Those Tasting Menus Will Never Taste the Same
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bloomberg Opinion will be running a series of features by our columnists that consider the long-term consequences of the crisis. This column is part of a package on how the pandemic is altering the business of eating and drinking. For more, see Amanda Little’s interview with the CEO of Beyond Meat, Adam Minter on how sanitized street food will hurt the world’s poor and James Gibney’s interview with Daniel Okrent and Wayne Curtis on the future of bars and cocktails.
I never liked being called a foodie. The label smacks of self-indulgence and elitism. I will gladly cop to the lesser sin of gluttony: I love to eat, and eat a lot, that’s all. “I’m a gourmand, not a gourmet,” I’ve protested when friends mocked my fondness for fine dining. If my Instagram account is a catalogue of gorgeous creations from the world’s best restaurants, it also features appropriately grubby images of street food.
And yet, in the third month of the lockdown, it is not the buffalo biriyani from Tawfeeq’s in Old Delhi that I’m craving most, or the kibbe from Kubba Saray, just off Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad. The embarrassing truth is that I’ve been missing the crispy roast pork jowls from Atoboy in New York (served with barley, ssamjang and cipollini onion) and the squid from Feitoria in Lisbon (served in a delicate sheep’s-butter broth).
So yes, I am a self-indulgent elitist. And just as I own up to my membership, the foodie cult is going through a profound transformation because of the pandemic. A world in which patrons cross oceans to sample the creations of celebrity chefs is receding. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it will require re-imagining the restaurant experience, as something more than an immaculately prepared meal in a buzzy dining room. In the short term, exclusive restaurants will become even less accessible, as owners reconfigure their spaces in the name of public health. To survive, however, the foodie cult may need to find ways to let in more people.
So many of the world’s best restaurants are under lockdown that our highest rite — the annual listing of the world’s best restaurants — has been canceled. Worse, some of the most celebrated fine-dining establishments may never reopen, including one of my personal favorites, New York’s Eleven Madison Park, named the world’s best in 2017. (I have a vivid recollection of the braised duck leg, served in an impossibly light potato foam, which was the highlight of a dinner in the spring of 2011.)
I called Rene Redzepi, the chef of Copenhagen’s Noma, four-time winner of the world’s best restaurant award. Redzepi has reopened Noma, but as an outdoor wine bar that also serves hamburgers. That’s a long way from the 2015 dinner I remember, which featured a 100-year-old mahogany clam and monkfish liver shavings. But Redzepi reckons that his pop-up version is what Copenhagen needs right now, as lockdown restrictions are eased and people work out whether they are comfortable eating out at all. “We’re going to spend the next month figuring out the new standard of being together, for the next year and half,” he says.
It may be that when the Noma dining room opens, it will have to operate at half-capacity, whether in conformity with government-mandated distancing rules or to allay the anxieties of customers. A portend of fine-dining experiences to come can be seen at Hong Kong’s Michelin-starred Arcane, where mask-wearing guests are seated 1.5 meters apart — and, at the bar, separated by plexiglass.
Social-distancing norms will greatly reduce the number of customers restaurants can serve, which is potentially fatal to the business model of establishments that, unlike Noma, have small dining rooms and no outdoor space. This is especially true for big-city restaurants that, even in the best of times, struggle with high rents, taxes and salaries. “They have to cram people in, for multiple seatings per meal,” says Fuchsia Dunlop, the British food writer and cook. “Without that, they’re not viable.”
Like Redzepi, some will make the best of what they can get when restrictions are eased. At my favorite London eatery, Darjeeling Express, chef Asma Khan is planning to return to her supper-club roots by offering a limited menu (biriyani and some fixings) for no more than 25 diners at a time, or about half the Carnaby Street restaurant’s capacity. Reservations will be even harder to get; Darjeeling Express has been part of the foodie pilgrimage trail since Khan was profiled in a Chef’s Table documentary on Netflix.
It will be harder still to get into Bombay’s Masque, arguably India’s best restaurant, where chef Prateek Sadhu thinks he may be able to feed only 12 people at a time in his food lab and test kitchen. But this, Sadhu concedes, can only be a stop-gap measure. “Right now, all I want to do is give my staff a morale boost,” he says. “In the long run, this can’t be a sustainable business.”
The crisis is also wreaking havoc with the highly specialized supply chain that sustains fine-dining establishments: the producers and suppliers of high-quality artisanal ingredients. Some have scrambled to redirect their produce to grocery stores, and others directly to customers. But this involves adapting to very different storage and distribution requirements, and not all producers can pull it off. In any case, very few stores have a demand for, say, super-high-quality sunchokes, at a price that would make it worth the farmer’s while.
