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Opinion: Has COVID changed the face of fine dining for good?

Think back to a time pre-COVID. You’re celebrating a special occasion, you book that fancy restaurant you’ve heard good things about. You dress up – sans mask – and you go out for a multiple-course, experiential meal at one of the country’s top restaurants. There are numerous small plates each paired with a complex and interesting wine. The meal is exceptional but expensive. 

Now, flash forward to 2021. The world is still in the midst of a global pandemic, with restrictions everywhere, but mostly on restaurants and how they’re allowed to operate. People are encouraged to stay home, only leaving for essential reasons. Restaurants forced to pivot have come up with all manner of interesting ways to keep business coming in. DIY kits, reduced menus, meal deliveries and pantry items all form part of this new way of dining, but this begs a bigger question. When all is said and done, and life resumes to something resembling normalcy, is there still a space for pre-COVID-style fine dining? The industry experts share their thoughts.

Fine dining is here to stay

By Hilton Tarrant

Here’s the thing about dining: it has become completely ingrained in human culture. Humans long to eat together, to celebrate together. While fine dining, which originated in France in the late 1700s, has been with us for over two centuries, changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, chiefly social distancing, has seen some question the future of restaurants and of fine dining. 

Seth Shezi, lifestyle strategist and food enthusiast, says that while he does expect a reduction in the number of fine-dining establishments, purely as a function of a depressed economic environment, he doesn’t expect the concept to change. 

Chef Liam Tomlin agrees that so-called fine dining will find it a “lot more difficult in the current climate”. Nowadays, says Liam, two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants are not about the food. Rather, it’s about the size of the wine cellar and the quality of the linen. In time, he adds, the only places that will be able to offer such luxuries are the big, famous five-star hotels and wine farms that can afford the investment.

Still, the owner and chef of Chefs Warehouse believes that fine dining “absolutely has a future”, but he bristles at the categorisation. 

inside at chefs warehouse at maison

“I’d hate our restaurants to be categorised as ‘fine dining’”, he says. In his mind, they offer great “value for money”. 

“I don’t like the phrase. It’s flung around and misused quite a lot. A good burger done properly could be fine dining.”

Liam says he speaks to his guests who also eat at establishments “like Greenhouse, La Colombe, The Test Kitchen…they love the theatre of it, the occasion. They love to dress up and go out. There is definitely a desire for it and a market for it, for sure.”

The human psyche won’t change, says Seth. “People will still have a want for experience.” 

From a “psychological point of view,” he says, “we are all pleasure seekers.” “Even if you find the hardest-working person, everyone is wired to seek pleasure or some sort of reward.”

And, he adds, in a world where we can now “buy any pleasure”, dining obviously becomes part of that. Fine dining sees the satisfaction of a primary need “elevated to a level where it becomes pleasurable”. 

Intricate detail and superb plating at La Colombe. Image courtesy of Candice Bresler.

 

Abigail Mbalo, founder of 4Roomed eKasi Culture, agrees that fine dining has a future, but she admits that “restaurant spaces themselves will be more challenging”.

She points to a growing trend, perhaps a near-term one, where people would rather dine privately but still expect the food and experience of a night out. “Imagine when chefs go to a private space and introduce a fine-dining experience to customers.” This is happening.

Added to this is a “big shift in how people eat their food”. This sounds simple, she says, but increasingly people are paying attention to where their food is sourced and where ingredients are found as they become more concerned about and aware of their health. “How can we use food to share our experience in changing the world?” she asks, teasing some big changes coming to her own operation.

“I believe strongly that there is a future for fine dining,” she says. Perhaps destinations – the restaurants themselves – change. “Humans and culture have always evolved,” she adds. Pop-up experiences in private spaces that aren’t restaurants per se could be one answer. 

For Liam, the pandemic is making people more aware of how they spend their money – and forcing restaurants to deliver quality in return for rands. “I’m honestly very, very positive about our industry. What the lockdowns and the pandemic have done is helped rebalance a market that was probably oversaturated. There probably wasn’t room for all of us. We’ve seen a separation of the quality from the lesser quality. And we can see people are more careful before spending their money.”

In the short-term, Seth says people will appreciate the occasion even more. “It was always a treat before, perhaps more so now.”

Fine dining has had its day

By Jessica Spiro

Is there still a space for pre-COVID-style fine dining? The short answer is no, but the longer answer is slightly more complex.

Let’s examine some of the biggest names in food pivoting who have rightfully done so to keep their doors open. Luke Dale-Roberts has recently introduced burgers and fried chicken as a separate option to his five-course Test Kitchen Origins’ tasting menu. Bertus Basson’s De Vrije Burger, which has been open for a while, is continuing to grow into itself. Prolific chef Reuben Riffel has even hinted at a lively new burger offering.

The theme here is the concept of casualisation. Basson sums this up perfectly: “There is a need for good-quality casual food. During hard lockdown we didn’t crave soufflés – we craved burgers, pizzas, sushi and fried chicken.” And herein lies the key point, these dishes are familiar, comforting and accessible and anyone can enjoy them just as they are. Which makes us wonder why we would ever go back to fine dining, which sometimes feels elitist and complex.

Bertus continues: “There will always be the need for finer food and hospitality experiences. The landscape has, however, changed to become more approachable, less intimidating and more affordable.”

The majestic De Vrije Burger. Photo by Romy Wilson.

Whether you love or hate them, traditional fine-dining establishments were mostly hinged on exclusivity, pretence and wealth. Now, after a life-altering global pandemic, where the food industry has had to fight for its life – along with the workforce that it employs – is there need for a style of eating that once again focuses on pomp rather than substance?

Reuben Riffel also weighed in but thinks we’ve not quite seen the end of fine dining. “I think there’ll be less pretentious, hyper-exclusive dining,” he says. “But the discerning diner will always seek out more sophisticated dining.” 

One thing that’s clear is that fine dining, with its many courses and multiple components on a plate, has already given way to casualisation. We’ve already all turned to it, as chefs and patrons, in our hour of need. As Reuben succinctly said: “[Casualisation] just shows the resilience of our chefs and restaurateurs. We can slice and dice it any which way we like but people need to work. The choice is empty restaurants or cooking more affordable fare.” He continues: “I applaud all the chefs that are reinventing themselves through these tough times.” 

So perhaps, in a post-COVID future, the term will be refined dining, rather than fine dining. You can still have the considered, perfectly executed meal, without the pretence of a traditional high-end restaurant. You can also eat a burger from one of the best restaurants in the country, and expect it to be one of the best burgers you’ve ever eaten. Which, frankly, makes this new chapter in food all the more exciting.

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