Let Me Eat Cake: A Night of Culinary Luxury

What better time than a recession to explore the heights of culinary luxury. Pass the caviar, please!

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Illustration by John Ueland for TIME

The recession hasn't affected me directly, but I'm smart enough to pretend it has. When my friends complain about being unemployed, I nod empathetically and, out of respect, do not reach for the check. But other people aren't as sensitive as I am. The night before last week's four-day Pebble Beach Food & Wine event, 27 people were invited to pay $2,000 per seat for a dinner in a private home, to which they had to bring a magnum of wine from their collections worth between $5,000 and $30,000. It was my responsibility as a journalist not only to witness this horrifying extravagance, but also to eat their food and drink their wine.

To get to the dinner, which was held at a secret location, all 27 of us were chauffeured in eight Lexus 580s escorted by four cops on motorcycles so we could run all the red lights. Apparently, we were very, very hungry. Eventually, we entered the grounds of a giant house in Carmel with huge windows overlooking the ocean, and we were greeted at the driveway, then at the front door and then at the hallway by pairs of sentries in suits holding napkins. Thomas Keller from the French Laundry cooked in the kitchen, flanked by Los Angeles chef Walter Manzke and pastry chef Angela Pinkerton of New York City's Eleven Madison Park. This was the Eyes Wide Shut equivalent of dining. There were, however, only three women among us, which gave me the feeling that this was the gay Eyes Wide Shut equivalent of Eyes Wide Shut.

It suddenly struck me that if everyone brought a magnum of wine, it meant we would each be drinking a magnum of wine. I did not have the training for this. And while I didn't know the etiquette of the superrich, I was pretty sure they would not appreciate having 1959 Ch√Ęteau Latour barfed on them. Nervous, I asked the guy sitting next to me, retired tax lawyer Sandy Guerin, if guys ever brought their wives to these events. "It depends on the level of wine," he said, mentally high-fiving me.

That's when I realized that this wasn't a snob event. This was a dude event that just happened to be filled with snobs. I've been to UFC fights, hockey games and bachelor parties but never anything this testosterone-y. As these guys ate Iranian Osetra caviar on toast points and drank five different years of Henri Jayer Burgundy, they made fun of one another's penis size, called one another fat and claimed that they were sleeping with one another's wives. When Guerin explained his rule about not cooking anything elaborate by saying "I won't take more than 10 minutes," the entire table raced to say, "That's what your wife said." When I confessed to Guerin that I lamely preferred the Bordeauxs to the rare Burgundies, he reassured me that there was nothing wrong with my palate. "Some people are boob guys, some are butt guys," he said. In our unscientific study, boob guys like Bordeaux.

I was feeling oddly at home, making comments about wines I couldn't possibly appreciate, when it dawned on me that I was the only one into the food. Keller was bringing out some of the best dishes ever made, but no one cared. Guerin, in fact, said he would have rather had a simple roasted chicken. That's because the food took attention away from the wine, and this night — like all dude nights — was about competition. "It's a real mine's-bigger-than-yours night," said Stacey Montoya, a winemaker and the only woman there alone. "It's not about who brought what," argued Charles Banks, the former co-owner of the cult Napa winery Screaming Eagle, who brought a 1949 Petrus. "They shouldn't list our names on the menu next to the wines. It's not like baseball cards."

It was totally like baseball cards. When the four sommeliers poured two mystery wines, guys were screaming out guesses, and within about 30 seconds identified the grape, area and vintage of both. It was like being at a comic-book convention and wondering aloud what the name of the Ewoks' home planet was. Yes, they were spending a lot, but at least they were really into it. And while it seemed extravagant to me, 75% of the world would be horrified that Americans spend $4 on a latte.

Around 1 a.m., a sommelier brought out a six-pack of Stella Artois, which was, shockingly, embraced. Then we all went to a hotel where we drank another of Guerin's Burgundies, opened some scotch, verbally sexually harassed Montoya and smoked Cuban cigars, which, I assume, were rolled on the stomachs of virgin princesses. Then, just like after a big frat party, one of the guys ordered quesadillas and chicken fingers from room service. And people ate them. And I realized that, at least after 2 a.m., I too can live like the superrich. But I still didn't reach for the check.