In New York, it’s often said that “everyone’s a critic.” The phrase may have had its origins in the theater world but these days is best applied to the city’s thriving restaurant industry. Every New Yorker seems to have a favorite neighborhood dining spot or an opinion on the hottest new place in town. So imagine the chance to try dozens of restaurants in one evening, all in the same location! Last night my wife and I attended “Best of the West”, the fifth annual edition of a culinary tasting event showcasing the finest restaurants on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The event’s honoree was a real critic, and an insatiable one at that, former New York magazine restaurant reviewer Gael Greene (who, if in attendance, kept her wide-brimmed hat pulled down all evening). This is the kind of organized fun that ordinarily I would not be seen dead partaking in, but we had accepted two tickets generously offered to us by a friend. I say “generously” because I believe the offer was a gesture of genuine kindness, though having now successfully survived the evening I am beginning to wonder if the tickets were not offloaded onto our unsuspecting selves by someone who knew what they were otherwise in for.
I worked in the food and wine industry for several years, and when I finally left my feelings could be summed up in one word: relief. That may seem excessive, but last night those feelings came flooding back. I’d seen these kinds of events before, so to an extent I knew the drill. However my initial skepticism had been softened by my optimistic wife who insisted we’d have a good time, or at the very least a free dinner. I reluctantly obliged, but my fears appeared to have been justified when we arrived to find a line of people snaking halfway down 77th Street. Strips of reinforced fluorescent paper were slapped on our wrists and we sheepishly joined the back of the queue. Judging by the size of the line and the ages of the eager people in front of us I presumed that a Duran Duran reunion tour was also kicking off inside the jumbo wedding tent that had been erected for the occasion in a school playground on Columbus Avenue.
That we were clearly among the youngest attendees was no surprise since tickets for the event started at a staggering $125 per person. Surely others had also been given free passes. How else to explain the crowd of people apparently content to drop that kind of cash in order to sample dozens of two-bite portions, when a proper meal at a nice restaurant could be enjoyed sitting at a table for considerably less? I soon realized the event was the perfect marriage of big city salaries and suburban tastes (or at least where the two come to mingle). The New Taste of the Upper West Side website offers the following advice: “For those who would like one-on-one encounters with the star-chefs before the evening revs up, we recommend VIP tickets.” Those go for two-hundred bucks a pop, but I’m not sure what the extra seventy-five buys you. Just what exactly does a “one-on-one encounter” with a star-chef entail? Does he take you back to his kitchen and show you his utensil drawer?
As we were herded into the vast feeding pen (as my wife so accurately described it), stewards took wine glasses equipped with blue lanyards and placed them around our necks, presumably so we could practice the sophisticated art of hands-free drinking. From the other side of the playground’s chain-link fence I watched ordinary people going about their business in the warm May evening, on their way home from the park, or on their way out to dinner. I longed to escape and join them, but the line of cops to my left prevented me from making any sudden moves. I lowered my shades and tentatively entered the arena.
“Arena” is the most appropriate word for the venue, for this was not a restaurant, nor even a party, but rather a barbaric spectacle worthy of Ancient Rome’s notorious appetite for food and flesh. The object of the game is to sample every one of the forty-odd dishes being frantically prepared by the overworked sous-chefs hunched over fold-out tables. Faced with this incohesive smorgasboard, my wife and I took one look at each other and decided to bend the rules slightly, heading straight for the wine and liquor stand. Even at this early stage it seemed excessive alcohol intake was our only hope of salvaging the evening.
I was on my third Aperol Spritz by the time I managed to get near any food. Pushing through a pack of salivating young women in heels I was able eventually to scrounge a small plate containing two sushi rolls, which we considered a satisfactory appetizer. The next two restaurants were both serving ravioli, or as the heavyset man standing two inches behind me called them, “ravioles”. I had initially planned to plot my consumption strategically, so as to replicate as closely as possible a true dining experience. Clearly this would be an impossible task, and my plan was hastily discarded as it became evident I’d be better off taking whatever I could get. Every stand was occupied by a clamoring mob of plastic-fork wielders or an impatiently indulgent queue matched in length only by the line for the portable toilets (that’s what you get for $125). Any chance of deriving any pleasure whatsoever from what dishes I was able to sample was rendered an impossibility by the entirely unpleasant setting. I don’t care which celebrity chef made it, nothing tastes good when served on a plastic saucer and eaten while standing next to a large recycling bin.
The generally hellish atmosphere was made worse by the repulsive Europop din that pulsated incessantly from all corners of the giant marquee. When we had arrived, Joe Bataglia & The New York Big Band were midway through a cheery set of standards, but they’d swiftly taken a break, possibly due to general nausea. When I got to their end of the room I leaned over towards a saxophone player and implored him to begin their second set. Slumped in his chair, the aging musician gently lifted his hands as if to speak, then lowered them again and stared at the floor. I think he’d lost the will to live.
By now the music had been blocked out anyway by the licking of fingers and loosening of belts, as unsated customers gorged themselves in a vain attempt to ensure they were getting their money’s worth. Meanwhile, I was bombarded by inane chatter at every turn: “Omigod, this is like the best lobster roll ever!” or “Have you tried the meatballs? They’re a-mmayyyyy-zing!” The event’s website had promised “a multitude of tastings to tantalize, stimulate and motivate discerning palates.” I was motivated alright – but only to get the hell out of there. Unfortunately discerning palates rarely remain such once the term “all you can eat” has been released into an air of bloodthirstiness. I have no doubt more food was wasted than consumed last night amidst the bacchanalia.
To my bitter disappointment I didn’t spot one celebrity chef. How a celebrity chef differs from a regular chef I do not know for sure, but I think it has something to do with the size of his hat. That such a category of stardom could exist is utterly ridiculous to me, but wholly indicative of America’s twisted and complicated relationship with food. Such is this country’s insistence on equating taste and eating habits with class and education that ordinary food, the kind the rest of the world prepares and enjoys on a daily basis without any song and dance, has been elevated to something that only a television personality or top chef can possibly create. Consequently all food is expected to fall into one of two categories: “Ewwww…Gross!” or the aforementioned “A-mmayyyyy-zing!” Good food is not art nor rocket science — if it were either it is unlikely the human race would have advanced far beyond the Neolithic Era. Nor is it supposed to be a substitute for sexual satisfaction (although my wife remains convinced that none of these so-called gourmands could have been getting much action elsewhere).
Grabbing a handful of mini-pastries from the dessert zone we made our escape by heading for a side exit, just as the band returned to play “Copacabana”. The fading daylight caught me by surprise, piercing my weary eyes. We’d been inside the tent for a total of forty-five minutes: two had involved eating, the remaining forty-three were spent being shoved in the back. Having failed to find a (possibly non-existent) coffee stand we walked a few blocks down Columbus and bought our own, still reacclimatizing to the civilization we’d abandoned less than an hour earlier. We then sat in the park and sipped it as the night grew dark, still in a state of culture shock, horrified and bewildered by the grotesque scenes just witnessed. As I wrestled to remove my fluorescent wristband, my stomach began to feel like it was digesting a lead weight, even though I barely recalled eating anything besides a greasy tuna-fish slider. For the next hour the pastries sat untouched on the bench beside us, and remained wrapped for the duration of the seventy-block walk home. Frankly, I’d lost my appetite.
Frans Snyders, “Still Life with Fruit, Dead Game, Vegetables, a Live Monkey, Squirrel and Cat” (before 1657).