Sunday, February 13, 2011

Top table

Because I’ve spent a big chunk of the past few weeks going to fancy-schmancy restaurants (I know, I know, pity me), I do find myself pondering even more deeply than usual the precise methods that allow us to identify some things (food, books, music, shoes, whatever) as just that little bit better than something else in the same category. Of course, ultimately it’s subjective, but equally, sometimes you don’t just *think* it or *feel* it, you know it. I’m thinking of two restaurants in particular, which for reasons of personal safety I’ll call X and Y. Both have hugely talented chefs, pay top money for the best ingredients and have helpful, charming, well-informed staff. And neither, needless to say, is exactly inexpensive.

So why do I know in my bones that X is better than Y? It’s something to do with the service: when a waiter at Y brings you a dish, the whole process is meticulously choreographed and scripted. I’m sure the staff at X have equally rigorous training, but it doesn’t show; or rather, you can’t see how it’s done. You can believe they’re serving you because they want to, because the transaction brings them as much pleasure as it does you. This may, of course, be a cruel illusion, but its one that is expertly sustained throughout the meal.

I could argue that it’s a matter of class, but that’s a pretty loaded word, even more so in a hierarchical country such as Thailand than in the West. On the other hand, I’ve heard Americans use “classy” to describe someone who not only knows what fork to use, but also helps old ladies across the road. Maybe that’s more like it. OK, a brief anecdote that clarifies why restaurant X is classy. A few years ago, a group of wealthy Chinese businessmen dined there. At one point, one of them snapped his fingers to summon a waiter. The waiter began to respond, but the maître d interposed himself, appeared at the businessman’s side and asked: “I’m sorry, sir, have you lost your dog?”

Of course, it’s very easy to turn this into a declaration that a certain kind of person isn’t allowed to play with the pretty, sparkly trappings of high living or high culture. From the New Yorker a couple of months back, Kelefa Sanneh discusses Jay-Z’s book Decoded:
One day four years ago, Jay-Z was reading The Economist when he came across an article bearing the heading “Bubbles and Bling.” The article was about Cristal, the expensive champagne that figured in the rhymes of Jay-Z and other prominent rappers. In the article, Frédéric Rouzaud, the managing director of the winery behind Cristal, was asked whether these unsought endorsements might hurt his brand. “That’s a good question, but what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it,” he said, adding, slyly, “I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.” Jay-Z was irritated enough that he released a statement vowing never to drink Cristal again, and he started removing references to Cristal from his old lyrics during concerts. (He eventually switched his endorsement to Armand de Brignac.) In Jay-Z’s view, Rouzaud had not only insulted hip-hop culture; he had violated an unspoken promotional arrangement. “We used their brand as a signifier of luxury and they got free advertising and credibility every time we mentioned it,” he writes. “We were trading cachet.” (Actually, the book, not free of typos, says “cache.”)
It’s that last sentence that really puts the knife in. The problem with Jay-Z isn’t that he’s black, or a rapper (Sanneh is a black hip-hop fan), or even that he’s so crass as to discuss the mechanics of product placement in the open. And the matter of whether he can tell Cristal from Krug in a blind tasting is left unraised. Sanneh’s complaint is that he can’t be arsed to hire a decent proof-reader, which betrays a lack of respect for his reader. Not classy.

To be fair, in Jay-Z’s celebrity world, one might have to trade class – however you define it – for credibility. His latest protégé, Hugo, has raised a few eyebrows, bluegrass reimaginings of hip-hop million-sellers not necessarily being what you’d expect from the English-educated spawn of Thai aristocracy. I met him at a party a few weeks ago (Hugo, not Mr Zed); he’s frightfully well-spoken, far posher than I am. I didn’t check on his spelling skills, but I bet he’d never snap his fingers at a waiter.


Billy said...

From my experience in working in kitchens (not as a waiter myself, and in definately non-classy places) is that wait staff have a lot of supressed rage. When they come into the kitchen and they're away from the customers they can see what they really feel.

Which of course reminds me of the legendary rudeness of the staff at the Wong Kei. "They're really rude in there," a friend. "They're not," I replied. "They're honest, they don't pretend to like you."

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Oh well, it's all moneystrocracy now.

Added class costs you extra.

Tim F said...

There's honest and there's honest, Billy. Wong Kei is honesty with Tourette’s.

And that class can be yours, Laura, for the cost of a small contribution to Tory Party funds.