Blinding in its strength and glory, the setting sun shone upon the Pacific Ocean, on the cliffs of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, and on us, an assembled party of famous chefs and the super rich who paid $5,500 for dinner one evening in mid-March. This world was reflected in the aviator sunglasses of Daniel Boulud as he poured his Champagne into the glass of gargantuan Michael Tusk from San Francisco's Quince. The gray-haired but boyish Gabriel Kreuther and the tanned Übermensch Justin Cogley from L'Auberge Carmel stood nearby. All four would be cooking tonight's Rarities Dinner.
Around them mingled health care executives, C-suiters, well-heeled oenophiles, lawyers, pooh-bahs and panjandrums. We had been chauffeured here, to the multimillion dollar estate of a handsome petroleum executive named Gary, in Mercedes-Benz sedans. As humpback whales sounded in the distance, David Fink, the founder of Relais & Châteaux GourmetFest, of which this dinner was part, made a little speech. He thanked the evening's sponsors, chefs and winemakers, many of whom were in attendance. Fink's daughter, meanwhile, served blini with Black River Caviar to the guests as a local musician, a young kid wearing all black and Chelsea boots, strummed James Taylor tunes on his acoustic guitar, almost nailing that sweet little riff in "You've Got a Friend."
Daniel Boulud | Photo: Courtesy of Moss Media
We live in an era of dinners that cost as much as secondhand Subarus. Per Se gets guff for its $325-a-head tasting menu. Eleven Madison Park's 11-course tasting menu is $295 a head, without beverages, and Noma, when it pops up again in Tulum, is $600. But even those dinners combined pale in comparison to the price tag for this evening: $5,500. Just to put it in perspective, $5,500 is about one-tenth of the national median household income of the United States and just above the entire median household income for South Africa. Obviously, the question here is, Is a $5,500 dinner ever worth it?
Let's start with what you get. The evening began with a 20-minute drive to Gary's estate. That $5,500 means you need to take only tiny steps: Though Gary's driveway was gently graded, a wooden stairway had been built with shallow incremental steps. Once inside the house—nice and, as two real estate agents gently let us know, on the market—Black River Caviar blini and cool glasses of Champagne Pommery Cuvée Louise were passed around. As we moved from location to location, the Champagne got older. It started with a 2000, then regressed to a 1999 and, finally, a 1995, drunk in the study.
After about an hour—during which I eschewed human contact just to gaze at the ocean, because, frankly, I see people's faces all the time but am rarely faced with such stunning beauty—we got back into the cars and headed to Aubergine at L'Auberge Carmel.
As we arrived, we were ushered into Aubergine, the restaurant at the L'Auberge Carmel hotel. Typical nice restaurant space. Our names were written in fancy script on menus with vellum pages. As far as hard costs go for the dinner, I would assume much of it would have been eaten up by the wines, which were, even for a relative tyro like me, impressive. They consisted of wines, many bottles in magnum, from Burgundian winemakers Domaine des Comtes Lafon and Bouchard Père & Fils, the Champagne house Pommery and the Bordeaux's Château Margaux. The winemakers were there, too: snowy-haired Philippe Prost of Bouchard Père & Fils with his crinkly kindly eyes; the dashing broad-faced king of Burgundy, Dominique Lafon; Pommery's bookish, affable chef de cave, Thierry Gasco; and the young deputy manager of Château Margaux, Aurélien Valance. As their wines were introduced, each man stood up to say a few words. For instance, Prost related that he had initially fretted over what would eventually become Bouchard Père & Fils's most famous wine, Greves Vigne de L'Enfant Jesus, aka "Baby Jesus."
Wine served at dinner | Photo: Courtesy of Moss Media
Each of the eight courses grew more and more decadent. Kreuther, an esteemed Alsatian, served a gonzo fleshy hamachi, black truffle and foie gras mille-feuille that glistened in the low light. Things got more gouty from there. Boulud, a chef one imagines sleeps on a pillow made of black truffles and under a comforter made of pâté, encrusted a dover sole in black truffle dust. Cogley flew in diver scallops from Maine and topped them with black truffle and Meyer lemon. Tusk served a squab from nearby Paine Farms in Carneros with Tibetan wheat berries (which may or may not even exist), fava and sunchoke. The squab's head was also served, severed. It's cloudy eyes looking up, blind like justice, judging those who feasted on its tender body.
