Arts & Entertainment

Kitchen Guy: You Paid How Much For That Meal?

Chef Jim Gray

I recently celebrated a milestone birthday that included some very expensive meals at some high-end restaurants in California.

As a working chef, the price of food is always foremost in my mind. When you’re in business you have to make a profit, otherwise you’re not in business. So I got to thinking about the prices of restaurant food.

Make no mistake: I like cooking for money. That’s how I earn my way in this world. But I don’t have the same overhead that a big restaurant does, because I don’t own a restaurant. But does the boneless rib eye steak (choice grade) that I buy for $7.99 a pound and that I cook to perfection (we’ll deal with my ego some other time) really differ that much from the $75 steak (same cut, but graded prime) in the trendy ultra-hip steakhouse?

Prime beef is generally available only to restaurants and because so much of it is exported, it’s pretty hard to find. It is rarely available at the retail level. Most of us buy choice grade as do most restaurants. If I were to buy that same rib eye at retail, and the grade was prime, the price would be at least double if not more.

Don’t even get me started about Wagyu – the American version of Kobe beef – because if you think prime beef is expensive, you’ll burst a gasket when you see the prices for Wagyu.

I had my first taste of authentic Kobe beef about 15 years ago and even then, the meat sold for $90 a pound. A year or so ago, a well-known chef in New York created a $1,000 hamburger using Kobe beef. And the aforementioned hip restaurant where I had my birthday dinner offered a Kobe beef corn dog (!) for $26. If you pay that much for a hamburger or a hot dog, then you have too much money.

So how do you gauge what restaurant food is worth? How much are you willing to pay for “atmosphere” and other non-tangibles? Does one chef’s prime steak outweigh another’s perfectly cooked choice steak?

First of all, as far as I’m concerned, I always love it when someone else cooks for me. And if that someone else happens to be a talented, creative and innovative chef, that’s great. I perceive value in that. I hope that my clients perceive the same of me.

I have to draw the line at these cookie-cutter steakhouses where everything is a la carte. After ordering a piece of beef that’s north of 50 bucks, I refuse to pay $12 for creamed spinach or any vegetable side dish. Similarly, potatoes – no matter how they’re prepared – are just not worth $15. At those prices, the plate should come with something more than the beef and a sprig of parsley.

There are exceptions. Foie gras or white truffles could influence my decision. You’ll never convince me, however, that high prices could ever have anything to do with quality.

But, hey, it’s your money. You spend it the way you want.

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Steak au Poivre
4 New York strip or sirloin steaks – 6 to 8 oz. each
3 tablespoons coarsely ground black peppercorns
Coarse salt
1 cup red wine (Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
olive oil

Heat the oven to 500 degrees. Sprinkle the steaks with salt on both sides and then press the ground peppercorns into the steaks on both sides.

Set a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat and add just enough olive oil to make a light film. When the oil is very hot, add the steaks, cooking until nicely browned on one side, about 3 minutes.

Flip the meat over and put the skillet in the oven. For medium rare steaks, roast for 4 to 5 minutes for 8-ounce steaks; 3 to 4 minutes for 6-ounce steaks. Check for doneness with the tip of a knife or by pressing with your fingertips, keeping in mind that the steaks will cook a bit more as they sit. Transfer the steaks to a warm plate and tent with foil.

With a spoon, remove any fat from the skillet. Put the skillet back on the stove and heat to medium high. Add the wine and cook until it’s reduced to 1/4 cup, about 7 minutes, scraping up the browned bits with a wooden spoon. Whisk in the butter a slice at a time, whisking until completely melted.

Taste and adjust the seasonings, drizzle the sauce over the top of the steaks and serve immediately with more sauce on the side.

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