Does luxury always mean quality? Thailand’s chefs weigh in on the debate about the real meaning of luxury
Caviar. Foie gras. Wagyu. Truffle. Lobster. The list goes on.
With increasing frequency, fanned by the viral flames of social media, these items appear on the fine china and starched white tablecloths of fine dining and not so fine establishments the world over. Many of us grew up believing these luxurious foods were synonymous with decadence, reserved for the famous and privileged. Who else dreamed of a tuxedo-clad waiter with white gloves holding a silver salver of tiny toasts and shimmery fish eggs with a generous side of arrogance, the only type money could buy?
As demands grew, many inferior substitutes for these ‘fine’ products began to rear their mainstream heads on the menus of restaurant chains and the hotels’ Sunday buffet lines as well as the allegedly more up-market venues. Faced with everyday punters desperate to infiltrate the world of Oprah and opulence, restaurants started to source and serve ‘poor man’s’ alternatives. Foie gras of ambiguous origins, pan-seared and masked with viscous cherry sauce, or ‘langostino’ unashamedly labelled as ‘lobster’ have crept onto menus. Others list ‘truffle’ yet fail to mention the words ‘summer’, ‘faux’ or ‘farmed’ and still command a hefty price for being showily shaved onto pasta, despite an aroma that resembles a pedestrian mushrooms gone rancid.
The desire for luxury items has resulted in sustainable inventions like vegetarian caviar, created from the spherification of seaweed algae to mimic the fishy taste of legit caviar. And then there’s the scientifically tweaked ‘Impossible Meat’, a plant-based heme which is made via the fermentation of genetically engineered yeast (and incidentally often sold at a eye-watering mark-up that approaches wagyu).
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the de-gentrification (read: hipsterfication) of formerly fine foods, like the lobster roll in a brioche bun and caviar on, well, just about anything.
In a bid to understand where luxury truly stands today from the minds of people who actually create gastronomic dishes, I decided to ask some of Thailand’s most notable chefs about what luxury produce means to them. The answers may just surprise you. Spoiler: it’s not about the caviar.
“Anything can be luxurious,” says Arnaud Dunand-Sauthier of Le Normandie in the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. “It just depends on the way you cook it and present it. For me, a real organic product vegetable or meat is a luxury. Of course I use lobster, caviar and truffle but actually I am also using short ribs, mackerel, sardines and mussels. French tradition is based on the best products, not the most expensive.”
“No. I don’t consider those items luxury,” Deepanker Khosla of urban-farming Haoma states. “Caviar is highly unsustainable. Truffles are overpriced mushrooms and there is an ever-growing fake industry. Luxury dining to me, in terms of produce, is making produce grown in the region and consumed in the region using high standards of sustained biodynamic and organic means of production. This is the luxury of nature, luxury of perseverance, luxury of making an effort to save our planet.”
Jim Ophorst of PRU Restaurant in the Trisara Phuket, “There are classic chefs who prefer to use those ingredients because
it’s their style. You have other chefs who prefer to cook with simpler ingredients. For me, it is something that you can get as
fresh as possible and delivered to your place daily. It doesn’t matter if this is caviar or a carrot. We have a dish on the menu that is based on just a carrot. We grow the carrot on our own so we really can get the highest quality available.”
“There should be no produce that is better than any other,” states Jutamas ‘Som’ Theantae of the soon-to-reopen Karmakamet Conveyance. “A banana at a banana shop is as valuable as some other ingredients like caviar in a restaurant, which is categorised as a rare and luxury ingredients. Why are we going out of our way to satisfy ourselves to search for unnecessary ingredients, growing and farming unnecessary things or destroying something to get something on our table?”