Wednesday, January 28, 2015

New Years Amongst the worlds richest .0001% - St Barts 2014 (by Neilesh Patel)

I'm pleased to post a guest entry in my blog from my good friend Neilesh Patel. Hope you enjoying reading about his trip to St. Bart's. My New Year's was much less eventful. If you have any articles you wish to write, send them to me and I'd be happy to post here!


By Neilesh Patel:

I’ve been thinking about writing for a long time now, but until this past trip I never mustered up the time and energy. Something about this last trip caused something in my brain to click. The result…now I am writing.

12/31/2014 – 1/1/2015
New Years Amongst the worlds richest .0001% - St Barts 2014
Total Cost $14,000
Length: 5 days, 4 nights.

We arrived in St. Martin on American Airlines and instantly noticed the diversity in population and cultural  differences –African-descent locals with their laid back and carefree attitude interspersed with middle class American families on vacation. But St. Martin wasn’t our final stop; this was not going to be the Caribbean Family Vacation. When we boarded our flight (aboard a jet-propeller WinAir) to St. Barts the day before New Years we noticed a change. Celebrities who were vaguely familiar and fashionista women boarded the flight. On this flight, we two Indian-Americans were the only non-White people aboard. The plane prepared to land in St. Barts over a cadre of mega-yachts and large skippers. As we descended into St. Barts there was a small terminal that had no security checkpoint either into or out of the island.

We were greeted by our villa owner (we booked the villa via Airbnb).  The owner was an older Bohemian Frenchman who had escaped the rigidities of Parisian society some years ago. We paid $1,891 for 5 nights in an exclusive villa overlooking the ocean, which was also equipped with an infinity-pool.  We knew we were lucky. Had we not secured that villa almost 4 months earlier, we would have been stuck paying the next lowest option which started at $8,000 going up to $50,000 for a week.

The first night we went to Le Ti, a French cabaret dinner show. A bottle of Bourdeaux set us back 260 euros and dinner for two another 200 euros (Euros were the preferred currency on the island). Although many of the Americans paid in US dollars, the exchange rate was often not as good, so the ATM was the easiest and best way to get euros readily. There are two seatings here and it was obvious if you didn’t go to the second seating which starts at 11pm, there would be no chance to see the cabaret show, which started at 11pm. A nice group of two American couples sat next to us. They had won a week at a villa in St. Barts from an office employee drawing. Otherwise they made it clear they would never have been able to afford a trip to St. Barts. They also happened to be the only down-to-earth people we met on the island that week. Although we arrived at the first seating not knowing any better, we opted to buy even more bottles of champagne which set us back another few hundred euros. It was only then that the French management was open to allowing us to stay for the 2nd seating. The American couple didn’t make it out so easily and after their dinner arrived and they had finished, they were immediately asked politely to leave, so a group who would spend more money could be seated. To replace them came a mother with her daughters; a typical wealthy hedge-fund family based out of Greenwich, CT. Again, we were the only two minorities in the restaurant the entire night- not that it bothered us and perhaps in fact we may have appreciated being different. We definitely got more attention, especially after we started spending more, especially from the French. The French tend to ignore you until you spend a lot of money, then even they let their stereotypical high barriers down.  Despite all of our expenditures that night, it was pretty clear that we may have been one of the highest spenders that night and even then when we got ready to get into our car at the valet, we were stopped by the security as they “mistakenly” thought we had left without paying our bill. When the restaurant manager came outside to confront us, she peered into our window, then realized and said “no these are not the men she was talking about.” Nonetheless, I found it quite ironic that we were the ones who had been mistaken for skipping on our bill. 

This brings me to French culture. The French have grown up in an environment where they were always the wealthiest and highest class folk in their country. They sip fine wines and they eat the tastiest foie gras, liver pate and escargot. Until now…The Chinese are now buying up Bordeaux vineyards and filling up wine-making schools across France. Many plan to take their skills back to China, which is quickly becoming a wine-making producer. The French have steep competition on their horizon in many areas and industries from brie cheese to wines. Their economy and segregation within their country makes it difficult for minorities to rise in social and economic class. As a result, I think the French workers on the island were quite shocked at specifically us two having so much fun. So ironically, we saw that there were not many other people from non-European countries and from outside the U.S. The Asians and the Middle Easterners seem to steer clear of St. Barts.

