“How can anyone throw a dinner party today?”
A noted hostess bewailed the current state of culinary affairs in the drawing room of her regal Park Avenue duplex, in one of the grandest of grand co-op buildings. It was ever so expansive yet artfully understated, with parquet de Versailles floors dutifully waxed into the kind of dull patina old money truly understands.
We were having late-afternoon cocktails as the sun dimmed through the sheers, and she waxed poetically about the dire straits of entertaining today’s power couples versus the glorious dinner parties of yore.
“Let’s say you have six couples for an intimate dinner,” she said. “Nowadays, this one has a nut or shellfish allergy. This one is now a vegan. The wife is a vegetarian but eats cheese. The other couple eats no dairy. The new thing I hear is this paleo craze, where people want to eat like a caveman. Someone’s assistant even called my chef to inquire as to whether it was sockeye or farm-raised salmon,” she harrumphed. “Can you imagine? It’s gotten to the point where I should just put out a stack of takeout menus.”
“So what do you serve?” I ask.
“I once tried tofu, but women don’t like it because of the estrogen. Julio [not the chef’s real name] does a roasted, Italian-style vegetable dish drizzled with balsamico and olive oil. People adore that.”
I took in the creamy yellow walls, perfectly adorned with Scalamandre silks and satins in shades of egg yolk and freshly whipped French butter. “What would you like to serve if you could?”
“If I had my way, I would do what [legendary socialite known for her stick-thin figure] used to do in the ’80s,” she said. “I would just serve designer meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Everyone just loved it.”
“So why not now?”
“I tried it once, and no one touched a thing except for [a former leading politician] who had two portions. Sadly, those days are long over,” she sighed. “No more crusty French bread, seafood soufflés, lamb chops with mint jelly or filet mignon with a dollop of butter.”
I asked her if she thought people were missing out.
“Of course, I do. No one’s glowing or juicy anymore. Just take a look though at their skin,” she whispered. “They’re all sandpaper. They all look like prisoners on furlough—every last one of them.”
* * *
The old adage that you can never be too rich or too thin has had a renaissance on Madison and Park. Competitive and restrictive eating and exercise regimens have transformed power players into power rangers. Cross training, spinning, boxing, yoga and martial arts are the tools of the trade along with nuts, seeds, berries and juices. Fat is considered a weakness.
“People I know are vaporizing right before my eyes,” my second wife whispered over a belated holiday meal at her home, twinkling above the UES skyline. I often refer to her as my second wife as she is one of Dana and my closest friends, but thankfully, her husband gets the Amex bills, not me.
“I feel everyone’s constantly at an ashram,” she shrugged, taking a paper thin slice of holiday turkey off the platter her chef prepared. “People are starting to look like bobbleheads.”
“You’re certainly known for your figure,” I offered.
“Thank you,” she said. “You know, I work at it, but it’s getting to the point where it’s no fun anymore.”
“You also have to enjoy life. People describe others as obese if they are only 12 to 15 pounds overweight. And it’s not like everyone looks so good so thin. You start seeing the drawn, leathery skin. I call it ‘pointy face.’ They look 10 years older.”
“It is crazy. If a centimeter of fat hangs over the belt, your husband is filing for divorce,” I said, sadly. “How do you feel about that?”
“Not my problemo,” she shrugged.
“That’s because you’re disciplined,” I toasted her.
“The bread basket is over,” she declared. “Welcome to lollipop-head land.”
According to a recent study, two thirds of the U.S. population is overweight or obese. But not in the 10021 zip code.
“It really is one of the great ironies that in the olden days fat people were rich and poor people were skinny,” a leading nutritionist told me over seitan at Gobo. “The higher the income area, the lower the weight.”
“Do you think it’s also about fashion?”
“It’s really about everything,” she said, crunching on a piece of fresh lettuce. “By the way, veggies are a great replacement for bread when you’re eating hummus.And two almonds in the morning quell hunger.”
