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The Future of Dining: An eG Roundtable

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Much as modern art is now from a historical period that's been codified and put behind us, the "future of dining" makes me think about Horn and Hardart Automats, frozen TV dinners and nutrient pill replacements for eating altogether. The future is almost a twentieth century preoccupation. We have seen the future and survived it. Where do we go from here without the baggage of having to make dire predictions and assumptions that technology will rule the way we live? Dining may be the art of eating, and it may be a social function, although I think we can dine alone. We can certainly dine at home, but when the topic was raised, I immediately thought of dining out. The panelists however, needn't restrict themselves to discussing restaurant dining.

If any of us were to be transported back a century ago, I suspect we could all adjust to dining in most of the restaurants available to us and most of us don't have that much trouble when we travel halfway around the world. Yet, in my lifetime well short of a century, I've seen tremendous change in the way I dine at home and abroad. Of course I've changed, but my options are really significantly different and, on the whole, though not universally, I'd say they're significantly better.

We'd all more likely be at the race track if we could predict the future, but this is a subject that's interesting and germane to our mission. We have three panelists whose thoughts on the future of dining are probably going to be interesting and worth reading, even if they don't prove to be accurately prophetic.

Although Clark Wolf may not be a household, or dining room, name, he's an industry consultant who actually gets paid for his opinions on the subject as part of his services. Michael Ruhlman has written extensively and in depth about the art, as well as the profession, of cooking from in depth looks at learning to cook professionally to running the restaurant. Most of you have likely already read one of more of his books. Steven Shaw, perhaps better know as Fat guy to eGullet Society members, needs even less of an introduction. His recent book is subtitled "Restaurants from the Inside Out," but focuses on the interaction between diners and restaurants, an area in which we've seen as much change as any other in dining.

Let's hear a reaction to the topic from each of our panelists to start the discussion. Steven will go first as he's most familiar with our format. Michael will follow and Clark, who's new to the eGullet Society will get the advantage of reading his fellow panelists and avoiding their mistakes.

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Bux, Pedro and the eG Spotlight team, thanks very much for setting up this roundtable. These things don't just come together magically; they require a great deal of behind-the-scenes preparation over a period of months. I think this is going to be great.

Thanks also to Michael and Clark for letting me play at being their colleague.

In all my mutual fund investment brochures, there’s a statement that “Past performance does not guarantee future results.” In the world of dining, this could probably be replaced with “Past performance doesn’t mean a damn thing.” Moreover, since I’m routinely wrong about what will happen ten minutes into the future in my own life, it’s not clear that I should be discussing the longer-term future of an entire cultural, economic, artistic and gastronomic phenomenon. Nor am I feeling very big on certainty these days: predictions made in July about the future of dining in New Orleans are liable to seem like dark comedy today.

Nonetheless, though it cannot be ascertained reliably, the future can’t be ignored. Nor does a discussion of the future necessarily have to be limited to predictions. What we want the future to be is at least as important as what we think the future will be, and here we are in a position to do more than just talk about it: perhaps collectively we can have some limited influence on the future of dining. Discussing the future intelligently also requires the context of the past and present, though it’s by no means clear that everybody sees those the same way either. I’m not going to touch on the past and present too much in these opening comments, however. The Daily Gullet has published an excerpt from my book, Turning the Tables: Restaurants from the Inside Out, that has some relevance to the current discussion. It can be found here.

By the future, I mean three futures: the immediate future (what will happen in the next few years), the medium-term future (what will happen over the coming decades), and the Future (how we will dine in a century or a millennium). And when I refer to dining as a cultural, economic, artistic and gastronomic phenomenon (though I’m sure it’s more than that), I’m setting out four discussion areas that interest me. Not that there are clear demarcations among them. By dining, I'm thinking of more than just eating. While dining may occur at home or in the restaurant, it has to occur as an activity unto itself. In my opinion, grabbing a sandwich for lunch is not, except in the most unusual circumstances, is not dining. Then again, I see plenty of people in restaurants like Per Se and Alain Ducasse who seem not to be dining either.

