Getting It and Not Getting It

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When training oneself to eat and to drink, it is best to inhabit a precise financial spot — one should have enough money to pay the tariff, but not so much that he is indifferent to the size of the bill. This is so because modest deprivation leads to experimentation. A rich man never has to choose between an inexpensive main course (braised beef heart for example) paired with a good bottle of wine and a pricier main course with a rather middling bottle; he will simply order the best of everything and in so doing will never know whether he likes beef heart or not. – A. J. Leibling

Item: I have friends who go to Italy all the time, have traveled all over the country, and love to return with tales of white truffle hunts and very special meals — meals where they always meet the chef, and he was “just divine,” and “John, you have to go and we’ll put you in touch, and it will be the best meal you’ve ever had in Rome, Venice, Palermo….” whatever. Within days of returning from one of their trips, they can look me straight in the eye and suggest we go out for some red sauce slop at some terrible local Italian because, and they say this with a straight face, “We really like the food there.”

Item: Dearly departed Robin Leach, who had chefs and sommeliers bowing before him for forty years, always preferred the cheapest, shittiest sauvignon blanc on any wine list.

Item: I recently went to Raku with some folks who raved about the food. (They were not Raku rookies, and we must’ve parked the entire menu on our table.) During our meal, they told me I had  to go to their “favorite place for Japanese” which will “blow me away.” We did go a couple of weeks later and it turned out to be a mediocre sushi bar/Japanese restaurant, that is no different from dozens of other cookie-cutter, Korean-owned, Japanese joints in town. (At the rematch, many of the inventive dishes fell flat and the fish was merely okay. That didn’t keep the price for our omakase from being through the roof.)

Item: I’m friendly with a local mogul who has bucks deluxe — travels to Europe all the time, rents houses for a month in Tuscany, islands in the Mediterranean, hobnobs with chefs, had his wedding in Rome, etc — you know, the usual for a guy scraping by on a couple of mil a year. This guy loves to hold court at one of the oldest, lousiest Italian restaurants in Vegas. Garlic City, I called it. So pungent you can smell it a block away. I ran into him there one time (after losing a bet), and he was beaming at a table filled with his business associates. “John, John! Come over here! Let me introduce you.” After telling everyone what I do as a food writer and joking around for a minute, he pulls me down to him and whispers, “Isn’t the food here great?” To which I replied, “Well, there’s certainly a lot of it.”

Do you know what all of these people have all have in common?

They don’t get it. Never have and never will. No matter how many trips to Europe they take, or so-so sushi meals they have, they are constitutionally incapable of making discerning judgments about food.

Getting it isn’t hard. Anyone can get it, but you have to want to.

Frenchmen think they get it simply by virtue of their being French.

As Joël Robuchon so aptly put it:

Only a small number of French possess refined palates. The French believe they have innate knowledge in the gastronomic domain as in the domain of wines. Whereas nothing is further from the truth. The Japanese (and Swiss for example) show real curiosity; they are very attentive in trying to understand and taste what they are served. That is what refinement is.

New Yorkers think they get pizza, simply because they grew up around a lot of crappy street slices. (Just ask pizza maven John Arena sometime about how often he’s heard the words, “I’m from New York; I know pizza.”)

Los Angelenos think they know tacos.

Bostonians brag about knowing good chowda.

All of them do this because everyone wants to think that they get it — in the same way everyone wants to think they have good taste in clothes or music. (And we all know what we like, so what we like has to be good, right?)

I know my friends above will never get it. Because they all have too much money and they all think having that money gives them discernment….when all it really does is make them lazy.

To truly get it (be it in food, wine, fashion or whatever) you have to, 1) want to get it; and 2) work at getting it. And by “work at getting it” I mean you have to think about things, rather than just constantly pat yourself on the back about how good you’ve got it.

I’m reminded of some rich clients I used to have when I was in private practice. They knew I was into wine and were always asking me what I liked. “Do you prefer Nuits-Saint-Georges or Volnay?” they would ask. “Which vintage should I buy, ‘o5 or ‘o6? Are you a bigger fan of Dujac or Remoissenet?” After dozens of these inquisitions (and precious little sips from their cellars), it became clear they weren’t interested in actually experiencing the pleasure of wine as much as acquiring information about it — for investment or showing off or whatever. There’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom, and they didn’t give two shits about acquiring the latter. (For the record, my answers were: It depends. lay down your ‘o5s, drink the ‘o6s, and either one if you’re pouring.)

Getting it involves passion and study, not just purse. Getting it involves asking a lot of questions, while acknowledging (and remaining comfortable with) how little you know. The reason rich people never get it is because they’d have to admit how stupid they are about the subject at hand. It’s so much easier just to spend a lot and then feel good about your good taste.

Getting it involves insatiable curiosity.

Getting it means being willing to admit your ignorance. All successful people hate to admit they don’t know something — doctors especially so — which is why they’re always pretending to be much smarter than they are.

Not getting it is like listening to  Boccherini and then stating you prefer Death Cab For Cutie.

