Fine dining is essentially driven by French eating customs – serving from the left, clearing from the right. It’s not necessarily connected to being expensive, but the quality defines it. And if I have to define fine dining, I’d say it is precised detail-oriented formal dining.
Also, I am quite old-school because when we were growing up, fine dining was as much about the way you serve as it was about the food that you serve. It is a formal and methodical way in which food is served. That is an attribute of fine dining that you can’t get away from. but it’s the quality that matters. My real experience of fine dining happened much later when I started working in hotels. In the mid-90s, if you wanted to be a chef, you had three choices: being a chef for a banquet in a hotel, or a chef in a coffee shop/ an all-day dining, or you could be a chef in a fine dining restaurant of a hotel. In this case, a fine dining restaurant would always take preference, and it was the most difficult and the most prized posting to be in.
In the last decade, the fine-dining trend has seen a decline, and it’s definitely not an upward trend. Around 10 years ago, freestanding Western became big, and removed the intimidation from the dining experience. The industry became a fine food industry with focus on good food, rather than a fine dining industry. Today, we want fine food, but we don’t want the stiff and formal style of dining.
Why the change, you ask? Well, I think for a long time, restaurants worked on the model of shocking or surprising the customer, and after a point, that becomes intimidation. The diner doesn’t want to get intimidated. Saying like you can’t make this dal at home, or ‘you can’t get this anywhere else’…the market became big, and so did the Internet, so the access to information increased. You couldn’t hide any information from your diner anymore, and the diner chose to be free. I won’t call it casual, but it became a less stiff world.
The most challenging thing for fine dining in the country is managing the costs. A fine-dining experience requires much more infrastructural investment and also requires a higher operating cost because we need more people. The way I look at it, fine-dining restaurants are more about individual brilliance, and you can’t really scale brilliance like other business aspects, because they can only be one person. And that essentially is what inhibits the fine dine space to grow as fast as other businesses.
When I was in India earlier, up to 2005, fine dining was like a point to prove. Putting out a fine-dine restaurant, bringing customers in, was a point to prove. When I moved to the US, I realised food is also about having fun, and it’s about catching up with friends. It’s also about going out twice or thrice a week and not just once every two weeks to a fine dine. So that was the perception that changed. And then you realise that you’ve been taught to box food in to fine dining just to prove a point. And I guess that’s when as a chef, you become about good food and giving people a good time more than giving people a proper fine dining experience.
Fine dining in India is very different from the West. Here, we’re still understanding tasting menus and portion sizes. By we, I mean both the provider as well as the consumer. However, I definitely give credit like Manish Mehrotra, who has been able to bring fine dining down to an understandable scale, making it more endearing than intimidation. I think that is a good start. Indian food is endearing, and by bringing it to a fine-dining space, you can’t make it intimidating. That is a change that restaurants like Indian Accent have started.
I think today’s millennials are very evolved. And while we say that the world’s moving towards a fine dining experience that is less intimidating, we only say that in relative terms, because the diner today is dining out five times a week or more. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t consume the fine dining space. Also, fortunately, Instagram and social media has made aspiration accessible. So the diner understands the aspiration that comes with fine dine, and millennials are ready to pay for it.
I don’t think fine dining is dead, but it’s also not going to explode in the new decade. We’re going to see quality, fine-dining restaurants with a definite message of responsibility and veritable concepts harbouring some brilliant individual talents. Brilliant chefs have taken the fine-dining route because even today, fine-dining restaurants are great places for chefs to showcase their talent. That’s what fine dining restaurants do. And that’s what they’ll continue to do. They will continue to provide avenues to brilliant chefs to showcase their talent and express themselves through their food, which is very important. For me, fine dine restaurants are statement food and you might like it, you might not. Will they grow as the rest of the industry? No. But then that’s the beauty of them. And that’s how you will value a fine dining experience. That’s why you will pay a price for it. And, that is why they will always be special.