Written by Christopher Menning
March issue ‘Fine Dining’, 2023
We all love to travel to faraway lands and try local cuisine. That ingrained mentality of the explorer is what makes us human. To escape the daily routine, reach out to distant lands, and immerse ourselves in a new culture and a world of freedom play a prominent role in our lives, to the point that we now place a great deal of importance on gastronomic experiences and taste journeys in our travel decisions.
Fine dining has played a large part in delivering our needs. A type of dining experience that is considered to be of a high standard, typically featuring upscale and elegant decor, an extensive and carefully-crafted menu, and attentive and professional service, in this era of celebrity chefs and wave of new openings in the city, we are inundated with ideas about what and where we should eat, and the phrase “fine dining” is virtually overused now as marketing jargon, seen as frequently as the word “fast food”. But what does it actually mean?
It’s an excellent question, one that deserves some thought. Director Mark Mylod’s now infamous dark comedic horror film, The Menu, illustrates the falsity of the industry, with far too many truths hitting close to home for me. Fine dining has almost reached the level of ludicrosity. You only need to heed the words of René Redzepi, the acclaimed chef of the three-star Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, who told The New York Times, “It’s unsustainable. Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.”
These words came after he announced the closure of the venue that charged upwards of US$400 a dinner. Despite their heroic efforts in keeping the restaurant close to zero-waste and a paramount in sustainability, the unfortunate case is that most visitors of the restaurant flew business class to get there or travel in chauffeured limos. As journalist Jay Rayner quite rightly said, “The carbon footprint of the people you attract becomes part of the carbon footprint of your business.”
And is it even necessary to refer to you as fine dining? As a result, you, as a restaurant, place excessively high standards on yourself and leave yourself vulnerable to the wolves (food critics) and the whim of the powerful Michelin Guide. Sometimes, the best dining experiences have involved hunching over a little stall and tucking into a bowl of chicken rice while drizzling it with too much chili sauce, and as we know some of these street food dens are now apparently star-worthy.
As someone who has spent half of my life working in hospitality, from cocktail bars to luxury hotel chains and restaurants, I have seen the industry at its ugliest and its best, and this has given me a unique understanding of how these businesses work. Think of the following discussion not as a definitive guide but more as a thought-provoking read to open and pique your interest beyond what you are told. My passion for fine dining is one of the biggest drives in my life, hence our first magazine’s focus. Fine dining can be mesmerising and a memory that should be cherished for a lifetime. However, I do think we should all be a bit prepared before we jump in and throw the title around to any and all restaurants that use a bit of caviar or a slice of truffle.
What I will do over the next few pages is set out the six pillars of fine dining. Use this as a template, but don’t cry these as gospel. Instead, let’s have an informed discussion about what to expect and maybe you will appreciate the details that these restaurants sometimes lose blood, sweat, and tears over.
A well-defined concept is the key to success. The concept of a restaurant refers to its overall idea or theme; it defines what a restaurant is and offers a point of reference for all the decision-making that takes place within the organisation. Now, I will be the first to admit that there are some good fusion restaurants out there. However, there are also a lot of terrible places that just come across as confusing. A restaurant with a clear concept lays down the groundwork for consistency in areas like the menu or the atmosphere, which will be remembered by customers. Take some classic well-defined concepts: The American Steakhouse. Instantly you think of thick cuts of meat like porterhouse, white table clothes, and bold old-world wines. Japanese omakase sushi is another one with a clear direction of bar seating, minimalism, natural elements like wood or stone, and entrusting the chefs the decision about what to eat.
With so much to expect from fine dining, the concept is the restaurant’s true north, to which all the following pillars face for guidance and direction.
Talking about menu development, the cuisine of a restaurant is the reason we tend to make our decision to visit. I’ve always found it provocative to experience a sense of place through taste, especially when travelling, and with a newfound focus on sustainability and sourcing locally these days, fine dining restaurants are taking greater care in selecting what produce to use and how to use them. When it comes to exceptional cooking—what we expect of fine dining establishments—there has to be evidence of a respect for ingredients, arduous creativity, and deep-rooted knowledge and technique. There is a right way to cut, a right way to cook, and a right way to season. Texture, acidity, salt, and balance are well-considered, and most often in a method that seems outwardly simple. Some of the most impressive dishes I’ve experienced have comprised of two or three ingredients working harmoniously in a symphony of colour. Fine dining sets out to not only do right by ingredients but also honour the culture and history surrounding food.
A venue’s beverage experience can make or break a meal. There’s a reason why certain establishments hire a sommelier. When it comes to wine, there is an abundance of expertise, but not all restaurants take the same care as they should in procurement. Sometimes we should consider alternatives to the traditional wine pairing. Don’t get me wrong: your game meat is partnered with a Chambolle-Musigny, Burgundy for a reason. Because it’s a tried-and-true combination that’s incredibly tasty! However, I also enjoy being surprised by beverage pairings that go beyond the traditional glass of wine. Let’s not forget about Chef Dan Bark’s collaboration with Mikkeller, which offered a well-done beer and food pairing menu, or Baan Tepa and Sommelier Jo’s orange wine trio pairing, each one with a different maceration time. Being a professional alcoholic—as I jokingly call myself—these drink experiences fascinate me.