The immediate future of dining often feels like the only future of dining because it’s what we read about, think about and experience through actual eating. New restaurants open, old ones close. It’s easy to think of this as the future unfolding in front of us. But what I’ve learned over the past decade, which is the time during which I’ve been paying close attention to the world of dining, is that the immediate signals are often misleading. For one thing, the economic factors tend to be disproportionately influential in the short term. The 9/11 attack in New York, the Katrina disaster in the Gulf Coast area, bull and bear markets . . . whenever anything like this happens, we are treated to a chorus of proclamations that “People want comfort food because of 9/11” or “Luxury dining is booming with the economy.”

Looking back, however, it is probably unlikely that any particular economic event (short of one on the order of World War II) will fundamentally alter the dining scene over the long haul. Likewise, cultural, artistic and gastronomic trends tend to come and go with great rapidity, which is to say they are mostly fads and not really trends. If I actually accepted every proposed assignment from a magazine or newspaper that wanted me to write an article about “Ten Hot Food Trends for Summer” I could rely on such assignments as my exclusive source of income. "The future" from the standpoint of a restaurant businessperson looking to make a short-term profit may be highly trend-oriented, but that shouldn't be confused with any sort of settled future. Still, the occasional apparent fad becomes a real, sustained, long-term trend. Such things are pretty hard to identify. I think, for example, that Ferran Adria and the culinary avant-garde are here to stay, but I can’t prove it.

I’m probably most interested in the medium-term future, because it is less subject to the bumps in the road of economic crises and fads, yet it is still close enough that society has a good chance to be, at least, recognizable when the future arrives.

Economically and culturally, it seems to me that the major phenomenon that will affect dining in the medium-term future is globalization. How could it not? Right now, as one travels around the world, dining is defined by local influences. The restaurants in France are different from the restaurants in Tokyo. These differences are, I think, going to lessen.

Chefs and their customers are not only traveling, but also taking advantage of unprecedented access to instant and near-instant communication. Dine at El Bulli tonight, post photos in the eG Forums tomorrow, watch it on Tony Bourdain’s show, read about it in the New York Times Magazine, buy the El Bulli books (with accompanying CD-ROM). And it is now possible for a single chef-restaurateur to have multiple restaurants around the world. Alain Ducasse is surely the leader in this area, but Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Nobu Matsuhisa and several others also have global reach. This will, I think, eventually become the norm.

Gastronomically, of course, globalization manifests itself as so-called fusion, either overtly (“This is a fusion restaurant”) or as a matter of fact (ingredients and techniques migrating from place to place). The overt, overly self-conscious form of fusion is in most cases a victim of access to the global pantry. But fusion-in-fact is the way of history (tomatoes are not from Italy, chocolate is not from France, capsicum peppers are not from China, etc.), and is now merely being accelerated. This can be a good thing: no matter where you are, you will be able to get the best of everything product-wise, and everybody will be familiar with the best techniques of the world's great cuisines.

This access to everything everywhere, combined with the lessening of regional differences, may also be a threat to dining, or certainly to diversity in dining. But I think it is probably fruitless to cling to regional differences as the exclusive point of differentiation in cuisine. Being opposed to culinary globalization is like being opposed to the Earth orbiting the Sun. But at least, with culinary globalization, we have some choices and ability to influence how it progresses. I think, in the coming decades, restaurants in order to be memorable will have to strive for interest and quality, rather than derive their uniqueness primarily from place or imitation of place. This could be a good thing, or at least not a bad thing.

