Making Money from Forbidden Fruit

(05 /02 /2015)

Why is it when someone says “no” to something you desire it more than ever?  And more often not, you’ll do anything to obtain that forbidden fruit – sneak a piece of chocolate while on a diet, duck out for a wine while at a dry wedding, purchase that pair of shoes when the credit card is screaming “no”!  In the restaurant business, there are a number of food items that are classed as controversial and are either banned or extremely hard to come by.  Yet there are chefs who have developed the knack for obtaining such forbidden fruit for those many patrons who desire something just a little bit naughty or risqué…

The Ortolan is a tiny and rare songbird from Europe and is considered a prized delicacy…eating it is truly forbidden.  Since the 1970’s, the bird has become highly endangered due to hunting and there are severe penalties in place for those still willing to dish the bird up.  Yet it’s not just the environmental status that makes the Ortolan a controversial food – the capture and killing process is regarded by many as barbaric.  But for those “lucky” enough to be served Ortolan, they describe the experience as truly amazing – the bird is almost too delicious to describe and leaves you yearning for more.  So much so, that in 2007 a top US chef risked everything by hosting a top secret dinner party where he served Ortolan as the main dish.

It is remarkable that the chef was able to sneak 20 of the birds past US customs in coffee cans risking his livelihood just to enable 20 diners willing to pay top dollar to feast upon this rare and forbidden delicacy.  And there are many other banned yet highly desired foods not on the menu – foie gras, shark fin soup, horse meat and Wild Beluga caviar for example are all considered illegal in many countries for environmental and ethical reasons.  Its not just fancy foods that are forbidden either – raw milk, absinthe, sassafras, wild mushrooms and rare-cooked hamburgers are not available in many locations due to their impact on human health.

So would you do it?  Would you risk your career, livelihood, reputation and provide a unique forbidden dining experience to those willing to pay for it?  Whether you answered this question with a resounding “yes” or perhaps a cautious “maybe”, there are few risks that need to be considered.  Most obviously, you could be breaking the law by seeking out and importing illegal produce.  The financial costs of undertaking these activities could be quite high and that’s without considering the potential fines if you are unfortunate enough to get caught.  You must consider your reputation and be prepared to be known as someone willing to break to rules to deliver what you might consider a truly marvellous dining experience.  Ethics also need to be considered – yours and those of your potential patrons…just how far are you willing to go?  You may want to be considered a “trail-blazer” yet the industry may not look upon you as favourably if you’re going against the ethical tide.  And you must also consider the price you’re prepared to pay if the venture doesn’t pay off – your career, ability to make money and potentially your personal life are all on the line.

Of course there are also some positives here – as the only restauranteur presenting something totally unique, there is a great opportunity to make big financial gains…when something is forbidden, people are often willing to pay big money to get it.  And being that chef that has been able to provide that exclusive gastronomic experience, can perhaps lead you into bigger and better things.

I’m sure there are many other pros and cons in this area of forbidden fruit and I’d be really keen to hear from those in the industry, anonymously of course, who have taken a risk here and there to provide a distinctive culinary experience.  I’m not sure I want to Ortolan but I’d be willing to consider a few other forbidden fruits so please reserve me a table.

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