Julian Baggini Aeon Magazine
We have taken our places. This evening’s performance, sold out months in advance, is about to begin. The programme, handwritten in a traditional script on a rolled parchment, tied with string, tells us to expect a prologue, two chapters and an epilogue, without interval. I’m nervous with anticipation but I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that it’s not because I am waiting for the curtain to rise on a Wagner opera or a Shakespeare play. I’m actually waiting for my dinner.
This is no ordinary meal, however. It’s the 19-course tasting menu at one of the world’s best restaurants, Frantzén/Lindeberg in Stockholm. Ranked number 20 in Restaurant magazine’s influential annual survey, it earned two Michelin stars in its first two years and is almost certain to get a third. Food doesn’t get much, if any, better than this.
Yet there seems something wrong about the effort and expense that fine dining like this involves. And when the average bill is the stiffest in the Nordic region, around €350 (or £280) per head, that unease can turn to moral outrage. What on earth could justify spending so much money on what is ultimately just fuel for humans, especially in a world where almost one billion people still go hungry every day?
Answering these questions was the main reason I was at the table at all. I was writing a book on food and philosophy and felt I needed to experience some of the extremes of food luxury. Of course, I also love eating, so it was a wonderful excuse. But I really don’t think I could have justified the reservation without some rationale other than pure pleasure. After all, this was going to be the most expensive three hours of my life.
Earlier, I had interviewed the head chef Björn Frantzén and he had played down expectations. He told me that he likes eating the sausages sold at football matches. Also that ‘I know there’s so many things wrong with it, but I think McDonald’s is nice’. And that ‘At the end of the day, let’s not forget, it’s a restaurant, you go to a restaurant because normally you’re hungry and it’s just food.’ As it turned out, he could not have been more wrong. This is not just food, and hunger is not the reason to eat it.
Take, for instance, the bone-marrow with caviar and smoked parsley. Delicious but, for all that, you might say it’s just an ephemeral experience. The obvious rejoinder is that of course it’s ephemeral: all experiences are; life itself is. The difference is that unlike, say, opera, when you are eating food you can never forget that fact. Certain aesthetic experiences of high art create a sense of transcendence, a feeling that you are somehow transported beyond the merely mortal realm to taste something of the divine. Indeed, that is precisely why some people believe art is so important.
I would argue the other way. The problem with art is that it can fool us into forgetting that we are mortal, flesh-and-blood creatures. The culinary arts, on the other hand, remind us that we are creatures of bone and guts, even as they delight us with creations no other animal could ever produce. Fine food is about the aesthetic of the immanent, not the transcendent. A mouthful of Frantzén’s diver scallops, truffle purée and bouillons transports you to heaven while never letting you forget it is a perishable place on Earth. Through experiences like these you come to know the potential intensity of being alive, what it means, as Thoreau recommended, to suck out all the marrow of life.
So yes, eating is ephemeral, but some experiences are so extraordinary they are worth it for their own sakes. Life is not just about such peak moments but it is very much enriched by them. ‘Mere experiences’ can also provide a kind of first-hand knowledge of the heights to which skill, flair and determination can take us. Perhaps it doesn’t matter which of the myriad forms of human excellence we most enjoy.
You have to be obsessive to push your cooking to such limits of originality and ingenuity, always at the edge, looking to create ‘the perfect restaurant, the perfect service, the perfect plate, the perfect menu’. To pursue excellence so doggedly, the restaurant has to come first, certainly above creaming off profit. ‘Let’s say the average spend here is, to make it easy, €350,’ says Frantzén. ‘It costs us €349 to sell for €350. Everything goes back to the customer. Everything. Our margin is almost zero.’
Even if the economics justify the expense there is still, of course, a great deal of conspicuous consumption in high-end dining: showing off, being seen, being served by the servile and paying over the odds to do so. But the same is certainly true of opera. Any expensive art is going to attract a mixture of the true connoisseur and the conning poseur. However, this kind of restaurant is not just for show. You can’t get away with serving inferior food on silver platters as you might once have done. Frantzén and Lindeberg define the mood of the restaurant as ‘casual elegance’: focused on the cooking rather than the prestige the customer can glean from being seen there. This is progressive, not decadent.
The meal I had was without doubt the most incredible eating experience of my life. So many dishes were outstanding that there came a point at which the very word was meaningless. How can more things stand out than not? Perhaps that’s why, for all the wonder of the evening, it really would be wrong to do this kind of thing too often. The extraordinary should not be allowed to become ordinary, no matter how good it is.
There is also an inherent risk in splashing out at a really expensive restaurant, one that worried me when I bit into the very first dish of the evening, beef with lichens and ash. It was pretty tasty, but nothing amazing. Taste is so personal that you could save up for what is supposed to be one of the great gastronomic experiences in the world and be left cold. But again, the same can be true of great art, which you can admire without loving. As Frantzén said, at even the best restaurant ‘I might not like everything. I can leave and say, “It’s not actually my cup of tea, but they’re fucking great.”’
So as the bill arrived and, along with it, a wax-sealed brown envelope containing a typewritten copy of the menu with a list of the wines we have drunk, two questions arose. Could I justify the cost? And was it worth it? Despite the case I’ve made, I’m not sure I can confidently answer the first in the affirmative. But to the second, my heart and head both scream yes. It’s a contradiction some will find easier to digest than others.