What You're Really Paying For With Culinary Exclusivity

Why do we have this urge to eat food that nobody else is eating?
11/14/2012 11:59 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Does a slab of ribs from a dirt-road smokehouse taste better if you got to it before Anthony Bourdain told the whole world it was good? If you eat huitlachoche-stuffed rabbit leg on a bed of tortilla puree, but forgot to upload it onto Instagram, did you really eat it? I've seen the best minds of my generation lured by pop-up restaurants, underground supper clubs, and six-seat chef counters. They've been drawn to the allure of something exclusive, something small, and something that might not ever happen again. But why do we have this urge to eat food that nobody else is eating?

I've done these things, but as someone who has worked in a variety of areas in the food industry, I have found my desires changing over the years. Snagging a table for the opening of a hot new restaurant no longer interests me. I'd rather go there three months later when the meal is the same price, but most of the kinks have been worked out. And what about pop-up dinners, when some big name chef is futzing around with new ideas? While some of the dishes could be great, others could be a huge mess. So if you charge me 45 bucks to be a high-class guinea pig, I'm excited. But charge me a 150 bucks? There are a lot of very good, fully functioning restaurants where I'd rather spend that kind of dough.

But chef counters, it seems, can be different. In many cases, they're really just tiny restaurants inside of other restaurants. At the really good ones -- run by guys like David Chang and Josᅢᄅ Andrᅢᄅs -- they do a ton of work to put together carefully thought-out menus. In those cases, which we discuss in The Food Feeder episode below, it is, or should be, about the quality of the food rather than some perverse pleasure brought on by an unfounded feeling of superiority. Your discriminative menu shouldn't taste better to you just because some schmuck at a regular table is eating a goddamn pork chop.

To me, it's about having a good meal. Do your friends really care if you ate Ricardo Zarate's chicken hearts in a basement dining room before he got around to serving it in his new location? Maybe they do. But as a good friend often tells me, rare doesn't mean good -- it just means rare. The most exclusive liquor in the world is likely the one some Appalachian mountain man made in his bathtub and never shared with anyone else. Does that make it better than a bottle of commercial bourbon? Probably not, but for some people, the mystery is worth the up-charge. Oh, but if anybody out there has a line on some black market hillbilly mountain hooch, I would love to hear about it. Check out the latest episode of The Food Feeder, where I discuss chef counters, beer made with bull testicles, and much more.