Has fine dining had its day?

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st November 2014
The Staff Canteen investigates whether the gastro-pub has put the writing on the wall for fine dining restaurants. Jacques ChiracIn the past, when eating out, there has been a definite trend between the quality of food and the formality of the location. The prominence of fine dining establishments has encouraged the view that, to guarantee good food, you have to wear a jacket. Not anymore. In recent years, British diners are coming to expect good food in the relaxed setting offered by the traditional pub but does this spell the end of fine dining’s formality? Most would readily admit that fine dining has its roots in France. For years we Brits have been at the receiving end of mockery from our French neighbours, who call us ‘les rosbifs’ and generally ridicule the quality of our cuisine. Former French President Jacques Chirac is reported to have mocked British food ahead of the G8 summit in 2005. “One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad,” Chirac told French newspaper Liberation. “The only thing they have done for European agriculture is mad cow disease. After Finland, it is the country with the worst food.” In the post-war era, the best of British food had a distinctively French feel. Silver service and formal attire were prerequisites. The traditional stews, pies and breads went into terminal decline and British food let itself become a gastronomic joke. The French arts of haute and, latterly, nouvelle cuisine were universally adopted. Andrew Zimmern, the American TV chef, told BBC America: “Twenty years ago, the food of the British Isles was universally considered to be among the world’s worst – boring, bland and boiled.” In the 1980’s, things started to change. Disenchanted with the overly decorative French style, British chefs began to look closer to home for inspiration, calling on a rich and largely ignored tradition. It formed the basis for modern British cuisine. Game has enjoyed a tremendous resurgence in popularity and modern restaurants pride themselves on using modern techniques to cook traditional favourites with fresh local produce.John Williams from SC site “Before the 1970’s, food was thought of in a very different way. You had to go to The Grand Hotel for a good meal and there were very few good restaurants. The reality of what happened in that period is that good British food was driven by French chefs,” explained John Williams, executive chef of The Ritz. “When they learnt to speak English, instead of having French sous chefs, restaurants opened up to English chefs and they started to teach us. The Roux brothers were a key part of this and they’re still flying the flag for British food. They were better than anybody else and they showed us the way.” Another key part of the revolution in British food has been the rise of the gastro-pub. Tom Kerridge’s Hand & Flowers in Marlow was the first pub to pick up a Michelin star in 2005 and there are now 18 gastro-pubs with the highly sought after accolade. The link between formality and good food is no longer so clear cut. It is now normal to be served Michelin standard cuisine, dressed in jeans and drinking beer. Nicholas Beardshaw is set to take the reigns as head chef of Kerridge’s new pub, The Coach. The aim is to create an informal and traditional setting with excellent food at affordable prices. Nick-Beardshaw from SC siteHe said: “The food in everyday restaurants is getting better and better but there’ll always be a place for fine dining. I do think everyday restaurants should be more informal. It’s no bad thing that the market is more diverse, fine dining is really enjoyable on special occasions but it’s great to see such a range of high quality, informal restaurants.” Egon Ronay, the famed Hungarian food critic, went further, suggesting in his 2006 guide to Great Britain & Ireland that gastro-pubs have surpassed the traditional French bistros. He wrote: “The skill of many certainly equals the best in French bistros. The great importance and the greatest difference from French bistros, which strike you as soon as you cross the threshold, lies in the immediate friendliness and heartiness of the welcome. Obviously, French bistros and their staff could learn a very great deal from our gastro-pubs, your bill will be much smaller and the portions can be huge.” There is also a suggestion that people are losing faith with the Michelin guide. The traditional benchmark of quality cuisine is increasingly being seen as elitist with stars awarded more for presentation than quality. Marco Pierre White, Britain’s first chef to win three Michelin stars and the youngest in the world to do so, has famously stated his dislike of today’s Michelin star restaurants. In 2013 he told The Sunday Mercury: “I don’t like Michelin-starred restaurants. I find a lot of the modern Michelin-starred restaurants are trying too hard. I like the old-fashioned restaurants, where you get the show as well and it’s not just about what’s on your plate. The future of dining out is casual dining. Michelin-star restaurants are not what people want – little knick-knacks of food served 12 times. The world has changed. Let’s be real.”Marco Pierre White - credit The Guardian Even in France, the homeland of fine dining, the ‘bistro moderne’ movement has been hugely successful in its efforts to move away from the rules of traditional dining, reinstating a sense of fun. France has even become the world’s second biggest market for McDonald’s, a sure sign that things have changed. In New York, Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant at The London Hotel has recently closed. It comes as a trend for New York diners to favour a less formal eating out experience. Ramsay is just the latest in a line of European chefs, including Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse, to see his formal fine dining concept close in New York. It seems that, across the pond at least, fine dining is increasingly viewed as an obsolete novelty. John Williams has a different view. He said: “Here at The Ritz we try to serve a mix of classic, evolutionary and relevant food. It’s very important that our food retains its relevance to the modern-day diner but we are, and always will be a silver-service restaurant. It’s a formal dress-code and formal dining but the atmosphere has changed. Our waiters and restaurant staff have to work extra-hard to make people feel relaxed. It’s not about informality, it’s about being nice.” John accepts that Britain has moved on from the inseparable link between good food and formality. We now have a diverse market where the customer can dine at their own leisure in a setting of their choice but fine dining, in John’s view, has not had its day. Today’s market is simply more diverse and gives us more options but John also notes that the general move away from formality may not be entirely about style. Marcus Wareing“Taking away dinner cloths and silver-service is as much a financial decision as it is a stylistic one,” John added. “It’s not just about making your restaurant relevant, it has to be cost effective too. There is definitely a place for fine dining. We’ve never been busier at The Ritz but the market is far more diverse.” Marcus Wareing agrees. The chef patron of Marcus in Knightsbridge and current star of Masterchef: The Professionals, told us: “Fine dining has had a tough time during the recession because it’s seen as a luxury but we all love to be spoiled once in a while. I do not think fine dining is over at all. It was a part of yesterday, it’s a part of today and it will be a part of tomorrow.” There is still a place for traditional fine dining, particularly for special occasions where formality is the order of the day. However, fine dining restaurants are unlikely to return to the pedestal they once had in the industry. In Britain, standards are continuously improving and there is no reason to suggest this trend is slowing. Customers can dine in pubs with more confidence than ever before and the dinner jacket is more a nostalgic novelty than a pre-requisite to good food. By Tom Evans
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st November 2014

Has fine dining had its day?