x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

There's no such thing as a free lunch

Is lunch with Warren Buffet, the world's second richest man, worth Dh6.2 million? An auction winner called it a bargain.

Fancy having dinner with Patti LaBelle? It'll cost you.
Fancy having dinner with Patti LaBelle? It'll cost you.

What kind of steak is worth $1.68 million (Dh6.2 million)? The kind that you chew over with Warren Buffett, apparently, for that astronomical sum is the amount raised last week on eBay for lunch in New York with the tycoon. Some people might sniff that now is not the time to be splashing about such sums of cash for a couple of hours with the world's second richest man, worth $37 billion (Dh136bn) - a bank balance that is only beaten by Bill Gates's.

Perhaps it's not wholly surprising, though, that this year Buffett's lunch has been crunched, and the winning bid was, in fact, 20 per cent down on the sum raised last year. The 2008 winner, a Hong Kong-based investor called Zhao Danyang coughed up US$2.1m (Dh7.8m) for the pleasure of his lunch at Smith & Wollensky's steakhouse. It seems too late now to point out that a quick scan of Amazon reveals a book entitled The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America for sale and priced at a mere $26 (Dh95). If the winning bidder cannot even execute a simple internet search, he must need all the business assistance he can muster.

But we do not yet know who this year's mystery bidder is. Buffett and Danyang have only just managed to co-ordinate diaries and sit down together after last year's auction. Together with the seven friends that the rules allow you to bring, Danyang flew in from Hong Kong for lunch last Wednesday throughout which he scribbled frantic notes in-between mouthfuls, and told the New York Daily News that he thought the whole thing a "bargain". That's the spirit, Zhao, let them eat cake.

There was one cause for alarm: a waiter was reported as saying that Buffett eats at the restaurant once every six months but never orders an appetiser. Surely, if you'd paid millions for lunch you want to get your money's worth and not race through the lunch like you were eating at McDonald's? But happily, that same discrete waiter then allayed fears by explaining that Buffett managed to spin out a steak and some vanilla ice-cream across two hours.

Celebrity dining is an odd phenomenon, though. Say you've just won your bid, earning the chance to eat with Simon Cowell or Victoria Beckham (although the latter may be a pretty brief lunch). Great news. Then what? Isn't there something slightly distasteful about paying an inordinate amount of money just to sit next to someone for a couple of hours? Aren't you daunted by the etiquette required? Take a lunch with Madonna, for example. If you've bid several figures for some kind of macrobiotic meal with her, then you'll presumably be a fan. You'll know about Lourdes, Rocco and the latest addition to the brood, Mercy. You'll know about her divorce from Guy Ritchie. You'll probably know that she likes to spend an unhealthy amount of time at the gym.

But does one dive in and ask about all of that, or do you have to act like you've just met at a dinner party and go through pleasantries first? "And tell me, Madonna, where do you live? Don't you find Manhattan house prices extortionate? And the schools so frightfully hard to get into?" That kind of thing. The choice of friends to bring with you would be another hurdle to bear in mind. Safer to have a few there to guard against awkward silences, but you don't want so many that your quality time with the star is diluted. And most awkward of all, presumably, would be the point at the end of the ordeal. You could have a shot with "that was lovely, we must do it again some time", if you were feeling brave. Or perhaps bolder still, attempt to swap telephone numbers. But probably, the celebrity sweeps out back to their glittery life and you simply hop in a taxi home again, brief cross with stardom over.

Should none of this put you off, there's a charity website administered to by eBay offering your own lunch date with a star (www.lunchwithaleader.com). Well, some stars at least. Dinner with Patti LaBelle anyone? Lunch with the veteran CBS anchorman Bob Schieffer? A hotdog with the former LA Dodgers manager, Grady Little? It's not quite Warren Buffett territory, but these are hardened economic times and most of us can't afford to be picky.