When we eat at a trendy new restaurant, we want more than good food, says a British philosopher, who suggests we are more interested in absorbing its values and be seen as sophisticated as the restaurant. And you thought it was only about eating. By Pierre Brouard
Is eating out about food or Freud? Well both, says British philosopher Alain de Botton, who applies his discipline to everyday life. In this case, eating out.
In his book on how we devour news, not just food, De Botton says we want consumer experiences, not only because of the quick rush buying brings us, but to fulfil “an unconscious desire for some form of psychological transformation”.
So eating out, especially the variety that appeals to foodies, isn’t just about tasting the grilled salmon that everyone’s been raving about at that new bistro down the road. Nor is it only about the mousses, gels and foams that mimic the efforts of an elusive molecular gastronome. No, De Botton says we want to “absorb the values of the restaurant itself”. We want to become like it. The dishes, the décor, the service all say something about the restaurant and we hope to imbibe some of this when we dig into the 300g grain-fed (and well-aged) steak with the signature sauce the venue is known for.
I think this is especially true for restaurants at the higher end of the dining spectrum. Let’s be honest here: when we go to a restaurant known for it’s sophistication and elegance, we dress up just a little more (in Durban this might run to wearing sneakers instead of slip slops) and we have a sense of anticipation about how the maître d’ will greet us and show us to our table with a flourish.
The rituals of fine dining send a message about attention to detail, about dishes well thought through, about ingredients finely sourced. And we secretly congratulate ourselves for being discerning, for being on the inside track, for securing a booking. Like the restaurant, we are smart and exclusive, and for a few hours of expensive pleasure we can forget our ordinary existence.
I’m not dissing fine dining – heaven knows I’ve done my fair share of it – but there have been times when I’ve wondered if I’ve been more interested in the restaurant’s reputation than the actual food. Or if I’m really happy about a meal which, while lovely, has left me significantly poorer and curiously unsatisfied. Perhaps I wanted to boast to my friends that I had indeed tried that expensive, and heart-attack inducing, 12 course tasting menu. Because it says I am a hip, trendy foodie.
Now we Instagram our food, not just eat it, and so we show the world exactly how smart and on trend we are. Never mind that the food gets cold while everyone snaps away before you mess with the “plating” (which apparently has moved from stacking to smearing, which is an unfortunate word in my view).
We all want a nice eating out experience and there is something really satisfying about getting all the components rights: good company, great venue, warm staff, innovative and delicious food. And yes we are psychologically transformed by this – many pleasure centres are stimulated and all seems well for a while.
But what can other dining or food venue experiences say about us?
- Your local sports bar: less of an emphasis on food and more about wanting a sense of camaraderie with fellow sports lovers. For a few hours you dream about being an Olympian or running out onto a sports pitch to the roar of a home crowd:
- That coffee bar in a re-purposed warehouse: You know your trends and your coffee. You care less about décor – in fact you are anti “décor” and enjoy the fellowship of other copywriters in training. You feel your best work is done on a single-origin, fair-trade coffee.
- A smart new eatery, part of a franchise from a local sporting hero, in a 5 star hotel: you are discerning and worldly, but you haven’t forgotten your roots and you are not very pretentious. Yes it’s a bunny chow you’re eating, but the meat is a lamb shank! You make jokes with the serving staff and love being South African because “we can all laugh together”.
- An airy café with a groaning selection of deli goods, overlooking an indigenous coastal bush north of Durban: you can’t be bothered to travel to Durban because “it’s all here” and so you signal that you value local and shun big city airs and graces. The food is dull but the owners are good people who love their customers, and you feel good about supporting them.
- A national restaurant chain whose singing staff are better than the fare they serve: you don’t like surprises and you are down to earth. Value for money is your thing, which is fair enough, but you also like the fact that kids are welcome. You like kids, but you especially like that there is a kiddie area with a jungle gym, so you feel like a good parent and you get some quiet time. Win win!