One by one and in pairs, you approach the dining area, where the maître d’ acknowledges you with names that are not your own. There are security cameras in this establishment but tonight their gaze is averted. You receive as tributes the passing flutes of champagne and proceed to your tables with acknowledging smiles and tilts of the head.
Are you all in the know, I wonder, or are some of you innocent of tonight’s purpose, conscious only that a minor constellation of Michelin stars has shone its light on ingredients amassed, at great expense and difficulty, for your delectation? There will, inevitably, be poseurs and parvenus on whom the finer aspects of tonight’s menu will be wasted. There are a couple of celebrities in your midst; one or two of you look familiar from the news. In the main, though, you are the sort of people who prefer their influence to manifest itself beyond the reach of public scrutiny. This is something that we have in common, for our work, too, goes on behind closed doors. Would you care to take a glance at our labours? Can I tempt you to a wander through the heat and steam of the kitchen?
Tonight’s staff consists of some of the finest and least solvent talents in the industry. It’s not the heat alone that puts a sweat on our brows as the chief bustles from station to station, tasting here and scolding there. As his sous chef, it’s my task to ensure that the state of terror passes down the ranks. The roast cook has burns like tattoos along his forearms, and the fish cook’s face is haggard with anticipation of worse things than an overdone fillet. Notice our pâtissier, thinnest member of the brigade, who disdains to eat what she spends her days creating. These chefs are known to me by reputation. Two of my colleagues, however, are old friends in the service: the saucier, with his almost alchemical gift for conjuring a velouté to die for, and, sitting out the present frenzy, Abdul, our communard, who will prepare a separate meal for the kitchen staff once we have delivered the dishes.
These two, Jerome and Abdul, are men of the highest integrity. It was Abdul who informed me of tonight’s opportunity, and Jerome who persuaded management to hire me. I have signed the requisite forms and given every appearance of zeal for the enterprise, advising on accompaniments for most of tonight’s dishes.
Would you like me to talk you through the taster menu? This, ladies and gentlemen, is the experience that awaits you.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the experience that awaits you
We begin very simply with an hors d’oeuvre of blinis Napoleon. The Siberian sturgeon caviar, let me reassure you, is sourced from the wild and not some vulgar fish farm. It’s followed by our amuse-bouche of barbecued gharial wrapped in vine leaves, with honey-poached plum jus and pickled samphire.
There’s pathos as well as pleasure at the prelude to a meal. For the tragedy of food is that we must destroy it to enjoy it. Each dish is finite, its savours limited, however complex they may prove on the palate, and we are left with the paradox that sampled flavours are sweet but those unsampled are sweeter. We eat because we must, yet we yearn to transcend eating, to be forever within the experience of taste. Is it any wonder that a gourmet must pursue ever more intense sensations to console him for sensation’s transience? The hors d’oeuvre and the amuse-bouche exist to acknowledge and embody this transience. How can we lament them when they do not constitute the main body of the meal? They are overtures; they serve to waken the taste buds for the courses proper.
There was always a risk, given the theme of this meal, that it would rely too heavily on flesh. Though the variety of meats in question is considerable, the organisers have been careful to appeal not only to the carnivore but also to the adventurous mycophagist, the transgressive frugivore. You will appreciate, then, our zuppa di funghi, made with white ferula mushrooms handpicked in their final refuge in northern Sicily, prepared with garlic, thyme, whipping cream and Marsala wine.
The soup course prolongs the flirtation. As with the menu’s opening salvos, we remain in skirmish mode, far from the culinary showdown. Tonight’s formal appetiser consists of Tasmanian giant freshwater crayfish truffle tagliatelle with bisque sauce, followed by a salade tiède of wood-fire grilled Manipur bush quail, with new potatoes, frisée lettuce in a mustard and honey marinade, and asparagus flown in this morning from New Zealand.
We are five courses into the menu; surely the foreplay is concluded? Patience, please, we aren’t here to guzzle like children at the school canteen. We approach the apogee of the meal lightly, with a carpaccio of humphead wrasse served with chilli and oregano and a mixed baby herb garnish.
And now we come to the first main course.
There’s been some debate in the kitchen whether this dish can be called venison, given the unique status of the bovid in question. We leave it to your discerning palate, rather than some drab geneticist, to decide. The saola loin is served, if you’ll forgive the pun, perfectly rare (our roast cook is a master of the water bath), with celeriac purée, braised radicchio, and blood oranges.
After this blaze of flavours, the palate cleanser. From its one remaining location in rural Armenia, we bring you a refreshing Gergeranian pear sorbet.
For your second main course, we offer a choice of dishes. You may opt for the breast of Palau ground dove roasted with caraway, tamarind jus, and green lentils. Or, if you prefer something a little more substantial, why not try our confit of Madagascar teal in an Argentinean Malbec sauce, served on a bed of mashed potato and braised red cabbage?
At this stage in the evening, a select few (the most lavish, the best connected) will be invited by the maître d’ behind a damask curtain to enjoy our pièce de résistance: vaquita sashimi, garnished very simply with onion and horseradish.
While this happens, the rest of you will be enjoying a cheese course made with the milk of donkeys, Swedish elk, Calabrian horses. Tonight’s esoteric selection includes Serbian pule, Bjurhom älgost, caciocavallo di San Sosti, and white truffle moliterno.