So let’s back up, so I can paint the picture of St. Barts from a broader perspective. Imagine mega-yachts docked along the harbor in Gustavia; 60-something year old men walking with 20-something year old models; security personnel standing outside of restaurants with walkie-talkies and ear pieces; celebrities shopping in downtown Gustavia with walkie-talkies, and then there was new years eve…The scene here was billionaire Roman Abramovich with his party at Jean Beach’s – La Plage, a swanky French restaurant that he rented out for the entire night.  Then there was  P. Diddy’s party on his mega-yacht, Oasis. Next, there were the parties for the rich who weren’t invited to any of the exclusive parties: Nikki Beach, Le Yacht Club, Eden Rock Hotel and Le Ti. The day before Russell Simmons had his party over at Eden Rock’s restaurant. A couple we ran into paid €2600 ($3172) for a meal they described as only “ok” and “total rubbish”. This price didn’t include any of the late night new years party either, so they were forced to look elsewhere before the stroke of midnight. The couple escaped and went to Nikki Beach just in time to watch a few quite unspectacular fireworks fizzle in the sky. Nobody was impressed.  Over at Nikki Beach bottles on the main tables started at €26000 and ranged as high as €35000 ($31000 - $42700). Luckily, we were able to convince them to give us a coffee table in the corner for what ended up being about €2800. The crowd was basically older men with models…and I mean real models. The few women we spoke to all told us they were models; many hired by the ultra-rich to accompany them for the week: and they came from all over…from LA to New Delhi even, although there were only 2 asian models that evening total. The average woman was 6 foot and 100 lbs,; almost all came wearing a stunning evening dress. As we interviewed one model her older grouchy, obese, long-haired scruffy “owner” came up to interrupt us. He stammered, “How many times do I have to tell you not to leave me alone?” “I thought we went over this before”, he screamed at her. I wanted to help her, but I was in too much shock. Embarrassed, she waved goodbye with her head down and lost herself in the center table commotion.  As I started peering around, I noticed that the average guy had a 20-something liter ace of spades Dom Perignon was at least 60 years old, likely balding and definitely overweight, and was surrounded by a group of models who looked like they were Victoria secret models. All the women that night were “bought-out”, and frankly it was quite pathetic.

Let’s move on to the list of celebrities. Roman Abramovich and Larry Gagosian, who owns a villa next to the Taiwana Hotel  hosted a bash together. Many of the attendees were Abramovich’s Russian and Jewish friends along with a smattering of friends that he has in various circles. Then there was P Diddy’s party aboard his yacht, The Oasis. Attendees there were Chris Rock, Riyanna and P Diddy. Interestingly, even among the celebrities parties and social circles are highly segregated. None of the African-American celebrities were seen attending any of the parties hosted by any of the Caucasians. I think we have this misconception that if we remove the financial barriers between two racial groups, that necessarily that will foster or harbor integration. However, this showed me that no matter what you do, unless you foster cultural awareness and acceptance, no two groups will integrate regardless of raw intelligence or wealth. Numerous other celebrities showed up on the island from Riyanna, Vivi Nevo, Heidi Klum, Salma Hayek, Anna Wintour, Princess Beatrice, Chris Rock, Leonardo Dicaprio, Victoria Silvestdt, Donnie Deutsch. One thing I noticed is that once a celebrity’s career has peaked and troughed, they become less worried about hiring security and having photos taken of them. During the prime time of their lives, celebrities live in utter fear and try their best to be secluded. A few of them go so far as to live in paranoia Riyanna on the other hand had 2 large bodyguards, who made it clear to people that they were not to take photos of Riyanna. When one man tried to take a photo, her security came to him and told him to put the camera away. However, at one point, when she was sitting at her table at Do Brazil on Shell Beach, Riyanna stood up and turned as if to be  modeling for the paparazzi, who used telescoping lenses to snap shots of her from a couple hundred feet away. All these photos were then immediately put on the British tabloid DailyMail web site. I noticed that the younger celebrities were much more business savvy and more like to have a strong ego; they would inform the press ahead of time that they were going to be at a certain event, and then they would allow the paparazzi to take photos of them at a pre-planned event, as if to censor and control the photos, outfits and settings at which their photos were taken. On the other hand, older celebrities like Victoria Silvstedt and Donnie Deutsch were happy to just lay on the beach cabanas without much ado. I think they understood that their careers and time in show-business had come and gone. They were much more able to intermingle with the normal-rich crowd on the island. Unfortunately, they had to wait until the 2nd half of their lives in order to gain a snapshot of a normal life.

