FINE DINING IN THE DIGITAL AGE
Time, health, sustainability and informality were the issues highlighted at the Les Grandes Table du Monde and James Beard Foundation conference in New York.
The world of fine dining is a world in constant motion, a world of creative chefs who set trends, develop new techniques, new styles of plating, presentation and service. Just think of the shifts in cuisine that have taken place within the fine dining stratosphere: from the French powerhouses of cuisine to the modern days of Ferran Adrià, New Nordic Cuisine met by the emergence of exciting gastronomic styles in countries like Peru and Mexico.
For all the change that takes place on the plate, many still see fine dining as a slow moving style rooted in stiff-collared service, ironed white linen and miniature shovels for sweeping breadcrumbs, however, spend any time looking in detail at the scene and you'll see this couldn't be further from the truth. Fine dining restaurants are the testing ground for new ideas and they often develop new models of play that set trends for restaurants further down the chain, it was fine dining and Auguste Escoffier that created the first kitchen brigade system, an idea that to this day still allows you to order the fish and your dining companion to order steak and both be served at the same time. Right now look at the likes of Danny Meyer and his attempts to change the style of pay within fine dining restaurants.
Anyone still not convinced by this idea should take note of a recent debate that took place in New York between some of the most respected figures in the fine dining industry. Organised by Les Grandes Tables Du Monde, James Beard Foudation and the The New School, and supported by S.Pellegrino, the debate, which also included a screening from the Italian master of fine dining Gualtiero Marchesi, focused on Fine Dining in The Digital Age.
Talks were spread across three different areas with the likes of André Terrail, Raffaele Alajmo, Julien Royer, Danny Meyer, Will Guidara, Alex Stupack, Soa Davis and Julien Royer all sitting down to contribute to a debate on the current state and future of fine dining. There were many ideas and issues discussed, the full talks can be viewed here, and below is a round up of some of hot topics and themes that emerged.
TIME IS CRITICAL
An interesting trend we have noted in fine dining and one that was dicussed almost immiedietly during the event was the matter of time, or reducing amount of time that customers are willing to dedicate to a dining experience.
As Julien Royer, owner of the Odette restaurant in Singapore, said in his opening speech: “I think for me as a young chef and young restaurateur, what really surprised me over the past few years is that things are moving fast and the expectation of people is changing... One main notion I have personally noticed is that the time is crucial in our industry... Even though we serve fine dining food with fine dining service, trying to create experiences, the time is crucial, basically people don't have time anymore... The expectation of people is high but the time is an issue we need to control as a chef... We have to restructure our offers, we have to restructure our menus, reduce the number of courses and make sure we can deliver what we try to deliver, with the DNA of the cuisine we want to show to people, but in a limited amount of time.”
The idea of watching your calorie intake while eating at a fine dining restaurant is something that would have been laughed at 10 years ago, many top restaurants today still don't print calories on tasting menus but this is something that is changing largely thanks to demand from health conscious consumers.
As Royer showed: "To be very honest we don't calculate how many calories or vitamins that go into the menu but we can see clearly that there is a demand for health conscious fine dining. Just recently we had people calling the restaurant to ask how many calories are in our tasting menu – we didn't know.”
Alex Stupak, who operates two restaurants in New York, was very strong in his opinion on the matter. “In this market place I think you have to consider health at every level, I may eat at a three Michelin star restaurant for a special occasion but in New York city that might just be their restaurant... I think it's critical to be able to do different thing for the same person at different times.”
Soa Davis, from Maple, cemented the idea: “More and more people asking about the healthiness of their food is going to be a bigger part of fine dining and gastronomy, people want to be healthier, people want to feel like they're eating better. I think the next step, the evolution of gastronomy, is trying to connect more to what people want to experience.”
While time, health, social sharing, sustainability and technology were all discussed during the talks, one of the most relevant discussions centred on fine dining restaurants and formality, particularly how many are looking to create dining experiences that are more casual.
Will Guidara, one half of the winning team behind Eleven Madison Park, spoke a lot on the topic, explaining how with the recent redesign of his world famous restaurant the team were made to “double down on the casual”.
As he explained: “We just redesigned our restaurant and it is beautiful...the food is probably more perfect in its plating right now than it's ever been. We sat down the day before we opened to the public and we had a meal, every single I was dotted and every single T was crossed and we were nervous. We were nervous that fine dining can already be so overwhelming and intimidating to our guests that people now were going to walk into an even more beautiful, even more perfect room, seeing even more perfect food and they would have an inability to relax, they would have an inability to open up... The conversation me and Daniel Humm had that first day was, 'hey, we need to go deeper in the casualness of our service'."
Guidara spoke a lot about this new approach, how the team at his restaurant go about reading their guests, earning informality and how one of their newest approaches is that servers in the dining room speak louder than they used to. For Guidara, this more casual style of service is something that customers are crying out for. “We believe that people do not want to be served by the people from Downton Abbey - that old school, uber formal, ultra serious approach to service, it just doesn't work anymore. We believe that people want to be served by awesome people who just know more about whatever they are experiencing than they do – and that's what we try to encourage… Genuine connection does not come when you’re in an environment that is overly formal.”
Watch the full conference online for a more detailed look at each of the topics mentioned above.