To try and save their suppliers, restaurants have taken to selling boxes of vegetables and meat, along with recipes that the more adventuresome foodie might attempt at home. A couple of blocks from my home in London, 40 Maltby Street retails a box of seasonal organic vegetables for 20 pounds. Chefs who have built vertically integrated farm-to-table operations have something of an advantage. New York’s Dan Barber can offer a “Garde Manger” box from his Blue Hill Farms — a full dinner’s worth of ingredients, including “vegetable stews and purees, fresh pasta, condiments, crackers, butters and more.” This can also have the effect of reducing the cost of entry to high foodie-dom: A meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Barber’s celebrated restaurant outside New York City, costs $280 per person, but you can collect the box in Manhattan for $98.
For foodies, access to gourmet supplies is a tolerable, and the only available, substitute for the real thing. Many, myself included, are feeding our feeding habit by attempting to reproduce at home what we wish we could eat at our favorite restaurant. Judging by their Instagram accounts, some are doing quite well. “Folks are finding joy in praising their own work right now,” says chef Jessica Koslow of Sqirl, a breakfast-and-lunch spot beloved of foodie Los Angelenos. “They’re all becoming home cooks and highlighting the work that they’re doing in the home.”
This has led, in some cases, to a deepening relationship with chefs, especially those who have published cookbooks. “I’ve never seen so many people cook out of the Sqrl cookbook than I’m seeing now,” Koslow says. She can tell because many of the results are posted on social media. For Khan, it goes further. “People are reaching out on Instagram and asking for recipes, or help when they’re stuck … even for the playlist of songs they’ve heard at Darjeeling Express,” she says.
Presumably some foodies can keep this up for months. For some, cooking at home may even become a permanent substitute for fine dining. But many of the best dishes served at fine-dining restaurants simply can’t be made at home — that’s the whole point of them. I can personally vouch that most of the recipes in Khan’s cookbook, Asma’s Indian Kitchen, can be executed in my kitchen, but reproducing chef Ferran Adria’s famous “liquid olives” would require a spherification process involving ingredients like calcium chloride and xanthan gum, all of which is beyond the capacity of Chez Ghosh.
In the end, nothing compensates for the pleasure of eating at a great restaurant. I miss the atmosphere and the conversations with the chef and staff. More than that, I miss the performance aspect of fine dining: a succession of superb dishes, beautifully displayed on exquisite china, delivered to the table with perfect timing. The pull of a fine-dining experience will survive the pandemic, even if many fine-dining establishments do not.
In the bigger cities, with their critical mass of epicureans, some chefs may be able to tide over the period of post-lockdown anxiety by catering to small groups; prices may have to rise to compensate. If the pandemic does leave permanent anxieties about crowded places imprinted on our brains, it could create a market for a new generation of remote restaurants, such as Erin French’s Lost Kitchen in Freedom, Maine, and Poul Andrias Ziska’s Koks in the Faroe Islands — which stakes fair claim to being the world’s most remote foodie destination, and where I had my most memorable meal of 2019. Demand for social distance could bring fine dining out of the cities and into the countryside.
Another new trend to watch for is an explosion of highly specialized processed foods bearing the names of foodie favorites. Redzepi is noodling ideas to bottle some of his famous fermentations, like beef garum, and Sadhu is testing a sea-buckthorn preserve. Koslow says her signature jams are selling “like it’s Christmas.” All three say new revenue streams will be key to keeping their restaurants alive. “Most chefs that I talk to are saying, ‘This is not going to be the last crisis that we’re going to go through,’” Redzepi says. “We need to find a way to secure ourselves, to be financially robust.”
Indeed, Redzepi can imagine a future in which his storied eatery is incidental to his business model — “a hobby,” even. I have to suppress a gasp when he says this. It’s hard not to sympathize with a chef trying to stay afloat right now, but there be dragons. Too many chefs who have wandered down the retail road have wound up like Mario Batali, who was losing his foodie following long before his sexual-misconduct scandal. Can Noma still be Noma if I have Noma-brand sauces on my kitchen shelf? Foodies, after all, are nothing if not snobs.
“This is going to be up in the air: What does exclusivity mean?” Redzepi asks. “Can you have a product of yours on people’s kitchen shelves while also being a hard-to-get-in restaurant?”
Right now, the entire foodie ecosystem is reverberating with questions, many of them leavened with anxiety, some of them genuinely existential. I’m optimistic that the answers will be found. The fine-dining business is, by definition, about creative solutions. I have to believe that the minds that can figure out how to produce a five-hour, 50-course meal of surpassing genius can apply themselves to this crisis.
And I’m equally confident that fellow cult members will remain true to our faith. Even if some of our temples never reopen, there will be other places to worship. Those who outlast the pandemic, whether they’re restaurants, producers or suppliers, will find a market waiting for them.
This belatedly self-identifying foodie, for one, can’t hardly wait.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.
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