It’s flattering to receive an exclusive invitation, especially one from a Michelin rated chef. It reaffirms one’s faith in elitism, that select order of hedonists that has has a lot of bad press recently for being too clever and influential by far.
Clearly the sender, a noted restaurant chain, sees in me a one who appreciates both the imagination and technical application required to produce memorable food.
Seldom have I scrolled so rapidly down an email to reach the where and when? After a pause in a lifetime of elitist excess I am ready, no eager to relight the flame of over indulgence. I think I even subliminally ran through my wardrobe with an eye to dark apparel having learnt long ago the pitfalls of sporting white trousers and pale ties to an event where the vino rosso flows as abundantly as the a-mouse bouches.
At the point at which I was about to reassess my opinion of marketing emails (the the tip of my index finger is calloused from hitting the delete button so frequently) I arrived at the sentence I was least expecting! A price. so much for an invitation. And not just any price for what promised to be a truly ‘memorable experience’. £450 per person. With that kind of ticket I think it fair to say that the bill for two would be more memorable than the food.
My life in restaurants has been one of almost continual, disappointment. Partly, I am the first to admit, of my own doing. I recall my first ever meal out in Paris, when flares and penny collars were de rigeur. My friend and I, with a dozen words of French between us, ordered from the menu quipping that saucisson et pommes de terres lyonais (the only main course we could afford) was probably fancy bangers ’n mash. Enough said.
Restaurants have always resonated with me, ever since our family’s almost weekly visits to the Heath Road Restaurant in Twickenham every Saturday when I never, not once, failed to order prawn cocktails and a mushroom omelette and chips. I’d learnt at an early age that food should be nourishing and sufficient and tasty and not, unlike say a film or a football match or a drink, the main event. Meals, including those in restaurants, was what we did in-between other stuff. It was the same for a good many people. Food was ok as long as it didn’t interfere with life.
The 1980s changed all that. It was if a generation raised on cheap continental holidays, retsina and styler sections wanted to know why the food back home was so, dull. Only it wasn’t. There’s nothing dull about a Scotch egg or sardines on toast. It just wasn’t tapas or one of those French seafood platters you’re given a pair of pliers to unleash. Like the obsession with shoulder pads meals had to be spectacular and restaurants destinations.
Nouvelle cuisine was the twin sibling of the yuppie: Upwardly immobile dishes of piles and squiggles (before the 1980s fish was served next to the potato rather than on top of it) feeding a new generation of upwardly mobile media executives with expense accounts and a voracious appetite for networking. It was a match made in culinary heaven. For the first time in living memory the meal became the deal. With the exception of pizza I don’t think I ate a flat meal for going on two decades, and despite bills that made my accountant wince, little of it was very good.
Lunches (mine at least) cost a fortune and stretched beyond afternoon tea until after dinner time, and beyond. My friend Rob Ryan named our lunch bunch The Oates Club, in honour of Captain Oates who famously said as he left the tent, “I’m just going outside and may be some time.”
There were some seriously dire must-go-to-restaurants: Among them one owned by an artist cum taxidermist in Notting Hill; a vast Italian near Marble Arch; a much touted estuary locovare, a number of chic but tasteless bistros, a raft of mediocre Spanish and I haven’t even started on the British revivalists that aimed to use up as much offal as possible. What they all had in common were eye wateringly huge prices. It was if it had to be good because it cost so much. and we all took it for granted. A bunch of London foodies and I dined at a fashionable Asian restaurant in New York a while back. There were ten or so of us at the table and I was handed the bill. As a rule we’d call Phil, from anywhere in the world, he being the only person we knew whose applied maths could cope with 80s shoulder pad sized l’additions. But he was otherwise engaged so the bill came to me. I mistook of one the perpendicular lines in the dollar sign for a numeral and came up with $12,000. After a collective intake of breath some of those present were about to pay it.
Which leads me to the bill that put me off restaurants for almost ever. It was near tghe field of Eton and was receiving a good deal of media coverage. Four of us booked a table because it was – and may remain – a destination. Adventurous food that makes rocket science seem, doable. I remember I had a sort of tea jelly as my first course. I was asured it had taken something like a fortnight to distill umpteen pots of Early Grey into an intense jelly the size of my thumb nail. It was delicious and the meal would have been memorable for that alone had it not been eclipsed by the finale, served on a platter. My jaw went south as I opened the folded bill to reveal the price. I’d been poleaxed. To get over the shock I asked for a brandy only to be handed a cocktail list on which the cognacs started at over £20.
Which brings me very conveniently to my exclusive invitation. My opportunity to spend £450 a head on whatever the chef thinks I’ll like. To spend what I’d spend on a jacket, or two pairs of shoes, or 75 bottles of my day-to-day chardonnay at Lidl, or seven tickets to the recently promoted Fulham. With change from them all for a bite on the way home.
As Ryan remarked sagely there will be many on the other side of the river who will jump at the chance to drop a grand on the off-chance of a good meal, but I won’t be among them.
Before I put my MacBook Pro to sleep I should add that my affection for fine dining and the meal as the main event recently received an overdue shot in the arm. Paul Ainsworth, the chef behind Padstow’s No 6 galvanises flavours the way maestros assemble symphonies. Nothing I have ever eaten comes close to his food, with the exception of Kim’s. He’s got a Michelin star too, but more to the point I get change from a Matthew Boulton and James Watt.
Bon appetite – elite.