Sasha Smith

Is Fine Dining Dying?

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Some industry insiders are predicting that the age of fine dining and haute cuisine is on its way out the door. From my experience, I don’t think that’s an entirely inaccurate call. There are certain elements of true fine dining that are slowly fading away.

Fine dining indicates a certain amount of pomp, not just from the wealthy customers, but primarily from the cooks and chefs. I remember a time when cooks and chefs walked around with such a culinary arrogance and snobbery that you hardly noticed that they were getting paid minimum wage. The food they prepared was as much of an extension of their ego as their opinions, and I believe that’s why it was so extraordinary. Chefs operated under a certain set of morals that wouldn’t allow anything unnecessary, such as customer opinion or preferences, to sway their judgments.

It’s not that chef-pride is totally gone, but the passion and work ethic to back it up is diminishing. These crazy young newcomers expect a livable wage, time off, and professional courtesy, all of which completely contradict the self-sacrificing masochistic atmosphere of classic fine dining. Instead of kitchens being a gathering place for antisocial, out-casted, morally depraved lost souls with an obsessed devotion to their work, the new generations of workers seem to have actual lives outside of food and cooking.

I recall a particularly disturbing incident in my kitchen where a young cook cut his hand badly and left to get medical attention. Medical attention for a gaping knife wound!? It was definitely not customary to leave your shift over a little blood and gore, and needless to say, he was taunted relentlessly for it. “Real cooks” would have duct taped that gash up and continued roasting veal bones for stock. The only thing more impressive than getting through a busy work shift was getting through a busy shift while partially handicapped and in pain. Where was his professionalism?

I’m not sure who invented these ridiculous standards in the kitchen or why we felt obligated to live up to them in spite of labor laws. I guess when you’re working on your feet and never seeing the sun, money just isn’t enough compensation and you need glory as well. Cooks now have better job options at chain restaurants and are able to be rewarded with things like good pay, benefits, and vacation time, not just in “pride.”

When I worked in fine dining I had a cook friend that worked at a chain restaurant that I routinely made fun of for not being a “real cook”. “How many bags of vegetables did you microwave today?” I’d ask him condescendingly. I bet he didn’t even know what sous vide meant. He made three dollars an hour more than I did, had weekends off occasionally, and was treated humanely by his supervisor. The joke was apparently on me.

The main stream world did not always have an interest in fine dining. The Food Network didn’t even exist until 1993 and the magazine didn’t arrive until 2009. Today, the food industry has been given such a celebrity wash-over that it’s impossible not to watch, and people from all areas of life are being drawn into the culinary world. People call themselves “foodies” with pride, but the term was originally coined by kitchen folk to describe obnoxious customers. “Real chefs” didn’t read foodie magazines, watch foodie television shows, or worship celebrity chefs. They idolized people like Escoffier; the man who basically invented fine dining and has been dead for hundreds of years.

The old-school chefs are slowly losing their ability to stay separated from the main stream because the image of what a “chef” is has shifted from the tyrant perfectionist to the likeable television personality, like the chipper Guy Fieri. When chef-judged shows like ABC’s “The Taste” feature a young home cook in the top two finalists, it proves that fancy restaurant chefs aren’t the only sheriffs in food-town anymore, and culinary professionals aren’t able to turn their nose up at the world.

It’s entirely possible that ethical labor treatment and the media are destroying the savage and primitive world of true fine dining. But is this really such a bad thing? I think the new wave of ethnic foods in restaurants is proving that classic French technique is not the only option available. The massive public shift towards fresh organic food, and even vegetarianism, is proving that braising an animal in its own fat and drenching it in egg yolks are not the only ways to achieve flavor.

Fine dining will never be dead because people appreciate food and will always be curious enough about it to respect it. But fine dining as we know it…may need to shop for a coffin.
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