Midas is in the kitchen. A 24k gold plated tomahawk gleams, with only the long bone handle exposed. Pierced with a knife, the thick, browned slab turns out to be real meat, unevenly pinked and shrouded in fat. Steam rises, as if from an animal that has just been slaughtered.
This steak —trademark of Turkish chef Nusret Gokce, better known as Salt Bae— appears in a video that went viral in November, in which Gokce himself delivers the golden calf to the table of General To Lam, Vietnam’s Minister of Public Security, at the steakhouse Nusr-Et, in London.
The chef slices the meat and taps the slices, making them topple over like dominoes. Then he takes one of the slices with the tip of the knife and extends his arm towards the guest of honor. The general opens his mouth and accepts the morsel as if it were no more than his due.
The video was posted on Gokce’s TikTok account and deleted shortly afterwards, but that didn’t stop copies of it from circulating on social media in Vietnam. According to receipts that circulated online of other diners’ meals at Nusr-Et, a golden tomahawk it was costing between £850 and £1,450 at the time, roughly $1,155 to $1,975.
The amount is significantly higher than Lam’s official salary, which would be US$ 675 per month, and the average monthly income per capita in Vietnam is about $180.
There were hints of possible corruption: who paid for the meal? Where did the money come from? But some people found the scene offensive as a matter of principle — to see a Communist Party official, a champion of the proletariat, cook such an opulent dinner in a restaurant.
Others drew attention to the triumphant display of materialism just after General Lam’s pilgrimage to the tomb of Karl Marx, the revolutionary philosopher “based on whose theories the Vietnamese people overthrew systems of oppression ruled by colonialists and imperialists,” according to a government press release.
The criticism seems fair. Government officials should hold themselves to a higher ethical standard than ordinary people. The issue of corruption is of particular concern in a country that is known to repress dissent.
(Actually, dissent is the province of that particular minister, and shortly after the golden beef incident, Danang police questioned a noodle vendor who posted a video of himself imitating Salt Bae’s operatic gestures.)
But is the crime here — if there is a crime, in an ethical if not a legal sense — mere hypocrisy? Is shelling out a few thousand dollars on a single meal acceptable only to those who openly embrace capitalism, as long as they don’t pretend to care about the difference between rich and poor?
In the fall of 1975, when New York was on the verge of bankruptcy, in a year of austerity measures that included mass layoffs of civil servants and radical cuts in social services and public safety, the New York Times ran a front-page story about a dinner for two that cost $4,000—more than $20,000 in today’s money.
It wasn’t breaking news, it wasn’t a denunciation story or a critique of leaders who had strayed from the good path — it was a light-hearted piece by the newspaper’s food editor, Craig Claiborne, about a night out at a high-end Parisian restaurant. pattern in which he tasted 31 dishes (lobster, foie gras, pheasant, truffles) and nine different wines.
It’s worth noting that Claiborne didn’t spend his own money, or not much: he had won a free dinner at any price, paid for by American Express, in a philanthropic auction in which he bid $300 (about $1,500 in today).
Only then did he start researching the most expensive meal he could find. We might describe him as a sensible consumer who sought maximum return on his investment, but the readers who flooded the newspaper with angry letters thought differently.
“Repulsive,” pronounced one of them. “Decadent in the beast,” wrote another. “Immoral.” “Wasteful.” “A joke in bad taste.” “Totally wrong.”
Even the Vatican would have given its opinion: “Scandalous”. Claiborne replied that he was sorry they thought so, but would they have minded just as much if he had gotten a Mercedes-Benz instead of dinner?
It is true that nobody goes to the streets to protest just because of the lack of a Mercedes. Under prevailing capitalist doctrine, most of us accept that we don’t all have access to the same things; some people drive big cars, others ride in dilapidated cars, still others make do with bicycles or walk.
We’ve been taught not to denounce luxury items but to covet them, on the theory that if we work hard enough, one day we too can be behind the wheel of that AMG One.
At the same time, we defend mobility as a social good. That’s why our taxes finance public transport, however inefficient it may be. We could argue that the food is the same thing.
Some people feast on ortolans—songbirds soaked in Armagnac and eaten whole, with all their little bones crunchy—while others have to content themselves with thin mush. The government intervenes as necessary, offering assistance in the form of food stamps, food banks and popular restaurants, each with its own rules and limitations.
