Opinion, By Ben Edwards
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The local press has recently featured a nova cozinha Brasileira, or perhaps ‘La nouvelle cuisine brésilienne’, highlighting a new generation of young Brazilian chefs for whom the praise rang with faint damns, as it illustrated with painful vividness the inverse relationship between what you pay for a meal in Rio and what you get for the price.
Outsize talents compete to serve pint-size portions of confections long on that raffiné cuteness that insidiously sidled in with the nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s, when French chefs tried to convince the unwary that starvation was good for the figure and the figado. While much of that aberration became passé, enough lingers on to sustain occasional hallelujahs for a collection of wannabe alchemists preying on the credulity of patrons who feel that if they’ve paid an exorbitant number for an exiguous sliver of something, it must have tasted really good.
Some of the leading French practitioners back in the Seventies admitted quite freely that they took much pleasure and satisfaction from tackling a simple tripes à la mode Caën when eating at home. The fact was then, and remains, that the nutritional aspect of this hearty meal never failed to register. Cajun cuisine in the U.S. also evolved into satisfying appetites rather than curiosity; originally, a Cajun gourmet was a foodie who’d eat anything that didn’t eat him first.
But all of this is prelude to the question of ‘value for money’. To its credit, the local press has also given space to the efforts of housewives in Copacabana trying to organize a boycott of overpriced stuff offered by beach vendors, such as a picolé (ice lolly) for R$20 and three pastéis (pastries) for R$40. The ladies have figured out that the vendors, eyes fixed on the World Cup – and eventually the 2016 Olympics – are warming up their gouging irons to ensure they won’t lose their touch months from now.
What this induces, of course, is resentment by customers against what purveyors of ‘nutrition’ are trying to get away with. The same applies to the famous name restaurateurs along Rua Dias Ferreira in Leblon, and elsewhere in Rio. The prix fixes on offer every New Year’s Eve constitute a highly traditional gouging, in stark contrast to the ad hoc kind practiced by ambulatory beach boys and the nervier ‘nouveau’ chefs. After all, why push people into subsistence when you can charm them into glorious profligacy?
My favorite writer on the topic of value for money in food, the late A.J. Liebling, always posited that the rich couldn’t understand the concept because they never had to worry about choosing between lobster and pheasant. The less privileged had to weigh a chunk of beef heart accompanied by a table wine against a superb entrecôte washed down with a fancy vintage. Sadly, diners in Rio are rarely offered any such choice, whether on the beach or in more established eateries.
Ben Edwards has been a resident of Rio de Janeiro even longer than the Curmudgeon, who agrees with every word above and has ceded his space this week.