While we Australians like to pride ourselves on our egalitarianism and ‘tall poppy syndrome’ certainly permeates our culture, there’s a certain part of the Australian character that revels in a bit of wank.
That bougie tendency is perhaps most obvious when it comes to the Australian food scene. For every family-owned bánh mì joint or sunbaked Red Rooster drive-thru, you’ve got scores of unintelligible French menu options, $28 espressos or fame-crazed #couscousforcomment influencers (to say nothing of the status-obsessed venues that cater to their toxicity). Australia’s fine dining culture is one that often encourages an unholy melange of privilege and impertinence.
We take this culture with us when we travel overseas too. For all our gushing over the perceived ‘authenticity’ of street food or our supposedly thrifty national character, we more often than not equate a high price or fancy location with a memorable experience. But money isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to food – far from it, pre-eminent Australian food critic and television personality Matt Preston shared with DMARGE exclusively.
The well-travelled gourmet, who’s dined everywhere from Noma in Copenhagen to Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, says that “ambience is crucial but that dockside grill with the plastic tables in Portugal had a far more evocative ambience than many posh places.”
“I think the price of [a] meal is only important in that it is relative… and how much of your weekly wage it represents. A meal that costs a week’s wages needs to be memorable and special. In the very best places, it is – less so in the second top tier… There is however often a law of diminishing returns at play as you migrate up the price points.”
To put it simply, we put too much emphasis on the cost of a dish. The reality is that you eventually get to the point where spending more money won’t necessarily guarantee you have a better experience, or at least might only offer you an incrementally better experience. Too often, we fool ourselves into thinking that a food experience is better than it really was just because we had to pay for the privilege.
To use a car analogy, the highest-specced variant of the luxurious Genesis GV80 SUV costs around $130,000. Compare that to a ‘base model’ Rolls-Royce Ghost (if there really exists such a thing), which starts at around $625,000. The Rolls-Royce is a nicer car, but is it five times as nice as the Genesis? No, it isn’t, and if you say it is, that might be because you’ve got a preconceived notion; an expectation that it must be exponentially better, simply because it cost you more.
Besides, time and place is everything. If an SUV suits your lifestyle, the Genesis is the better choice… And if you’re looking for a performance car, a Ford Mustang will cost half as much as both cars, and beat both of them off the line. A $100 steak isn’t necessarily twice as good as a $50 steak, and both are wasted on a vegetarian who’ll get more enjoyment out of a garden salad.
Humphrey Bogart put it best: “A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.”
Of course, food, like everything (or indeed more than most things) is subjective. By all means, go chase that gastronomical dragon and put your wallet to the sword – but don’t be disappointed when you find that you enjoy your morning cereal over your caviar.