But the food integrates a different order. It is a basic need, recognized as such in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
According to United Nations estimates, in 2020 2.37 billion people —nearly a third of the world’s population— suffered periods without having anything to eat or without regular access to nutrients, while 22% of children up to five years of age showed stunted growth .
So to view food as just another product, something whose price is determined by the market, being driven up by the vagaries of demand rather than need, is to accept that some people will run out of food, get sick or starve. It is allowing it to happen.
So there is a crime, yes: people are starving or becoming malnourished. But we have not yet established a correlation between one person’s indulgence and another’s suffering. NYT restaurant critic Pete Wells noted that he feels a pang of shame when he eats exorbitantly priced meals.
The feeling is that it is wrong to spend freely on something as ephemeral as fine dining while other people are starving. But is it? And if so, why, beyond a sense of basic decency and solidarity with less fortunate people?
But to leave it up to the individual to resolve, through abstinence from certain pleasures, something that is in reality a systemic problem, is to sidestep the causes of the problem.
Living within a system involves complicity with the system to some extent, but choosing not to go to a high-end restaurant isn’t necessarily going to improve anyone’s life unless you donate the money you would have spent there to charity.
Of course, from a utilitarian point of view, that’s exactly what you should do: take the money you would have spent on foie gras and distribute it in a way that maximizes the number of people who will benefit.
From a religious point of view, it would be better to sell everything you own and give the money to the poor. But we’re not talking about saints here, just ordinary people trying to be ethical. Is it a sin to eat a little caviar every now and then? What debt do we owe others when we eat?
Eating is an intrinsically selfish act. We eat to stay alive. and often we eat other living beings, ending the lives of those we see as inferior (animals) to further our own.
As the American Leon R. Kass, a specialist in bioethics, highlighted in “The Hungry Soul” (1994), to eat is a transitive verb: “To eat necessarily involves eating something”. This thing ceases to be itself when we define it as food, and once consumed, it is absorbed into us and becomes us.
That’s what makes eating so powerful as a metaphor. We see what we do to other beings, so we fear being devoured ourselves after death—becoming worm food, as they say.
That fate is made bearable by certain cosmologies that insist that our true selves are not limited by materiality—that we possess a soul that persists after our flesh has been rudely consumed. Fasting is a form of purification in a religious context, but it can also be seen as a refusal to be part of the system.
Wait a minute—did I reason my head into a corner? Does that mean we can’t eat anything, or at least we can’t eat without feeling guilty?
A large part of morality consists of legislating pleasure, either because it distracts you from what really matters or because it harms others. The damage to the other, in the case of a sumptuous meal, is not yet clear.
When we report the price of golden beef, are we trying to shame the diners into making amends by donating an equivalent sum to the poor? (At the other end of the argument, there are those who criticize people living on public assistance for occasionally using their food stamps to buy crab legs or birthday cakes, as if only the rich deserve such pleasures.)
Is indignation a genuine weapon, an attempt to disrupt and correct the system, or the most we can hope for is a little more awareness of the world’s ills and gratitude for our own privileges and good fortune, as when parents tell their children to clean up their dishes because people are starving in other parts of the world? Is it all performative?
Looking at the issue from another angle, the possibly undesirable truth is that food must be expensive, or at least more expensive than it is, given the toll agriculture places on the environment and the labor required to plant and cultivate it. harvest.
Normally a third of a restaurant’s income is spent on ingredients and another third to pay its employees a salary that should at least be enough to live reasonably. There is also the issue of the value of truly exceptional food, food that is testament to a chef’s creativity or mastery. Is this not worthy of reward?
Perhaps it’s harder to justify the $200 fries made from potatoes drizzled with Dom Pérignon, fried in goose fat and sprinkled with gold dust and black truffles, which may have been invented just to get the attention of the Guinness Book of World Records. World Cups (as indeed it was), or the $10,000 pizza, billed as “the most expensive in the world”, topped with lobster tails and three types of caviar, served in the privacy of your own home accompanied by Rémy Martin and Krug.
But perhaps this excess should just make us laugh. For the real problem with gold-plated steak is that edible gold has no flavor. It’s pure garnish, plus it’s a cheap ingredient—it costs around $2 a sheet. We condemn, but might just as well scoff, wealthy diners who are seduced by shiny things—who think that just because the price is high, they are getting something special.