I nodded. “Do you think people are taking all this too far?”
“Everyone needs certain nutrients, but underweight is better than overweight in my opinion. And from what I know, they don’t even make couture gowns over a certain size, so it pays to be thin if you’re in that crowd.”
“Where’s that? Hollywood?”
“Yes, but certainly in New York.”
“And where else?”
“Palm Beach for sure,” she said. “Oh, another tip: Boil asparagus until very soft, and use it in a blender as a base for low-cal guacamole.”
* * *
“Thin is the new luxury,” the über svelte and fit real estate developer remarked on the terrace of his recently developed multimillion-dollar penthouse.
“In my father’s day, there were the social X-rays. The women looked after their weight, but the men were large. He reeled off two ’80s titans of nouvelle society, one a financier in New York and the other a legendary magnate in Beverly Hills. “They could eat prodigious amounts of food. Their girth was considered powerful.
“Today, the new successful men are careful about their weight and want to be thin. Old-school fat is considered slothful. Old school was prime rib, new school is parmesan-roasted kale.”
“But what do you really crave now and then?” I asked.
“The roasted carrots from ABC Kitchen.”
Certainly, I know chef Dan’s culinary skills. “He’s the best,” I agreed. “But don’t you ever want a good, old-fashioned cheesecake?”
“No, do you?” he asked, as if I had suggested dropping bath salts at a rave.
“Actually,” I leaned in, “when I need a fix, I have seven-layer cake shipped in from the Five Towns.”
“I wouldn’t do that. Just like people used to frown on smoking, now they frown on bad eating,” he advised, giving me the tour of the planted terrace replete with Palladian-style French doors that some lucky highflier would soon inhabit.
I marveled over the kitchen.
“Yes, it has everything … and even a wine cellar,” he said, listing the latest top-of-the-line appliances and luxuries.
“For the dinner parties where no one eats anything,” I joked.
“If they’re smart,” he said seriously.
“For successful men, do you think it’s about competition as well?”
“Everyone wants you to know they’re dieting, juicing, working out six days a week. It creates an image.”
“Of don’t fuck with me.”
* * *
“Isn’t that darling?” one of the grande dame socials remarked, peering at the cylindrical tuna tartare and avocado column topped with the waffle-fried potato chip.
“It may look wonderful, but be careful,” another dinner partner commented, “Tuna is high in mercury.”
It was going to be a long evening, I thought as the black-tie gala got underway. The packed evening at the Plaza underscored New York’s robust charitable circuit, where much good was being done while much-photographed women were allowed to also break out their latest couture and big stones. After the customary speeches, a famous entertainer gave a mini concert, making a fee but still getting accolades for doing a charity benefit.
“Is there a vegetarian plate?” I asked the white-gloved server as she tried to foist a Flintstone-size side of beef in front of me with a dauphin of Lyonnais potatoes.
“Why that’s clever of you to ask. I have to think of that the next time,” the grande dame added, her Plymouth Rock-sized canary diamond coming dangerously close to shattering my wine glass.
“Are you vegetarian?” she inquired, her platinum, lacquered bouffant and ageless skin triumphing over any apparent lines. “It seems the trend these days.”
“I’m a pescetarian,” I explained, “who likes his vino.” I motioned to the server for a country-club pour of white wine.
“Well, you can always do what I do,” she said. “Eat a little snack beforehand. My late husband taught me that trick; a piece of low-fat string cheese saves the night. Look around. Hardly any of the women eat anything, because they don’t want a poof in their gowns, and the men have all been ordered to stay away from red meat because of high cholesterol.”
Around the room, people were either observing their main course or politely pushing the food groups around.
“It’s such a waste of food, especially for a charity involved with the homeless and the hungry,” she acknowledged. “But for $15,000 to $50,000 a table, you have to serve beef.”
