Many historians say that restaurants emerged out of the French revolution, by chefs who were out of a job at the grand palaces where their innovative nouvelle cuisine (the term “nouvelle cuisine” first appeared back to 1742 in Nouveau traité de la cuisine, a cookbook by François Menon) had taken the Parisian upper crust socialites by storm. The old story goes that post revolution these chefs took their talents and democratised haute cuisine by opening restaurants, in which the public could now enjoy the same standards of gastronomy that were once only attainable by the rich.
But this idea has been thoroughly disproved; “the innovation of the restaurant, it turns out, predates the revolution by at least 20 years, and chefs being out of work had nothing to do with it….The birth (of restaurants) was philosophical, before it was circumstantial..The restaurant it turns out, was a thing to eat before it was a place to go. “Restaurant”, appearing around 1750, was the new name for bouillon (broth). At that time, if you wanted to eat out in Paris you had to go to a table d’hote. This was a big public table where you took what was being served… People who didn’t like the tables d’hote because of the company, started to say that they didn’t like them because it made you sick when you ate there. This was doubtless not true, or not true often, but it didn’t matter. Health scares usually are haloed by habit. Every panic has its profit seeker, though, and someone was around to exploit this one..places appeared in Paris offering healthy broth cooked in clean kettles – restaurants. The soup gave it’s name to the shop.” (Adam Gopnik, 2011)
Before going any further I think it is worth mentioning that ‘celebrity’ chefs had existed by this point, the most famous being Antoine Maie Careme (chef to banker Baron James Mayer Rothschild, many credit part of the Baron’s social – and in turn business success – in Paris to the lavish dining experiences created by Careme). Although there is no doubt that he and other such renowned chefs played a role in the development of fine dining and banqueting, their influence on the popularisation of restaurants is negligible.
So restaurants were not the invention of chefs
..and with a few well known exceptions, it mattered very little to the clientele of such establishments who (the ‘help’/chef) was in the kitchen slaving away to prepare their food. In most cases the food wasn’t even the real reason to go to such an establishment as it was the social aspects which played a far more important role. In fact it was the ‘master of the house’ (maitre d’hotel) who played a pivotal role in people’s restaurant selection. A good maitre d’ knew your favourite table, how you liked your steak cooked and probably your mistresses name (and how to be discreet about it). With the assistance of his team he entertained and delighted with showmansip as he finished dishes for you at the table. The maitre d’ controlled the front of house, and this is where all the action and social interaction was taking place.
Fast forward to today’s world and we see an ever increasing number of open kitchens (where the action now takes place) led by a creative and deep thinking chef, who now not only cooks your meal but designs and curates your whole dining experience. The top restaurants of the world may vary in every way except one, they each offer a unique experience. Much of the current trend is about a sense of belonging, locality and terroir being expressed through the dining experience from the locally foraged garnish and delectable meat from the farm next door to the wine from the vineyard beyond the hills in view, to top it all off the meal may even be served on a dish crafted by a local artisan, chiselled from the rocks off a nearby coast.
But what gave rise to the chef as the star of the show? Was it that we got fed up with the maitre d’hotel’s false charm? With the rise of a middle class and broader spectrum of society enjoying fine dining restaurants we simply couldn’t all individually be made to feel so special in a genuine manner. Perhaps due to a growth in cuisine varieties and dining options available we were (and still are) no longer frequenting the same restaurant time and time again – an essential element in developing that relationship with a maitre d’. It could also be that due to the exponential growth in the amount of heavily processed and ready-meal style foods on offer over the last half century that we simply have a greater appreciation for taking pleasure from an artisanal, thoughtful and carefully crafted meal.
The fine dining experience has evolved significantly
It is now the chef who makes you feel special by coming out of the kitchen to sauce your main course, write a personal message on your dessert or even plate up your course at the table – on the table! (We do that at our chef’s table by the way. I know what you are thinking; if Alinea got a nickle for every time a chef plated on the bloody table… sorry, but we enjoy our take on it).
