To call oneself a foodie has become an important marker of self-regard among a certain kind of person for the last ten years or so, and nowhere is this more the case in New York, where transcendental dining experiences are available around every corner at least, available if you can pay for them, and if youre willing to stand in the line that is wrapping around the corner.
The news that Tim Ho Wan, the worlds cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, will soon open an outpost in Manhattan will be music to the ears of many of these self-anointed foodies. And why not: theres no doubt that increasing the accessibility of delicious cuisine is a positive thing. But Im still unconvinced that it will be a reason to spend precious minutes of life queueing.
When it comes to discerning the quality of food, Im convinced that many people are suffering from quite a lot of delusion that we really know the difference between dishes that are great and those that are exceptional. Most of the time, were just feeding our need for status as much as our craving for calories and flavor.
In a past life, I had the incredible fortune to test this thesis in a number of glamorous destinations: for a little while in the mid-noughties, I was a conference travel journalist someone who reported on places where people who organize conferences, well, organize conferences. It was at once the worst and best job of my life.
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It was the worst because it meant that I had to spend hours trailing around conference centers saying things like how many chairs are in this room? but it was the best because the rooms with chairs in them were in marvelous places, like Mauritius. And in addition to counting chairs, I would often be taken round some of the destinations best restaurants, in the hopes that my reviews would lead the people who organize conferences to send their VIPs to dine.
The job didnt actually pay too well; I mostly ate oatmeal when I was not eating comped meals in Michelin-starred establishments. I must never forget this! Id think, chewing my way through several courses at a branch of Jean-Georges across a candlelit table from a hotel manager who talked at me for the full two hours, but the truth is of course I did. For while Im sure that the food was extraordinary (I do vaguely recall some cheesecake-y dessert, and also a deep-fried bread roll) the evening was not.
I certainly recognize that there are many people in this world with far more refined palates than mine the scion of Scots and Jews, I grew up eating blandly, bagels and oatmeal, borscht that came from a jar and unsalted boiled potatoes. But I remain suspicious, for all that it is fashionable to lay claim to discerning tastes, that the best and most memorable meals that we consume are the ones that are accompanied by the best people.
Id rather chomp on a stale crust of bread with a good friend than endure six gourmet courses with cool strangers any day. In a double-blind taste test, those of us who can taste the difference between a Michelin star and a clever home cook are rare, but no blindfold can stop us from differentiating good and bad company. Or from knowing that its terrible to be hungry and standing in a line.