Kristine Price Dozier squealed when she saw the email.
Dozier, an international trade consultant; her husband; and another couple had already spent around $US20,000 on hotels, travel and tickets to attend the 35th annual Food & Wine Classic, a four-day American festival of celebrity chef demonstrations, parties and wine tastings held in June in the Rocky Mountain enclave of Aspen.
But there was one thing money could not buy, and that was the thing she wanted most.
Two weeks before the festival, the approximately 4,000 people who had purchased basic passes (for $US1,550 each) or VIP passes ($US4,000) had been informed that they could be among 100 diners admitted to a secluded mountain meadow taping of Top Chef, the television reality show. A quick response was required. Dozier's group, all of them from Texas, replied within 35 minutes, but it was not until June 15, the day before the taping, that they received the good news via email: "You are invited to a special dining event."
"Kristine squealed," her friend Tiffany Finn, a dentist, said at the taping, green grass on her shoe heels as she sampled an asparagus dish that had been handed to her by a "cheftestant" from Top Chef.
It takes something extra special to whet the appetites of the most discerning foodies these days, whether it is seeing the Top Chef stars Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons stride past as they discuss what hazelnuts add to a dish, or an experience even more exclusive.
A decade ago, just getting a reservation to a hot restaurant like Alinea in Chicago was enough to thrill. But these days, those who can afford it command time with celebrity chefs, private wine tastings in rarely visited cellars and other experiences that are off the menu to most of the public.
"People want access to things they can't get," said Garen Staglin, a Californian winemaker who assembled and donated a luxury experience that sold at Auction Napa Valley, a four-day event in June, for $US1.5 million. The three buyers paid $US500,000 each for a trip for two couples to Tuscany that included luxurious dinners and visits to wineries such as Antinori nel Chianti Classico, Biondi-Santi and Tenuta di Biserno, all with Staglin's family as expert guides.
The scene on gala night of Auction Napa Valley, held at the Meadowood resort in St Helena, California, was described in trade publication The Drinks Business: "While bidders got giddy on magnums of Krug and Dom Perignon, a brass band blasted out Hey Big Spender and flapper girls dressed in gold shimmied across the stage after a Balthazar [12-litre bottle] of Screaming Eagle 2014 fetched $US440,000."
Staglin's trip was not the only one in demand: An excursion to Japan that included dinner at the three-Michelin-star Kanda with the winemaker Naoko Dalla Valle and a 6-litre bottle of her vineyard's highly rated 2013 red wine went for $US720,000. In all, the event raised more than $US15 million for charity.
Staglin said that for those who go to Napa every year, a food and travel experience impels them to "irrational generosity" because many already "have more wine in their cellars than they can drink in a lifetime".
In the early 2000s, one of the hottest tickets one could score on the American food festival circuit was for the Burger Bash at the annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach. For around $200, one could meet a cavalcade of spectacularly dressed meat patties and celebrity chef grillers like Bobby Flay, Tim Love and Rachael Ray. After a vote on which was best, the champion's name was instantly blogged out across dozens of food websites.
These days, fewer reporters attend the Burger Bash and fewer Food Network stalwarts compete. Those with means prefer South Beach events like the $850-a-ticket dinner with the chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. Guests enjoy dishes like veal on a spin-painted plate, and the festival as a whole gets a sponsor-pleasing dollop of prestige.
"What the 1 per cent like are unique experiences," said Lee Schrager, the festival's organiser. "They want access. It's what everyone wants, but the 1 percent can afford it. They want intimate."
The heat is at the higher end, which explains why American Express paid around a dozen social media influencers $1,000 to $10,000 to file dispatches from its Platinum House, a rented mansion on the side of Aspen's ski mountain, during this year's Food & Wine Classic. Stephanie Izard, a Chicago chef who was the first woman to win the Top Chef title, prepared Instagram-ready meals over three days.
In an interview, Erin Maxwell, director for brand partnerships at American Express, said that determining which chefs to bring on board was as simple as noting where high-spending cardholders seek reservations from the company's concierge service. "We use that data to know where to be," she said.
Similarly, American Express noticed a lot of purchases of tickets to this spring's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and set up a Platinum House in nearby Palm Springs, California.
At the inaugural Arroyo Seco Weekend, a music festival held in June at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, the organisers of Coachella showed their understanding that those buying $400 VIP tickets to the music festival would be eager to pay for unique dining options. Available was a $US120 picnic basket from Los Angeles bistro Republique that included two desserts: a rectangle of salted caramel chocolate cake and a square peach crisp.
Forget the bad brown acid of Woodstock. Food is a powerful way to transport festival-goers mentally – and to keep them coming back, said Nic Adler, culinary director for Coachella and Arroyo Seco.
"I'm just trying to get you to have that bite," Adler said. "Close your eyes, go somewhere else, open them up and realise, 'Oh wow.'"
Many chefs at the Aspen festival said they had cooked privately for patrons who bought their services at charity auctions. Izard fetched $US25,000 to benefit Alex's Lemonade Stand, a children's cancer foundation. Mike Lata, owner of two restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina, yielded around $US34,000 at a James Beard Foundation event to prepare dinner for 12 at the home of a digital advertising executive. An up-and-comer, Katie Button of Curate in Asheville, North Carolina, raised $US8,000 to benefit the area's Downtown Welcome Table food program. She agreed to cook dinner for eight for a banker.
But money and power flow sometimes to new places and new pockets.
At a Wines for Zillionaires tasting in an air-conditioned tent in Aspen's Paepcke Park, sommelier Mark Oldman opened the session by instructing everyone to pocket the laminated card at each place. It contained tips on how to recognise counterfeit wine at auctions.
Moving on to more pleasant topics, he instructed: "Zillionaires like big bottles". He ticked the sizes off in increasing grades of rarity: the salmanazar (9 litres); the nebuchadnezzar (15 litres, equivalent to 20 standard bottles). And then, pointing to his left on the dais, eliciting admiring pants from the hundreds in attendance, he indicated an example of the rarest: an 18-litre bottle, a 2014 pinot noir from Benovia Winery in California. A melchior, it contained $US1,920 worth of wine.
Oldman, one of the wine world's great showmen, called for a volunteer. A woman obliged, stepping forward and kneeling under the bottle, her pants printed with roses and Eiffel Towers. He spun open a tap in the cork. Some of the wine, rich with notes of cherry, went into her mouth, some down her chin. The sommelier offered her a napkin just in time to prevent it from reaching her gold necklace.
The New York Times