But the evolution of the modern chef is also undergoing a significant change. Until the turn of the 21st century many of the most celebrated chefs such as Alain Ducasse, Joel Rubichon, Gordon Ramsey, Marco Pierre White and so on, were all solitary figures, culinary mavericks who rose to the top based on their prodigious cooking talent. Many of such chefs ran kitchens which were/are notorious for being tough on junior staff and show little appreciation to the team who are actually working to achieve the incredible gastronomic standards required at such restaurants, the concept of Human Resources and staff well-being is but a mere joke to be sneered at and paid lip service to (your going on annual leave? Ha! Easy life huh?).
But this too is changing. As I write this article we are shifting towards a culinary mindset which is favouring collaboration. The world’s most innovative chefs are now working with artists, sound engineers, scientists, designers, architects, psychologist and of course food producers and artisans at all levels. Ferran Adria sowed the seeds for such multi-disciplinary collaborations, and today’s chefs are opening up to the idea of encouraging creativity within their kitchen and within their team. No longer are today’s iconic chef’s lone rangers, rather we have the likes of chef Andoni Luis Aduriz (Mugaritz) who has formed some of the industry’s most forward thinking and innovative collaborations across disciplines in order to take his team’s creativity (and in turn their diner’s experiences) to whole new levels.
Chefs are also taking on more of a socially important role, contributing towards improving communities and raising awareness to global gastronomic issues including malnutrition, sustainability, food security, agricultural practices to name a few. Last year the Basque Culinary Centre in San Sebastian launched the Basque Culinary World Prize (a chef equivalent of a Nobel prize), the purpose; “this prize celebrates a chef of any nationality who demonstrates how gastronomy can be a powerful force for change: those men or women whose impact can be felt ‘beyond the kitchen.’”
Given that “the world bears the triple burden of malnutrition: hunger; under-nutrition due to insufficient intake of vitamins and minerals; and obesity due to unhealthy diets” World Bank surely it would make sense for chefs at all levels to begin collaborations with nutritionists. Or just think of the projects chef Massimo Boturra is engaged in globally with the aim to curb starvation.
…Getting to the point; we’ve looked at the past, as well as current day trends. But what does the future hold in store for the chef? Will they fall from grace as the maitre d’ once did?
This is the evolution
The future lies in multi-disciplinary collaboration. The restaurant of the future will be developed by not only a chef, but innovative collaborative teams; a chef and an architect, a chef and a designer, a chef and a scientist, or most probably; a chef with an architect, a designer and a scientist!
By 2050 a restaurant’s concept and its appreciation will no longer be around one maverick chef’s talent but rather the result of ongoing rich multi-disciplinary collaboration.
It has already begun. Just take a look at designers such as Afroditi Krassa and the remarkable projects she has created with chefs including Heston Blumenthal and Alfred Prasad. The ongoing research myself and the team at Kitchen Theory have been engaged in with experimental psychologist Charles Spence at Oxford Universities Cross modal lab looking into; multi-sensory flavour perception and gastrophysics. Or the collaboration between chef Eneko Atxa and NEIKER-Tecnalia which allows the chef and his team to select and oversee crops grown for the restaurant on site. Diners at his restaurant Azurmendi even get to visit the garden and take their first bite in the greenhouse, reflecting the importance which the chef attaches to this innovative facility. But these along with many other examples are just the tip of the iceberg with regards to the importance such collaborative work will hold in the future.
Perhaps the restaurant critics of the future may be equally as critical of the material from which the door handles are made in a fine dining restaurant as they are the products on the plate. To some degree this fine level of restaurant critique already exists.
As younger cooks become chefs in tomorrow’s culinary world, they will have grown in environments which encourage learning and give them exposure to different disciplines, they will have seen the efforts of the current culinary icons and influencers who are striving to create a brighter gastronomic future for coming generations.
It will no longer be good enough just to create a brilliant dish.
“Cooking wasn’t, isn’t and won’t be enough. It’s not enough for us to apply our best technique to the best raw materials. It is not enough to talk about ‘seasonal cuisine’ or say that ‘ingredients are sacred’ or ‘the most important thing is that it tastes good’. We need more. We need to know that, somewhere up ahead, something is waiting for us that we have absolutely no notion of today, that next week there could be something completely new that will draw us in. Again.” (Andoni Luis Aduriz, 2012)