The industry’s newest trend is not about celebrity chefs. Instead, the focus is on sustainability, flexibility and the death of the food writer. By Rob Johnson
Food writer Jill Dupleix called it “closing the gap”—the international trend where the barriers between chefs and their clients are coming down, and there is a crossover between eating in and eating out. Of the various global trends discussed during the recent Out of the Frying Pan conference, held as part of the Melbourne Food Festival, the idea of “closing the gap” between chefs, their customers and their suppliers, seemed to come back again and again.
Dupleix sees the trend manifesting itself in the growing popularity of shared plates at restaurants, or rustic and grassroots-style food, and of diners seeking “mum’s cooking” rather than formal dining options. Generally, she sees a movement away from more formal three-course dining towards something flexible. It’s a reflection of the high cost of starting and fitting out a restaurant in a major capital city nowadays, but also a desire for a more “ecologically sustainable” dining experience.
“You’re seeing sustainable agriculture, and sustainable food, everywhere,” added Will Goldfarb of New York City’s Room 4 Dessert. “It’s so widespread I wouldn’t even call it a trend anymore.”
Goldfarb should know a bit about trends. His restaurant is one of the first to market amongst “pastry-chef-driven restaurants,” and another four are due to open in New York in the coming months.
“We don’t have walls and we don’t have service staff,” he explains. “That’s a trend there hasn’t been many examples of in fine dining. There’s been a real surge in counter dining—in high-end fast food, or fine dining casual, direct to the guest. There’s a restaurant called Degustation in New York. It’s 18 seats, and it’s fine dining direct over-the-counter. People are embracing the fact that it takes so much to open a restaurant. I think you’re finding they’ll pay for food—they’ll pay $14 for a dessert—as long as they can see it being made and they see the value.”
Another manifestation is the desire for sustainable food. Robert Clark, of Vancouver’s C restaurant—a leading seafood restaurant where Clark has championed sustainable seafood—explained to the conference, “My restaurant has been very successful, simply positioning itself to be responsible sourcing our seafood. My success has come directly from the products. There are so many people producing a lot of food that they bring a lot of passion to, and that hasn’t been translated to the plate before now.”
Dupleix adds that the gap between chefs and producers is closing as well—to the detriment of providores. It’s a trend that’s been noticed by Fiona Donnelly of The Courier-Mail in Queensland: “I think the really interesting thing is the rising power of the producer,” she says. “We’ll see a decline in providores as restaurants get closer to producers. Producers are picking and choosing which restaurants they’ll sell to. Producers are being named more on menus, and restaurants are picking up on this, banding together and sourcing from the producer.”
The whole idea of sustainable and ethical dining has already changed the notion of fine dining in Australia, the Age Good Food Guide’s co-editor Necia Wilden told the conference. “The whole definition of fine dining has changed,” she said. “The new luxury ingredients of the future are those of traditional agrarian peasant cultures. This is going to be the new luxury—the line-caught fish, the ethically raised beef.”
These demands are driven by customers, says Dupleix. “We are driving that movement towards responsible dining. Our chefs give us too much food, but now there’s a breakdown of that traditional three courses—it’s shared plates, it’s café dining and bars, as opposed to formal dining—we’re seeing the rise of cafés that are casual the way you use them, but serious about their food.”
That’s not to say that the super chef, or globally branded restaurant, is going to disappear. Some speakers at the conference seemed to believe that the “branded” restaurant is unavoidable. “I think the sign that super chefs have really come to Australia is what’s going on at the Crown,” Wilden said. “Nobu is doing a reportedly $9 million fit-out—we’ve already got Neil Perry, Guillaume Brahimi and Maurice Terzini. Developers recognise that they need brands. Docklands failed to succeed in the way it was envisaged because they didn’t have the big brands there. Crown has always been controversial, and in the past some people avoided it because they sniffed at eating in a casino. But foodies have to go there now because it is so significant.”
Another aspect of the world of global brands is the rise, in the connected world, of the food blog and the TV chef, and the connected fall from grace of the food writer. Goldfarb points out that you can’t get a cookbook published in the US right now unless you have a TV show. At the other end of the spectrum, food blogs are ubiquitous, and “young women and men will spend more time on their blog than newspapers will spend on their food section.”
He adds: “In my opinion the online food media have made name food writers obsolete. There are so many user reviews of restaurants, and they’re really amazing. The beauty for us is that there isn’t anyone more important than anyone else. We read about our service that night. We see digital pictures of the food online before we leave to go home that night.”
Robert Clark of C restaurant added, “I read out the management report every morning, and included in that is what was written about us the night before. And it’s all blogs.”