A lot of people like the idea of getting it much more than the real thing….just as they like the idea of wine much more than the actual product. Tons of people these days (and seemingly every Millennial on the planet) loves the idea of being a foodie, without really wanting to put in the work.

So, you have to ask yourself dear reader: Do you get it or do you just want to pretend you get it?

Are you the type who knows why Raku is so great and its competitors fall so short? Do you actually think about why a wine is good when you sip it? Or do you just remind yourself that it has to be good for the money you paid? And if you’re a younger foodie out there (or a blogger or Yelper), do you base your judgments upon what you know or what you like?

Like I said, there’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom.

And if you’re one of those rich folks, well, that doesn’t mean you can’t get it….but you have to stop using your money as a crutch.

I’m sure there are lots of astute, discriminating gourmets out there who are very wealthy.

I’m just not sure they exist in Las Vegas.

Let’s give Joël the last word on this:

This might surprise you, but the number of those who possess real knowledge and have refined palates is extremely limited. And it has nothing to do with social class. Indeed, people from all stations come to my place, and the least wealthy are far from the least knowledgeable.

7 thoughts on “Getting It and Not Getting It

  1. Excellent read, and the thesis crosses into many endeavors besides food and drink. That noted, Item: While I would prefer a burger from Carson Kitchen or Bobby’s or a number of other joints in LV, you could also find me standing in line at White Castle.

  2. This is one of your best posts. It is sad how people think that just because they have the financial ability to dine at the best restaurants, this must mean they have great taste.

  3. This is an interesting take, and one I’ve thought a lot about both in this and other contexts.

    First, let me start by saying I believe you are factually correct at every turn. What I’m continually debating with myself is, what does it or should it matter? The crux of the matter is that you have rich snobs without discernment looking down on people who don’t have the resources to experience what they have. On the other hand you have poor snobs looking down on the rich folks for being able to experience the best but having no clue whether what they’re experiencing is any good or not. I question whether either group has any real justification to feel superior to the other. Why is it virtuous for someone to roll their eyes because someone who cellars and drinks expensive Bordeauxes likes Olive Garden? Some people aren’t going to “get it” when it comes to food. Some don’t want to “get it”. I don’t really want to go with them to Olive Garden, but if that’s what they like, why should I care?

    I mean, if I know they like Olive Garden, it tells me that I definitely shouldn’t care about their restaurant reviews, but other than that, should it be any skin off my nose? I tend to roll my eyes when someone is drinking Petrus but couldn’t tell the difference in a blind tasting between it and Glen Ellen, but in the case where someone just *likes* Glen Ellen, even if they can afford better, why should that bother me, other than I know to bring my own beverages when I go to their house?

    Sure, *I* believe that food is one of life’s great pleasures, and that there are some things in life that I believe everyone should expend some energy to be informed about, and that food is one of those topics, but why should I project my hobbies onto anyone else, and more to the point, why should anyone else care what I think is worth knowing?

    Yeah, a lot of people won’t get it, but unlike other aspects of life, at least when it comes to food, others’ ignorance won’t actively harm me. So, bearing in mind that I’m not asking this to be insulting, but because I’m genuinely curious if someone has a good answer, to what extent is what you’re saying here important?

  4. What I’ve learned over years of eating at top drawer places, middle of the road places, and bottom of the barrel places is that I get that I don’t get it.

    A couple weeks ago I had a terrific prime rib dinner at the Angry Butcher in Sam’s Town for $17. 12 ounces of very well prepared prime rib, a baked potato, some sauteed green beans, and a decently seasoned garden salad.
    It was far better, in my mind, than my last trip to Del Frisco at 5 times the price.
    I had a better plate of linguini with clam sauce at Nora’s than I had at Allegro in the Wynn. Just my experience and takeaway.
    But, I’ll admit, my palate for both food and wine is probably not as sensitive and discriminating as others.
    So, I never tell anyone they “must try” a specific place. I merely tell them either I enjoyed my experience there or I didn’t.

    What John has hit on in this article for me is something different.
    For many, their belief in the best this and the best that is akin to religion.
    If you think spending $1,000 for a night out satisfies your needs and desires, fine.
    But don’t “sell” me on your knowledge and taste being better than mine.
    Same with religion. Whatever floats your boat is fine by me. But don’t you dare try to “sell” it to me.

    I lived in Asia for 17 years and ate food I loved, but I guarantee you I spent less time in the “trendy” places in any of the countries I visited than I did in places the locals recommended. Did I miss out on a great meal somewhere along the line?
    Maybe, but I have zero regrets about the choices I made.

    I started reading John because I was interested to learn about the wonders of Spring Mountain Road. But I will also admit to having a once a year craving for a simple plate of spaghetti and meatballs with 1,000 bread sticks at Olive Garden.
    I just won’t ever try to sell you on it!

  5. Damn it’s great that you’re back. As an owner of a successful business I can attest to the wisdom of your saying that to get it you must want to and work at it. Work HARD at it. I’d throw in that one must be humble enough to know what one doesn’t know.

    Raku is among my LV faves. And Kabuto and Monta in the same strip mall? Only in LV.

    Heading back next week and hitting L’Atelier and the new Spago and Lotus.

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