Beverage is an integral element of the fine dining experience from start to finish, as you’ll learn more about it from Haoma’s F&B director in his article ‘It’s Not Just About The Food’. You may believe that aperitifs and digestifs are there to upsell, and although part of that is true, they are also meant to improve the experience. A Negroni piques the interest and whets the hunger, while a glass of Cognac or Islay whiskey with a cheese board at the finish gives you that final orgasmic eruption of flavour to leave you satisfied. Even the restaurant’s choice of water plays an integral part in the experience. If you are doing fine dining, why settle for tap?
After over a decade of work in hospitality, I can honestly say that service is at the heart of what fine dining is. Good service is when, from the moment you walk into a venue and until the bill settlement upon leaving, you are lifted through the whole experience. It’s the feeling of being in safe hands and that you, as a guest, don’t need to do anything, because it has already been thought of.
I had a very notable chat with Anirban of Johl who posed the question: Have we reached the death of the Maître d’? I certainly hope not. That position is so relevant and needed in establishments aiming for the highest level of refinement. Running a full team of staff that services upwards of 60 discerning guests is nothing short of an art—the fine art of hospitality.
The ambience is one of the first things we perceive when we enter a restaurant, and it sets the tone for the rest of our dining experience. The atmosphere of a fine dining venue should envelop you in an intended emotion skillfully through the use of thoughtful lighting, design, scents, and music. A warm and inviting atmosphere, for instance, can create a positive first impression that makes us feel welcome or even nostalgic. A relaxing, calm environment can help us unwind and feel comfortable, while a vibrant and energetic atmosphere can create a lively and upbeat mood.
Classic fine dining brings elegance and refinement with the use of white table clothes, silver cutlery, and often classical music, but contemporary restaurants may call for something moodier, with dark tones and progressive, brooding electronic synth music to leave a feeling of awe. There’s nothing worse than sitting in a restaurant where the music is too loud and is some obscure playlist jumping from genre to genre.
Besides visuals and sounds, scents also play an important role in mood-setting. An example of this is the expensive scents hotels will pump into their facilities to evoke an intended impression. Ultimately, the atmosphere should be comforting and enhance our perception of the restaurant’s brand and concept, the food, and most importantly, our lasting memory of the experience.
I adore a well-thought-out design that flows, creates functionality, and is pleasing to the eye. In the age of Instagram, design is a restaurant’s silent salesman. Nowadays, restaurants make themselves “Instagramable” with some sort of gimmick because everyone wants to post that aesthetic shot everyone else has, especially in Bangkok. But design is so much more than a backdrop for social media. I am always one to check a restaurant’s cutlery, plates, and glassware first. Take La Casa Nostra, for example. The popular Italian restaurant under Chef Nino Scognamillo uses only Zalto glassware for their wines. Wine connoisseurs will know the name, but for those who don’t, Zalto makes incredibly delicate wine glasses with a long, thin stem, paper-thin bowl, and a wide base, for ergonomic and experience-enhancing purposes. Menus, too, must be carefully thought out in terms of structure, colour, and space. Typography and readability is another issue that not all restaurants excel at. Have you ever seen diners pull up lamps to read the menu?
Some restaurants excel at the little things that make a difference, like providing oshibori (damp hand towel) pre-dining. On my travels, I’ve even seen a restaurant provide marble phone stands for guests. I also find open kitchens, where you can see the chefs perform their craft, a design choice. Yet, at other establishments, the cooks should be kept behind closed doors. Much like ambience, the design of a restaurant influences its environment or mood. A romantic restaurant will probably opt for snug seats and intimate corners, while there can also be a time and place for more open and spread-out layouts with modern decor.
Ultimately, a restaurant’s design plays an important role in providing a memorable experience, aiding in the establishment of the restaurant brand and helping to execute the restauranteur’s vision. With so much to discuss, this section may easily be expanded upon, so it’s fortunate that our magazine’s third issue is the Design Issue.
The factors listed alas do not strictly define what fine dining is and isn’t, but rather represent a set of principles that venues operating at the highest level must excel at in order to qualify. The art of fine dining consists of all these pillars combined, and if any of them are not considered, the experience will very well fall flat. Hopefully, after reading this piece, you will beyond showy ingredients or pricetags when deciding on where to have an extraordinary experience. To my fellow foodies and gourmands, go enjoy our celebrated fine dining scene in Bangkok, live the experience, and realise that there is more to fine dining than just a truffle.
In the inaugural issue, we examine the question, ‘What even is Fine Dining? ’. Chefs Pichaya ‘Pam’ Utharntharm and Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn, our cover stars, share their insights into Thai gastronomy and how they are reinventing the local culinary landscape.
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