Next, there was the cheapness factor of the rich. If there is one thing that was obvious, it was that the rich became ultra rich because they are frugal. The ultra rich become rich by being frugal and relatively greedy- there is no other way unless you count the lottery. It was definitely apparent in their spending habits. The tipping was often non-existent. The ultra-rich were happy to take drinks from us when we offered to buy them and since this was largely a social experiment for me, I was always happy to do so. Some of the people that were excited to take our drinks were people like the owner of Brazil’s largest packing company. The rich never spent a lot of money at the night clubs. Most of them had their own private parties. However, when we bought bottle service, they were always happy to join in for the drinking bit. Many of the yachts that were rented, were often rented as part of a promotional deal, where there would be some type of kickback from the yacht owner perhaps or publicity that would come from renting the yacht.  Other than billionaires Leonard Blavatnik (Odessa docked in Gustavia), P Diddy (Oasis docked in Gustavia), Roman Abramovich,and a few others, many of the yachts were rented. Typically yachts are rented for the new years week by celebrities worth under $1 billion. Most larger yachts are about €100,00 - €200,000 / week not including the crew. The multi-billionaires are more likely to be owners of their own yacht due to the high year-round operating costs. Personally, I found very little to be interesting about being couped up on an isolated hundred-foot boat for new years. I’ve been on cruise ships before, but cruise ships have show lounges, multiple dining halls, 1/8 mile running tracks, full-on gyms, nightclub, pools with large waterslides, and even ice skating rinks. These yachts, while impressive, lacked those kinds of amenities and to me just seemed boring. Even on New Years eve, other than on P Diddy’s yacht there was very little decoration or such aboard to even insinuate a looming party aboard.  I spoke to one SF bay area techie, who spent New Years on one of the yachts. He said it was “boring” as he shook and  twisted his hand back and forth left and right, as if to tell me it was just “ok”.

Coupled with the cheapness, often there was the ego. Many of the rich seemed to be out of touch with reality and more importantly the average working person- a problem I see often in developed countries such as America and Europe, etc. For instance, one girl at the local juice-bar told the poor Parisian juice-maker that his juice was fantastic and that she would advertise him all over instagram to her 30,000 followers, she boasted. “Your juice is great, so I’m going to announce you to make 30,000 followers on instagram…I’ll make you famous”, she boasted. He looked back at her confused, as if to say, “I don’t care about being famous, but it would have been nice if you left a tip in the jar…”

