The Unbearable Sadness of Exquisite Eating

Last Sunday, I ate at the French Laundry with Stacy and Janice, thanks to the generosity of a dear friend who couldn’t utilize her reservations.

For those unfamiliar, The French Laundry is considered one of North America’s premiere dining establishments, and it’s chef, Thomas Keller, has developed something of a cult following.

The meal was remarkable. I won’t go into the details here–you can witness it, blow by blow, in the Flickr Photoset I created of the meal.

What’s not captured in the photos is the totality of the experience. Eating at The French Laundry isn’t just sitting down for a good meal. It begins with the drive up there — to Yountville, in Napa Valley. About an hour north of “the Bay Area,” this excursion serves to leave your day-to-day life behind and travel to another place — a jaw-droppingly beautiful countryside, nestled in hills, groomed with agriculture.

Upon arrival, we were seated in an alcove off the main dining room. This was by chance, but it was delightful. We had the building’s original stone masonry around us, connecting us with the site’s history in a very direct way.

The serving staff is a near theatrical operation. We had a main server (I believe her name was Marta), whose job was to take our primary orders, and to appear throughout the meal to make sure things were going well, to suggest appropriate wines, and generally to look after us. But over the 9 courses, we must have had at least 7 different people serving us food. Some had specific roles — the Truffle Bearer and the Truffle Shaver and the Sommelier. Others were just food servers. It was a remarkable feat of orchestration.

The food, of course, is exemplary. I won’t attempt to describe the flavors — that would be an exercise in futility. Suffice to say it was mind-blowing, mouth-melting, and challenging. I marvelled at the “vision” (“taste”?) of the chefs to know that they could create such savory medleys.

The meal lasted about 3 hours. 3 hours of eating rich, decadent food, drinking complex surprising wines, and talking about various and sundry. We spent another 30-45 minutes in the garden afterward, relaxing, digesting, and getting our heads together to complete the trip home.

Almost from the moment we entered the garden, I felt a seeping sadness. Because the meal was over. Because those flavors — that exquisitely marbled beef, cooked rare, that chocolate mousse cake, so smooth and cream, that buttery buttery lobster, those candies, etc. etc. — were fleeting. I was already beginning to forget what things tasted like. Or I couldn’t trust my memory’s re-creation of those flavors. I had never had a meal so thoroughly satisfying from start to finish.

And when would I again?

I pretty much couldn’t eat for the next 24 hours. The idea of eating pedestrian day-to-day food has as much appeal as placing ashes in my mouth. I didn’t want my tongue to lose its connection with this bounty it had experienced.

But I know it must. Obviously, I need to eat. Obviously, I must move on.

And what surprised me is how sad this made me. How distraught I was. (I know this sounds… pathetic. Boo-hoo! You ate at the French Laundry! Oh how you’ve suffered!) But I have to admit I did face some existential despair. It almost called into question the value of the experience — because yes, it was so good, but it’s also, by nature, FLEETING, and you can’t help but feel like anything after that is a letdown.

Should one forgo the mountaintop if, in relation, other experiences fall short? Does one visit the mountaintop as much as possible (which is: until you have no more money)? Does one simply accept the marvelous bounty placed before you, live in THAT MOMENT, and just move the hell on? Part of the point of a French Laundry experience is the memory created — how do you move on from that? How do you retain the magic of that memory without it overshadowing what you feel today?

8 thoughts on “The Unbearable Sadness of Exquisite Eating

  1. “Almost from the moment we entered the garden, I felt a seeping sadness. Because the meal was over. …I had never had a meal so thoroughly satisfying from start to finish.”

    Yeah, I used a website that satisfying once… NOT!

  2. All philosophy is born of despair. And what is any great pleasure but a prelude to despair.

    But the true philosopher learns to live with it, and eat again.

  3. That was a terrific read, but nothing like the food as I can only dream about that for now.

  4. I’ve eaten at the same table as well. Although I ate there with my wife on our wedding day, so it became one of the special events of the day as opposed to the only special event.

    If you’re unable to get married on the same day as a reservation at the French Laundry, then I’d recommend only drinking Champagne for the next 12 hours to help you come down off the experience. It really is a contrast to normal everyday restaurant experiences.

    I had been to the place before, and it was even better the second time – but the company and situation was different. So I wonder if the same experience can still be had multiple times, can it get better or is the first to be the special and determinant experience?

  5. SweetPe,

    Eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and stop whining.

  6. i feel that way sometimes right when i finish reading a book i’ve loved so so so much is about to end. i start reading more and more slowly, because i can’t bear the thought of reaching the last page and having it all … end…

    i could reread it but it’s not the same. it will never be the same as that first exquisite breathless excitement.

  7. I think the sadness is in needing ever more money to chase happiness but not reaching it.

  8. Peter,

    One of the best things I’ve read from you. Evokes the old saw “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved before.”

    If life is an exercise in contrasts, experiences like this serve to bookend the comparisons in between.

    By the way, you missed out on the one part of the experience that isn’t transcendent — just try telephoning in for a reservation!