* * *
Later that month, Dana and I braved the elements to celebrate a friend’s birthday party at a club downtown. We knew it would be a good party, as the social butterfly and her real estate magnate husband have vast quantities of fun, among other assets. It is rare to see a step-and-repeat at a birthday party, but there was Patrick, snapping away. I sidled up to the bar and ran into a music industry mogul, a former Hamptons neighbor.
“How have you been? You look great,” I said, noticing his vastly diminished size, his head outsized to his hips.
“I lost 11 pounds—no wheat, no rice, no flour, nothing white. I was a size 36 jean in college, and now I am a 31.” (The new dieters, I had learned, often feel compelled to validate their dieting odyssey with stats.)
“What’s been the upside and the downside to the new sleeker you?” I asked, sipping on a white wine.
“The upside is my girlfriend likes it. I feel better.”
“And the downside?”
“No more Italian food. That’s been the hardest, although my credit card bills are better since I stopped going to [well-known, overpriced Italian eatery].”
“Well, you’re so disciplined. There must be something else going on?”
“Of course. It’s competitive. It’s all about control. You try and control every aspect of your life, and you want to be the best you can be.”
“And better than everyone else?” I asked.
“How did you know?” he asked. We fist-bumped.
“I’m not as crazy as some of those paleo dudes,” he added.
* * *
Finding a paleo wasn’t hard. I just looked down my own dinner party list and called to speak to a friend who, for more than two years, has done a total transformation, or “mans-formation,” as I prefer to call it. I met him after his cross-fit workout at one of the only five restaurants he would eat at in the entire city of New York. At a table at ABC Kitchen, he ordered split pea soup, and we had an honest conversation about the new rules of the über disciplined.
“So,” I said, “you look even more buff since the last time I saw you.”
I got right down to business. “So now tell me what you do if you’re invited to a wedding or bar mitzvah?”
“We always bring our own food,” he said matter-of-factly.
I was fascinated. “You bring your own food to someone else’s event?”
“We bring nuts, berries and pack a green juice. For dessert, 100 percent cacao bar.”
“Where do you bring it?”
“In [my wife’s] purse,” he said with seriousness of a trial lawyer.
“She doesn’t carry an evening bag?”
“At a dressy event when she cannot bring a larger bag—a mommy tote—we stop for dinner.”
“And how do you eat if you bring the tote?”
“We dig into the bag when no one’s looking. No one knows,” he confided.
“Why don’t you just order the vegetarian plate?”
“The vegetarian plate will undoubtedly be some bad kind of carb, rice, white potatoes and pesticide-sprayed vegetables from a big-box retailer, or they try to pass off green beans or asparagus in faux butter from not grass-fed cows. No one in my family would eat that, not even the dog.”
“Do your hosts ever get insulted?” I asked.
“I’m insulted,” he fumed. “It’s all processed butter, grain-fed beef and farm-raised fish.”
“Do people ever tell you you’re too extreme?”
“All the time. They’re just out of shape and jealous,” he shot back.
“Do you think what you’re doing is restrictive?”
“It’s neither competitive nor restrictive” he said, flexing his super-ripped bicep in his wife-beater a la Jake Lamotta. “I look at eating as fuel. Eating is not social. It’s a fuel event.”
“So what do you do at a small dinner party?”
“We either decline, eat beforehand or I bring my own food and cook it. I did that in Paris recently at a very swanky party, I might add. I went right into the kitchen and made a giant vegetable omelet. Everyone was obsessed with it. The caterers were upset.”
“Were you embarrassed?”
“I would never be embarrassed. I’m embarrassed for them and the way they eat.”
“Clearly,” I said, feeling ever so out of shape. I decided to have a piece of crusty roll with my soup, to his horror.
“Look, I sleep better now, exercise better, fuck better. My skin is better. I’m in the best shape of my life,” he declared. “Oh, and I also wear a tee shirt that says, ‘I hate vegans!”
“What do you have against vegans?”
“Look at them. They don’t have orgasms.”
“Really?” I said.
“How can they?”
* * *
I was having a holiday lunch at Da Silvano with a friend who is an author and a well-known New Yorker cartoonist and just happens to be the proprietor’s wife.
