With trends being stacked on trends, printed food, chefs trading kitchens — sometimes it seems as though the restaurant world is already squarely set in a future where robot servers and Willy Wonka's three-course meal gum became a reality a long time ago. So where's it all heading? What's next? That's what Food & Wine editor in chief Dana Cowin posed at Panel Discussion: The Future of Restaurants Part of Local presented by The Corcoran Group to Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, and Magnus Nilsson (of Sweden's Fäviken Megasinet) during the Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival.
So what is next? Hong Kong, Mission Chinese, locavorism, organics all got several mentions, so too the state of fine dining, and chefs with research teams, but there was less in the way of tightly summarized formal conclusions, and more in the way of free-form conversation. From the sound things, restaurants are going to have to do some pretty crazy things to jump the shark when there are already examples of spots doing whiskey programs, craftbrewing, foraging, pop-ups all at the same time... with T-shirts designed by a skateboarder. "Is there dinner involved in this situation?" quipped Batali at one point. "Everything I've heard so far doesn't sound like anything I'd want to eat."
A few things were definitely clear. One, Mario Batali capacity for zingers and showmanship is unquestionable ("You know what I tell my vegetarian customers? That pig was a vegetarian.") Two, you really have to feel for Tom Colicchio for having lost his restaurant idea notebook after filming in Seattle. Highlights follow.
Colicchio on Über-trendy Restaurants "The problem is that sounds like boxes to check off on a press release."
Batali on the Customer Restaurant Experience "Take away the fluff around it, and what is it? It’s a transaction. People give you money. They expect pleasure back."
What the "American Restaurant" Means and If It's Exportable "You could go to France and open up a place called Frenchy’s and really kick a**," said Batali. "It's the business sense of America that slips by them in these other cultures." And from Colicchio: "Making things your own, that’s the American sensibility. Whether you can export that, I don’t know."
On Four-Start Dining "Just because it isn't the most interesting thing now doesn’t mean things from 10 years ago aren’t interesting," said Nilsson. "There will always be a need for fine dining. The hope is for other chefs to focus on what they love and less on what other people do." From Batali: "Fine dining represents a standard of luxury. it doesn’t have to mean that you’re uncoformtable. Some places sell it to be more significant than the diner. In those situations I become a little more ribald and a little more loud. We should make the guest more significant than the chef and the food. The chef can play in our game, but not be the most important thing in our dinner." Colicchio: "Clearly what’s happened is that the demographic has changed. Younger people are going out to eat and they don’t want to eat in their fathers’ restaurants. Montrachet and Gotham opened downtown 30 years ago and had three stars... that was undeard of. You had to have an uptown address. And things have changed even further. A Ssäm bar would never have gotten three stars 30 years ago. Things have changed, and partly because chefs are creating environments where they want their food."
Colicchio on Dress Codes and Music in Restaurants "I still believe there are customers out there who just want to wear jeans and a T-shirt... who want to hear the music they grew up with, and not hear Sinatra crooning or jazz... and look if people complained about the music, he [Mario] probably wouldn’t play it."
Batali on Increased Cost of Fine Dining "And it's still not very profitable. Del Posto is our least profitable restaurant. It's still a leap of faith."
Batali on What Chefs Want "Chefs want to make delicious food and present it in an environment where people will enjoy it. Chefs fundamentally are generous and want people to enjoy their experience."
On Good Cities for Bouncing Around to Restaurants
Nilsson: "Here is good."
Batali: "Bologna. Hong Kong. I was there on Tuesday. It's very much like New York. There's a decidedly modern Chinese food, but my favorite situation is to be served outside at the plastic tables on plastic tablecloths, where you see what’s being made. You drink large bottles of beer — they have no good wine so you'll be drinking lots of beer — and experiencing a meal is more about product than technique. They just assume the technique is there. Hong Kong is exploding. They do a variation on yakitori, but it will just be the chicken hearts, the inner thigh or the chicken heart. A whole section. Yardbird it’s called."
On Travel and Eating Out
Colicchio: "I haven’t really gone out or traveled in the last four to five years."
Batali: "How about Seattle? You didn't eat out while you were filming there for six months?"
Colicchio: "It wasn't six months it was four weeks... I don’t get out much at all. I got out just recently, but it was the first time I’ve been to a restaurant since June."
Batali: "That’s f*cked up, Tom."
Nilsson on Whether He Has a Research Team "No. That’s me."
Colicchio on Process "When I open a new restaurant I don’t go out. I don’t want to be influenced. I want it to just come from here. It’s impossible not to take a little bit of things from things you’ve seen."
On Losing His Idea Notebook
Colicchio: "Idiot me, everytime I open a restaurant I buy a book, and in June or July when we were in Seattle, working on dishes on way back home I left that book on the plane. It was devastating. We tried to get it back, and couldn’t get it back."
Batali: "That's OK. To lose all that and have to redo it is fun."
Batali on Criticizing Other Restaurants "When you start out, you go to restaurants, you say, 'I wouldn't do things this way, I'd do that differently.' But you realize at a certain point that you're doing this because of a lack of confidence in what you're doing. And you come to a point where you ask yourself if you came to destroy the restaurant or to have a good time and relax with your friends. That’s when you get to enjoy yourself. It’s lack of confidence to take a restaurant apart. That’s a young person’s game."