When restaurants reopen, will we seek comfort or challenge? Image by Rod Long on Unsplash.
Asked to give an online talk about my 40 years in and around the restaurant business to London’s Muswell Hill Synagogue at 2.30 pm on Wednesday 17 March, I realised one topic was obvious: How have restaurants changed since I first reopened the front door of L’Escargot in Soho on 2 June 1981?
There are many answers. Restaurants have become far less formal. As rents have increased, the space any restaurant occupies has of course shrunk. The kitchens and the bar areas are far more compact than they used to be and there is today far less space between tables. Restaurant customers have become much younger and are far more informally dressed (as are the waiting staff) than they used to be. And at the same time, restaurant customers have become far more knowledgeable.
Wine pairings are now de rigueur. Wine lists now range by the glass to the bottle, via Coravin, and from vineyards from all over the world (although few are as revolutionary as my all-American list was back in 1981!). And the cocktail lists are altogether far more exciting than in my day when the only real question was whether a customer would like a double or a single shot in the limited range then on offer.
No, the change in restaurants, and what their chefs and restaurateurs want them to be is more fundamental than any of these. This change is best exemplified by an exchange I once overheard between our maîtresse d’, Elena Salvoni, and our chef, Martin Lam. ‘The customers really enjoy your food’, I remember Elena telling Martin, ‘but that's not the principal reason they come here, you know. They come to be made to feel comfortable, to relax and to relish your food in a way that they can understand. The last thing they want is to be challenged.’
This fundamental goal of restaurants has changed. Many restaurants now want to excite their customers, some to shock, some to surprise, many to challenge expectations of what a dinner could and should be. How and why did this new approach come about?
The origin of this shift can be pinpointed to a particular restaurant at a single time and place. It was in 1997 when El Bulli, outside Roses in north-east Spain, was awarded its third Michelin star. That was not the beginning of the process of course. That had happened earlier in the decade before when Ferran Adrià had been appointed head chef by the late Juli Soler, who was to emerge as the most impeccable partner and maître d’. El Bulli’s menu, until the restaurant closed in 2011, sparkled as Adrià drew in talented chefs for a season or two and then sent them off on their way.
Others followed in his wake, most notably Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck and René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen; Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago; and Gastón Acurio in Lima, Peru. With the Roca brothers in Spain, Massimo Bottura in Italy, Ben Shewry at Attica in Australia, this soon became a worldwide movement. And although none of these chefs actually worked for Adrià, they did not need to. Their professional and invariably friendly world had shrunk.
Thanks to the power of the iPhone, Instagram and all other forms of social media, these chefs could stay in touch with each other regardless of distance, hemisphere or whether it was night or day. Unlike France’s famous chefs of the 1970s, the likes of Bocuse, Troisgros, Guérard, Chapel and Bras who were all on the same time zone and who all spoke a common language, the chefs of the 21st century could stay in touch with one another whenever they wanted.
I recall a time when New York restaurateur Danny Meyer was in London and was asked by Will Beckett, one of Hawksmoor’s founders, to give a talk to his staff. Asked to nominate the biggest difference in restaurants during his career, he pulled his phone out of his pocket. ‘In the past if you heard of a restaurant anywhere in the world doing innovative things, you had to get on a plane and go and eat there. No longer. You can just follow them all on social media and see the presentation of its dishes on the internet. And by reading the comments, you can even see whether or not the dish was well-received.’
This has of course been an important factor in why so many customers have become so much more savvy about food and wine. Important as inexpensive travel has been – and as Airbnb has been in reducing hotel costs – the most important factor in bringing chefs’ names and often their brilliance into the homes of so many potential customers has been their exposure in the media. Series such as Chef’s Table, those presented by Anthony Bourdain, and even Saturday Kitchen in the UK, each has spread the word and promulgated the inviolability of the chef’s profession.
While all this has happened, chefs have, knowingly or otherwise, chosen a direction that allows them to hold all the aces. As demand for seats has increased, as customers choose to eat at a specific restaurant rather than choose what they may like to eat, as the economics of a no-choice menu become increasingly obvious, and as chefs are increasingly courted by the media, then this is the result. Chefs will conceive of and cook menus that they believe will distinguish themselves and their establishments from one another.
Will this phenomenon continue once restaurants reopen post-COVID-19 or will customers demand less excitement from the menu itself and more warmth, more in the old-fashioned manner personified by the late Salvoni?
Both styles of restaurant have suffered during these enforced closures: the more moderate in ambition from the lack of exposure that their style of cooking attracts; the more provocative because the closure has meant the loss of the private-event business which so many of them have come to rely on.
I trust all will prosper. Customers need them to, as do those of us who write about restaurants.