I do think it’s relatively certain that dining as a phenomenon will increase over the coming decades. People around the world, especially in the major non-European industrialized nations (US, Canada, Australia, China, India, Argentina, et al.) are becoming more interested in dining out and dining in. To use the US as an example, we are now seeing upper-middle-class white kids, who when I went to college in the 1980s would have been expected to go to law school, choosing to go to the Culinary Institute of America instead. Popular television, not the food network but actual sitcoms and dramas, are slowly embracing chefs as characters. On the supermarket scene, we are seeing an explosion of gourmet products. People are more and more interested in food. Restaurants are getting more interesting in the places where they were least interesting: the smaller cities. As the audience for dining becomes more diverse, dining itself will have to become more egalitarian. I think we can look forward (or dread, depending on one's perspective) to less formal service, more accommodating establishments and an increasing merger of the way people dine in, out and at every level.

Although, especially in the English-speaking world, there is a countervailing current of neo-Puritanism that may sabotage the future of dining. The view that hedonistic enjoyment of food is sinful has strong traction in some quarters, and these quarters are growing as a matter of demographic fact.

I hope we will also be able to discuss where the French, the world’s global culinary superpower, will be in all this. And there is the question of the fate of the culinary avant-garde. But perhaps someone else will take the first crack at those.

Finally, I wonder where we’ll be in the Future with a capital F, as in the Star Trek future. It seems inconceivable to me that we’ll still be eating the flesh of animals. Nor would I be surprised to see all food made artificially from some stem substance that can be electronically prodded into becoming a steak, a pizza, Joel Robuchon’s mashed potatoes or something so far removed from any natural product that Ferran Adria would say “This has gone too far.” I imagine nobody will cook and that restaurant service will be provided by robots. I wonder if they will pool their tips.

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I'm interested by all of Steven's points. The ones that are most meaningful to me personally have to do what we eat and how we eat it.

The first issue is what we eat, that is what chefs offer, given that they can offer pretty much anything they want today. What are the chef's obligations?

The second issue that interests me is how restaurants are perceived, independent, chain, celebrity chef outpost. What does that mean to diners and what should it mean.

A third issue, related to the second and a subject I know Steven has written about, is to discuss is the celeb chefs outposts, is it a good or a bad thing.

I've addressed these last two points in my next chef book which is scheduled for May and thought a lot about these issues.

Six or seven years ago Keller had said to me the notion of cooking regionally and seasonally had become a fallacy for restaurant chefs. That is increasingly true at most restaurants (exceptions are Primo in Maine, Zuni Cafe, and Chez Panisse). Is there anything wrong with this? Not judging from the quality of food or pleasure of eating at the French Laundry. But I don't know. I do believe that Fed Ex has more than any person or company changed what we eat in restaurants.

Cooking and eating regionally seasonally is most applicable now to the home cook, who stands to benefit most.

I think one of the biggest developments is a greater specialization of restaurants or restaurant types. As diners become more knowledgable about food, chefs and restaurants (in exactly the ways Steven mentioned), chefs and restaurateurs will have to become more focused in how they present their restaurant--is it a chain, is it independently owned, is it fast food done well, is it fresh ingredients prepared simply, is it avant garde, is it fine dining european, if it's a mixture what kind of mixture. Any time there as a influx of information and technology, it's a time marked by increasing specialization.

Regardless of what the future is , the present is a very exciting time for someone who loves to eat in restaurants. I'm interested in all the issues Steven brings up.

I'll look forward to comments and questions to egulleters near and far--I'd love to hear from other countries especially.]

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Food and the world of professional cooking, which seems to be at the heart of our discussion, is an intimate act between human beings. It’s the largest industry in the world and the one most often ill described or little understood. This is not entirely a bad thing as much of it is instinctual, visceral, physical, critical (as in, I gotta eat or I’m dead) and offers such possibilities to delight, satisfy or disturb as to be wildly enlivening or comfortably – (or painfully) dull.

Dining, at its best, as Alice Waters has often said, is “more than the sum of its parts” (so too for cooking, if you get it right) – but to say that a past achievement is irrelevant misses the point. Unlike a book or a film, the first night of a restaurant is the beginning, not the end. Like a well written or produced and acted play, it is immediate. It can be vivid and memorable or an hour or two of valuable time – and calories, never to be refunded.

