There is a controversy over the practice in Thailand, but from a strictly libertarian perspective, exposing the rich to the discomfort of poverty can be a cause for philanthropy as it should be.
I appreciate the criticisms of the Europeans, but would like to ask them to ask their businessmen and governments, just as I ask American business people and the government-frequently- what have you done to help the poor in this country or Thailand, or Bolivia, or Latin America, or the former Soviet Union lately?
Taste of poverty for the rich: Thai hotel stirs controversy over lavish feast
By Jocelyn Gecker
7:47 a.m. April 5, 2008
BANGKOK, Thailand – A Bangkok luxury hotel treated its top clientele to a tour of a poverty-stricken Thai village on Saturday before dazzling them with a lavish feast, ignoring outrage over the event that prompted a boycott by elite chefs around the world.
Controversy has surrounded the event, which critics characterize as a tasteless publicity stunt and organizers call a novel approach to helping the needy.
The posh hotel hosting the event, the lebua, is offering a 10-course meal–for free. The catch was that the guests – 35 bankers and corporate executives from the U.S., Europe and Asia – were required to spend the afternoon visiting a village in one of the poorest parts of Thailand.
“Who better to give poor people what they need than rich businessmen?” said Deepak Ohri, the hotel's chief executive, who puts the hotel's cost for the dinner and trip at $300,000.
Early Saturday, the hotel jetted its well-heeled group to Ban Tatit village, a ramshackle community of wooden shacks in northeastern Thailand that is home to 600 residents. The village once raised hundreds of elephants but there are now only five of the giant gray beasts, villagers said.
Organizers said they hoped the visit would inspire their wealthy customers to act charitably.
Participants disputed the controversy surrounding the event as misguided.
“How would I ever have known these people needed help?” said Javed Malik, an airline executive based in Hong Kong. “I might not help the elephants but I'd like to help those children,” he said, pointing to a group of smiling girls in dirty T-shirts.
The controversy appears to have delighted organizers, who credit the resulting publicity with drawing nearly $50,000 in advance donations. Contributions will be managed by a foundation the hotel is creating with its own donation of $96,000 to bring clean drinking water and other basic infrastructure to the village, Ohri said.
The executives toured the village's broken water filtration system, its dilapidated schoolhouse and parched farm land, which is too dry to grow crops for themselves or the elephants.
The sights of poverty did not appear to dent anybody's appetite.
“Would they have gotten everyone here together if it hadn't been for the 10-course dinner afterward?” said Shanghai-based businessman Peter Foster.
The 10-course meal awaiting the group back in Bangkok included a seafood risotto, scallops with truffles, roasted rack of lamb, neck of Iberico pig – each to be washed down with a different fine Burgundy or Bordeaux.
An outcry in the French media prompted three of France's top chefs to bow out of the feast last month after initially agreeing to cook it.
“You can't see people living in misery and then go back to Bangkok to eat foie gras and truffles,” said Paris chef Alain Soliveres, one of the three who opted out.
The bad publicity spooked 20 other top-ranked chefs in France, Germany and Japan, who feared that taking part in the event would harm their reputations, Ohri said.
Despite the boycott, four chefs from top-rated restaurants in Europe agreed to cook the meal.
Three of them will walk away with $8,000 each for the night's work: Christian Lohse from Fishers Fritz in Berlin, Henk Savelberg of the Restaurant Hotel Savelberg in The Netherlands and Atul Kochhar of London's Benares.
Belgian chef Yves Mattagne, whose Sea Grill in Brussels has two coveted Michelin stars, said he was donating his earnings to the village of Ban Tatit.
“This is to help people,” Mattagne said, while chopping chives for a red tuna with ginger entree. “For me, the most important thing is the charity.”