Yet, one thing stood out as the overarching factor on the island: overpriced. I’ve been to expensive restaurants and $200 steak dinners in Vegas, and tantalizing Italian dinner in NYC. They are what I would call expensive, while the food on St. Barts I would coin as overpriced. At Jean Jorge’s Sand Bar we paid €34 ($41 for a cheeseburger and fries; then when we went down the street to a fast-food joint called JoJo Burger we paid €15 ($18.30) for a cheeseburger and fries. Bottle service for a 2004 Dom Perignon ran €500 on off-nights and €1500 for the magnum version. On New Years eve night 20 liter ace of spades were over $42000. One liter of unleaded gas cost over €1.50. Our average lunch bill was €100 ($122) and dinner was normally €200 ($244) or more most of the time. There are no chain restaurants or resorts anywhere on the island. Even a small pizza at a local pizzeria was €30 ($36.60) or €52 ($63.44) for the large. Whether I was eating local Caribbean mahi-mahi or mango papaya soft blue shell crab at Black Ginger, the chic Thai restaurant, nothing stood out as “wow”. Honestly, I would have must rather eaten the Chilean sea bass at PF Changs over most of what I ate on St. Barts. And I did exactly that a couple days after I got back in the USA. The beaches were small with limited sand space – no depth. I’d much rather be on South Beach or Rio de Janeiro’s Posta beaches. The people were mostly French, and you know how their restaurant service is. Heck, the service in Asian countries such as Japan or even home in America is much better. Nontheless, I left with no regrets because it was a life experience, and I live for those. However, it is pretty obvious that the ultra rich are not eating any more tastier food than us middle class folk, and they for darn sure are not having nearly as much fun as us either.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

2014: A Foodie's Year

Amongst other things, 2014 was a year of exploring food quality. I'm sure I spent at least 30% more on food than I did in 2013 in shopping at more expensive grocery stores, but I feel it's worth it.

Growing up, the main grocery stores we shopped from by time period were:

Pac N Save: Early 80s
Lucky's: Late 80s
Safeway: 90s
Trader Joe's: 2000s
Sprouts: 2013 - 2015

While food quality increased with each successive grocery store, prices actually came down post Safeway with Trader Joe's and Sprouts with local brands instead of major brands.

Here's my experience:

In college, I got my groceries from La Verde's a convenience / grocery store on campus.
In New York, I shopped at Gistrede's a local grocery store.
In San Francisco in 2006, I shopped at Safeway.
In India in 2007 / 2008, I got my groceries from a local convenience store and obtained fresh vegetables from local food stalls.
In Philadelphia, I shopped at Trader Joe's.
In my 2 years in LA, I shopped at Trader Joe's.
Last year, I mostly shopped at Whole Foods (something I never thought I would do).

With each passing year, I've become more interested in food quality. In India, I learned how tasty fresh vegetables could be. In Philadelphia, amidst the crowded aisles of a tightly cramped Trader Joe's, I learned that the major national brands weren't always the best tasting ones.

Last year, I discovered that organic and high quality produce and other food does taste better. Here are some of my favorite items and where I can get them. Note pretty much nothing on this list is cheap!

Produce: Whole Foods (hands down!). The produce here is consistently high quality. I especially like Driscoll berries, especially the organic variety. Note this will set you back a pretty penny - a small box of organic Driscoll strawberries (from Watsonville), will cost $7. I eat a lot of broccoli, and Whole Foods broccoli (and really any of their vegetables) are especially juicy.

Juice: Santa Cruz is excellent. I especially like the Limeade and Grape Juice. Santa Cruz can be purchased at many stores. They key to good grape juice is high quality Concord grapes. Even better - Navarro vineyards in Napa produces excellent grape juice from the same grapes use to make wine! 

Nuts: I enjoy Trader Joes Almonds. I also enjoy nuts from Bravo Farms (in Kettleman City). Pistachios and almonds are my favorite nuts, followed by walnuts.

Cheese: Whole Foods has great selection. I especially like aged Gruyere.

Sparkling Water: Give me cool, refreshing Mountain Valley or Ty'Nant with limeade or grape juice after an intense game of ultimate frisbee and I'm in 7th heaven.

Honey: I prefer raw honey from the comb, and I've heard its better for you.

Crackers: I recently discovered Mary's Gone crackers (and cookies) from Whole Foods. They are very crispy and are made from brown rice and quinoa. The Jalapeno brand is delicious!

Tea: I much prefer loose leaf tea to dust tea. The taste is smoother and more flavorful. Currently I have 2nd flush Darjeeling and Blue Flower Early Grey tea from Townshen's tea shop in Eugene, Oregon.

So there you have it - my evolution of food buying and my favorite foods and brands. What do you like and where do you like to shop?
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