For dessert, there is nothing more common, at present, than the humble banana. Yet not many will have sampled the Madagascar banana, which our pâtissier has exalted into a parfait with dark rum, star anise and cinnamon, served with chocolate mousse, caramel popcorn, peanut brittle, and baby sorrel leaves.
Coffee, for those who want it, will be kopi luwak, made as we all know from beans that have passed through the digestive system of the palm civet. As well as the standard afterthought of tiny macarons and pâtes de fruits, our pâtissier will send you off with miniature tarts of almond and Sardinian currant, of which only eighty mature plants survive.
It is scarcity that makes all the difference
And thus we come, conceptually, to the end of the meal that will, in a few moments, begin its journey to your stomachs. From there it will be transmuted into you. Into your bodily wastes also, but that’s what you’re paying for. There are many terms for it. Potlatch. Ostentatious consumption. The freedom to squander what is scarce. There are millions around the world who would be shocked by the delicacies on offer tonight. The vaquita, of which after this enterprise only nine remain in the universe, would seem a particular outrage. But isn’t that what gives it its piquancy? As we know, a sensation’s intensity can be heightened by a sense of transgression. And it is scarcity that makes all the difference. Many who would weep for a critically endangered dolphin will lose no sleep over the millions of commonplace creatures that we daily devour.
I see that you are seated now and attended to by a battalion of unemployed actors. You won’t know that there is a side room where those who scoured the world for tonight’s ingredients are being hosted. Management has decided to keep these gentlemen separate from paying guests, and Abdul will be cooking for them, as he is cooking for us in the kitchen. Since it’s only fair that these gentlemen participate in the diners’ ultimate experience, Jerome and I will see to it that a couple of dishes from the taster menu are delivered to them on the sly. They have, after all, been diligent not only in sourcing the ingredients, but in recruiting and, in one way or another, persuading the cooks to apply their talents this evening.
I like to think that these adventurers and I have more in common than they would imagine. I, too, have a taste for risk. My travels with a backpack, in one cause or another, have taken me to many of the places that they have plundered. Like them, I have adopted aliases and disguises. In fact, I’ve been assuming one ever since I became involved in tonight’s entertainment. This was shortly after my predecessor as sous chef broke his arm in a hit-and-run road accident. I was, so to speak, smuggled in to help oversee the enterprise, and since I signed the non-disclosure agreement it’s been most informative to work alongside Jerome as he develops the jus and garnishes for the ingredients you are here to enjoy.
Jerome, you understand, is not his real name. He has a second area of expertise, as something of a mycologist. He forages and supplies one or two top London restaurants with wild mushrooms. It was from him that I learned how Amanita phalloides has a flavour so mild, and smells so demurely of potato, that it’s possible to add it to a dish without risk of detection. The effects, furthermore, can be relied on not to manifest themselves until eight to twelve hours after consumption, allowing plenty of time for a saucier and his accomplices to make themselves scarce.
Ah, the blinis have been served! You appear to be enjoying them. As you should. For you, ladies and gentlemen, are the vanguard of our civilisation. I doubt many of you, proud as you are, would express it in quite these terms. You understand it, though. I know you do. I can see it in your teeth. You are dynamic people, and dynamism is integral to civilisation. Consider indigenous peoples. They have culture, yes, but they leave scant trace of themselves, as if stability were their watchword. Civilisations build cathedrals, wear Chanel and Dior, and what if their footwear is sometimes the jackboot? If you wish to disassociate yourself, kindly leave the Bach cantatas and cheap analgesics on your way out the door.
Why not become the abyss and partake of its exhilarating power?
None of you, of course, would waste time with virtue signalling. Being intelligent people and well informed, you have no illusions about the state of the world. You have seen the graphs and their priapic temperature lines, their flaccid biodiversity indicators. One might reasonably ask oneself how to live in a world that’s racing towards the abyss. It’s always an option to alleviate suffering on the way, but since there’s only one destination, why not become the abyss and partake of its exhilarating power? If present trends continue, soon people the world over will be eating endangered ingredients. Bananas, for instance. Sardines. Wheat. The goal of your exclusive dining club is merely to stay ahead of this trend.
Ah, here comes the gharial in vine leaves. Not many have tasted this rare crocodilian. It must be exhilarating to be in such exclusive company. Unless it’s boredom and terror that you are trying to crush between your teeth.
Terror I know something about. More than once through this operation I have thought that we’d been discovered. Yet it seems that the organisation by which Abdul, Jerome and I are temporarily employed has failed in its due diligence. Is it any wonder? The logistical demands of the enterprise will have been more than enough to be getting on with.
Now if you’ll excuse us, the saucier and I have one or two final tasks to attend to. Enjoy your meal. Because we cannot communicate, I cannot ask you to consider how its ingredients will still have relatives – the few, the last – drawing breath somewhere on Earth. In the unlikely event that you suffer a pang of conscience as you tuck into the fifth course, console yourself with this thought: that the species you are eating is a good deal less endangered than all of you.
IMAGE: Graeme Walker
Graeme Walker is an artist who makes contemplative objects, paintings, poetry, stories; philosophical prompts; paradoxes on our relationship between life, mortality and nature; questions around the cultural inhibition and release of agency. His work calls humanity to resist nihilism by entering into aliveness, meaningfulness and potency. graemewalker.art