What is a fine dining restaurant? Is it the starched white tablecloths and soft colour scheme, Champagne on ice and hovering floor staff in the dining room of Eleven Madison Park in New York, the World’s Best Restaurant 2017? Some would point to it as the very epitome of what a fine dining restaurant is and should be.
It's not an easy question. Certainly we’ve moved on from the humourless, cadaver-staffed dining rooms of the past, while even those restaurants that hark back to the grand spectacle of eating out, EMP being a good example, do so with a more playful edge. For EMP’s Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, fine dining should be, “a conversation” and the fine dining restaurant a “happy place, not a temple” where deliciousness and gracious service are key – fun not formal.
With this in mind, we grabbed a few minutes with some of the world’s best chefs following the recent #50BestTalks event in Barcelona sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna and asked them for their definitions of what a fine dining restaurant should be. This is what they had to say.
"The definition of fine dining has changed – it’s open. It’s about the service and the food of course, but also what’s behind it. Cooking at a high level, pushing with your whole team, your soul, your body – those kind of restaurants can really affect the surroundings, in so many positive ways. Fine dining, if you want to call it that, can affect society in a big way – probably more so in the future."
"I think restaurants are far more dynamic than ‘It’s fine dining or it’s something else.’ It depends on where you are and how you fit into that food culture. It’s a special feeling and experience, whether it’s emotional – everything’s emotional of course – whether it tastes nice, the focus on gracious service – just being positive to the people in the dining room, serving the most exquisite, aspirational, and delicious food. Ultimately, making people feel good.
"I think the whole restaurant scene has changed, but quality and technique and execution, pureness and balance – it will stand the test of time."
"How I define a fine dining restaurant, and I’ve been saying it for many years, is it’s a place where you can have the best experience possible, not in a formal way, it doesn’t have to be elegant, it doesn’t have to be pretentious. It should be relaxed. I think fine dining is about being pampered, eating very good food, and where the team – because it’s not always the chefs – use everything that’s in their hands to make your dreams come true.
"It’s changed a lot. Before, fine dining was a totally different concept – different types of silverware, glasses, very formal service. Right now we’re looking for a connection with people. We’re looking not only at the experience in the restaurant, but what are you going to do after the restaurant? We care about, for example, giving advice to people – people come to our restaurant from other countries – so our staff are trained to give them advice for somewhere to go for a drink, if they want to go and see something in Lima, reservations in other establishments, whatever. We think a fine dining restaurant should be like an embassy of a country in one place."
"I think a fine dining restaurant is somewhere you come for a very special experience. It’s a place you feel at home, in a way, but you have to be surprised. It’s really linked with emotion – you can feel when you’re in a fine dining restaurant. Of course, it’s a question of taste mainly, because taste provides emotion, but also it’s about the capacity of the team, the service, to transmit the feelings of the chef and the kitchen.
"Has the definition of fine dining changed? Of course. It’s difficult to find real harmony between innovation and tradition. Today we can’t say tradition is bad and innovation is good, it’s just we have to keep in mind that we’re here today because of tradition. You don’t have to throw it away."
"For me it’s a big question. It’s a place where you work with memory, with art. I think it’s a place where you find emotions, luxury – but new luxury. Once, to have a garden was common, something everyday, but today to eat something from the garden is a luxury. Luxury has changed."
"For me it’s a weapon. It’s sometimes an embassy of another culture, or country. An opportunity to use what you do to show things about the environment, sometimes it’s about cultural issues. But of course, it’s a space of pleasure, a space of inspiration, a space of research, to open new fields and new ways to combine ingredients, but it’s never been like it is now. A restaurant can be used as – while you are giving pleasure to people – an ambassador of the whole food chain:farmers, consumers, health issues, environmental issues, economical issues, social issues. At the same time, why are we here at 50 Best? We are celebrating diversity, cultures celebrating together, embracing each other. Food joins us."
"I really hate the term fine dining, you know why? In Russia we have a big problem with people who think that they’re fine dining, who just come to restaurants to show each other and never eat. Just take one dish, show each other... Now we’re starting to change this. We’ve started to understand Russian cuisine. I started travelling inside Russia. A fine dining restaurant for me is like a lab of ideas. We know something now about Russian cuisine and we’re sharing it with the Russian people. If you go to Moscow you find the same as you find in New York, in Tokyo ... but if you go to the villages you can find a lot of interesting food there. A fine dining restaurant, for me, is the chance to find, understand and share Russian cuisine and try and be better than yesterday."
"I don’t know whether fine dining is the right term. Actually, in Spanish, there is no ‘fine dining.’ I think it sounds too fine. But people comparing casual and fine dining restaurants? It's wrong. In the future people will still enjoy fine dining. The idea that fine dining is dead? I laugh when I hear that: come on, it’s not true! Once in a while you want to go and have a nice experience. It’s not all about just going to cool, casual restaurants."
José Avillez (Belcanto)
"I think at this point it’s not easy to have one definition. For me, it’s very important to have the balance between high quality in the dining room and in the kitchen. I think people are looking for an amazing experience. Some chefs give that more in terms of food – it could be traditional food actually. At this point we like creative food. It’s the whole experience. When you call a restaurant to make a reservation and you feel – you cannot see – but you feel the smile on the other end of the phone – that experience starts there and continues to the next day to dinner. To feel that knot, not in your stomach, but in your head, in your memories, and in your heart, it's an experience that lasts a lifetime."