“No one eats bread anymore,” she said, shooing away the bread basket.
“Do you think people still eat?”
“I think they do. They do when they come here,” she said. “Why, do you think I look fat?”
“This wasn’t aimed at you. You look very thin actually.” I said.
She looked visibly relieved.
“Do you think men are the new women when it comes to dieting?” I asked.
“This manorexic trend has to end,” she said. “No woman wants a man who’s skinnier than she is. Why? So he can make my ass look fat? I don’t find that attractive at all. Please, no woman wants to see a man with camel toe.”
“Well, certainly that’s not something I have to worry about,” I said, taking a healthy-size forkful of the melanzane parmigiana. “I like a proper lunch with wine, of course.”
“That’s why we’ll always be best friends,” she said. “Because you love food, and so do I, and I feel thin around you.” She peered at me. “Although your have lost weight recently.”
“Yes.” I said. “It’s been a battle”
“Wait, do I look fat?”
“No, you look thin,” I said. “Do I look fat?”
“No, I just told you that you look thin, which made me think I was fat.”
“What does one thing have anything to do with another?”
“Because no women wants to sit next to man who’s thinner than she is.”
“Fine, tell Silvano to bring on the pasta with truffles.”
* * *
Since so many people have replaced solid food with juice, it was only natural to pay a visit to the founder of one of the hottest juiceterias in the city, Juice Press.
“Vanity is a great impetus for change,” he said, driving his BMW along Sixth Avenue with the authority of a race car driver. “Whatever your path, it leads to the highest road. I’m 45, but I’m buying time like I’m 25.”
“Don’t you ever miss the steak?” I asked.
“I’m long past the crave stage,” he said, making a getaway style turn onto Sixth Avenue. “No, I don’t eat inflammatory, processed foods. I’m also less at risk for diabetes, stroke, etc.” I have detoxed myself to get that poison out of my system.”
I took him in. “And you look pretty fierce with all of those tattoos. So no chocolate cake?”
“I had a European friend who also tried to get me to be more balanced like him … but with his way, cigarettes and foie gras, he couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs. Balance to me is being fit and exercising with 25-year-olds.”
“But don’t you miss food?” I asked as he veered the car onto Madison Avenue.
“I view juice as a meal, not a replacement of a meal. It is food unto itself. I keep myself very close to fruit and vegetables,” he revealed.
“And what would you do if I invited you to a dinner party?”
“I don’t get caught up in the shark feeding tank of a buffet. If it was sit-down dinner, I would just have a salad or some fruit.”
After visiting a juice bar full of private school girls (“they are always ahead of the curve”), Marcus drove me home with green juice. “You and your girlfriend must come for dinner,” I offered. “I’ll serve you juice in a Limoges bowl.”
“I have a better idea,” he offered. “Why not have a juice-a-cue, like a barbecue? We’ll bring the machines in and start juicing.”
* * *
Although I had been fairly certain the idea of competitive longevity and its attending regimens were an NYC phenomenon, the next day, I flew to Las Vegas for the famed Consumer Electronics Show, where a client was launching LYVE, a personal media solution. With 150,000 visitors descending upon the city, I took refuge in the glamorous Wynn Hotel and Casino.
After a night flight, I had late dinner at the marvelous Red 8. I discovered that every restaurant at Wynn has a vegan menu. Over the next two days, I sampled a breakfast of vegan, blueberry pancakes and vegan sausage at Tableau and vegan chicken dumplings so realistic I would fly to Vegas just to have them.
While the vegan chicken dumplings were the most exciting thing to happen to me in Vegas, I do still have erotic dreams of a strip steak, in a strip club on the strip.
That’s why people cheat—on their diets.
Richard Kirshenbaum is the CEO of his new venture, NSG/SWAT. He is also the author of a memoir, Madboy, and the relationship book for women, Closing the Deal.
Images via Flickr/Creative Commons