And what might it judge? The question of whether a $5,500 dinner is ever worth it has two main components. The first is literally, does what you get for $5,500 warrant the price tag? The second, infinitely more important than the first, is whether a dinner that costs $5,500 is morally permissible. In the second question, worth it is meant more generally, but in both cases, value is—as value always is—subjective.
First, do the wines and the meal combined have a value of, or close to, $5,500. From a hard cost perspective, probably not. [Fink declined to comment.] If you total the price of the bottles of wine—of which each diner received a generous but single pour—and the price of the ingredients—top-notch to be sure but not precious—you'd be hovering around the $2,000 mark, generously. On the other hand, since many of the wines, like Baby Jesus, were served in magna, which are much more rare, and some, like the 1996 Château Margaux in double magna, at some point what you're paying for isn't the thing itself but the rarity of the thing. Hence, "Rarities."
But as I thought about the worth question, a paradox appeared. No one at the $5,500 dinner actually experienced the meal as expensive.
The tech guy in the restaurant business next to me and his wife, for instance, let me know that he had built and sold three very successful companies. He wore a heavy rose gold Audemars Piguet watch that he took off and placed next to his plate as he ate. He shook his head dismissively when I asked if he thought the dinner was costly. "We did this to support David," he told me, "we love David. It's not a big deal." And for him, it wasn't. If you consider the value of something as a percentage of overall wealth, then a $5,500 dinner for someone with net assets of $25 million would be like if you or I went to Olive Garden; $5,500 is expensive only to those who can't afford it. For the people inside the dining room, it's just another nice-ish dinner.
Then there is the altogether thornier question as to whether $5,500 is morally permissible. That's some heavy shit, so for help, I called Professor Elizabeth Anderson, author of 1993's Value in Ethics and Economics and founder of the University of Michigan's Philosophy, Politics and Economics program. "The question," Professor Anderson said, "is what those $5,500 could be used for, if not the dinner." What Anderson was suggesting that the proper question to ask isn't whether the goods bought for $5,500 are worth that amount but whether better goods—greater goods?—could have been bought for the same amount. Fifty-five $100 meals, for instance, or 550 $10 meals or 122 donations of $45, the amount to save a child from deadly hunger.
Anderson pointed to the work of philosophers like Princeton's Peter Singer, whose 1972 essay Famine, Affluence and Morality deals with precisely this issue. Writing of the East Bengal famine of 1971, Singer perhaps reaches the predictable conclusion that "the way people in relatively affluent countries react to a situation like that in Bengal cannot be justified; indeed, the whole way we look at moral issues—our moral conceptual scheme—needs to be altered, and with it, the way of life that has come to be taken for granted in our society." That a portion of the proceeds of GourmetFest benefits charities and organizations—like the Carmel Chamber of Commerce—seems unlikely to sway Singer's stern statement.
Roast lamb rack served at dinner | Photo: Courtesy of Moss Media
But, I noted to Anderson, it wasn't simply luxury that the guests were paying for but art. For the one thing that became clear is the combination of artistry and agriculture, history and craft that gave birth to the bottles from which we drank. Also, surely, if only she had seen the squab staring back up at us, she would too note that this wasn't simply dinner but art. To this, however, Anderson had the ready response, "That's the typical response to critique: to turn the luxury consumption into an entire aesthetic experience." Thus, it is that everything from fast cars to a bespoke suit to haute horlogerie to dinners like these cease to be easily evaluated consumer goods and instead enter the nebulous and noble tradition of artistic expression. And only Philistines dismiss the value of art.
Taken to its logical conclusion, even I have a hard time with Singer's argument. Should we all turn into simple-living ascetics, spending only the bare minimum to feed and clothe ourselves? [Singer would say, um, "Yeah, bro, that's exactly what I'm saying."] And surely not all luxury is sinful, right? Isn't it more sinful not to appreciate luxury? Me, getting drunker and shriller to my own mind: There is, I'm sure of it, something good and wonderful about the aesthetic experience of fine dining. All hail Boulud, keeper of the Lyon flame, patron saint of small farmers and basil-fed snails. At least, that's what I thought to myself sipping 1980 Quinta do Noval Nacional port and cutting into a Valrhona chocolate pavé. The dessert was gilded with gold leaf and delicious, but as it dissolved on my tongue, I didn't fully buy my own logic, and the taste was bittersweet indeed.