretive dance – hah. Most ‘modern art’ falls under a similar category of ‘don’t get it, don’t like it’.

    Although I agree that there is no definition for fine dining, and that such an adjective should be a matter of opinion, not a ‘genre’ – I do think that you overestimate the palate of the ‘average’ consumer. I think most people just want to feel special, be wowed a bit – eat something that looks and tastes better than what they [or their spouse] would have made had they stayed home. Much like anything in life, there will only ever be a few truly inspired individuals who will rise to the top. I believe that’s what you’re after, and from the sounds of it, they aren’t all in the kitchens of ‘fine dining’ establishments…so keep posting, so we know where to find them. 🙂

  5. Kevin – you make an excellent point that I completely overlooked. You’re bang on – what people consider good is completely subjective as well. I guess Shokutsu is right – it just comes down to who you can trust among your peers for food taste and judgment that best matches your own.

    I still think if everyone was a bit more honest with themselves though, regardless of their palette, there would be fewer restaurants that people *loved*.

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