I argue with my journalist friends all the time when I feel them start to suggest or I force them to say right out loud “well, it’s only food”. Yeah, well politics and law and culture and real estate will all be buried and forgotten pretty quickly but the need to eat, and all that goes with it, is so fundamental to our existence on every level that, I argue, we’re pretty often simply afraid to know too much about it.

That said, I watch all of this for a living and don’t often write these sorts of things down – don’t usually tell the whole story aloud, unless I get paid a whole lot, or trust or passionately believe in the effort, the community and colleagues served. I’ve been short – term predicting for years. It’s like colors in fashion, and the only place trickle down really works. That is, when the high – end restaurants play with something it often makes its way out and around and down to more casual spots, then maybe on to mass consumption. Case in point is mesculin, that lovely, peppery and sweet mix of young greens gathered all year long and piled on a lovely plate next to a warmed mound of fresh goat cheese at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Some years later it can be found as a “green salad” at the Bronx Zoo.

Trends build to trends, and a lot of this comes with a culinary adolescence. Take US in the ‘80s, London in the ‘90s, Spain now. We did Blackened Redfish and snail caviar. We recovered and moved on. (Not so lucky, the redfish and, it seems, the caviar have not).

In the ‘80s people used to ask me what the next croissant was going to be. Now it’s “what’s the next Starbucks?” I tell them to look back a couple hundred years and roll forward. Look back again about 20 or 30 years, and then order lunch. (With low - rise jeans).

In fact it’s completely necessary to take a look at what’s in a sandwich to understand any future (or past) of more refined dining. Looking at “haute” only is like examining the teat of an elephant while ignoring it’s big fat ass, (or checking out what’s in the trunk…).

All of this vacuum - packing and plastic – bag - boiling was all the rage in the early “90s (mostly on French trains) but emerging American gastronomes were offended by the notion. That may be why Thomas Keller doesn’t much like to talk about that aspect of his kitchen. But having it happen in a romantic little Spanish town, paired with an ethereal foam, somehow connected to Gerardet has allowed for yet another, this time Western European, culinary adolescence. This sort of hyper chemistry - set cooking, where chefs are actually pleased about keeping the evocative olefactories of cooking in a bag, sharing none with the nostrils of the brigade, smacks of meanness and desperation.

There is certainly a globalization afoot, but it’s really from the bottom up. Plain and local had gotten so bad, so off the back of a truck and out of a can, that the “Big City’ or “New York Style” restaurants had to move in and upgrade to what may in fact be lesser food than long ago. Ingredients do travel well, Thomas Keller should know (because little besides wine grows in Napa). But the major movement is at a high level of ambition that competes on a world stage, (Thomas) and at the vaguely upscale that wants to charge plenty, without real understanding or major talent (what are often called “trendy” spots).

Americans travel, come home with a sack of magic beans and start to play. But real luxury is grown just down the road, thoughtfully gathered and lovingly prepared.

Trends, like feelings, co-exist. A lot will happen in the years ahead. Some will represent various arcs, towards or away from this or that, or be a cultural response – like roast chicken and mashed potatoes after the ’87 market crash, or Pinot Noir after Sideways.

I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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Past performance in dining must mean something, for our future is built on our past performance, but will past performance in a restaurant offer a guarantee of what you will get tomorrow? If nothing else, past performance affects the expectations from the next meal, but why does one diner demand the same satisfaction that comes from repeating his favorite foods and meals ad infinitum, while another soon tires of yesterday's perfection and is only satisfied by new discoveries at the table? Is there a national ethos that leads one country to demand the food they know and another to demand creativity? I sometimes suspect so, but at other times this seems cyclical. Surely there are ties to whatever else in happening in the culture. It's not surprising that creativity in the arts, along with that in food is blossoming in Spain with the return to democracy and the disappearance of an oppressive government. Do our tastes in restaurants help create our social patters, or do our social mores influence our tastes?

Trends will always come and go. The big story will be if we no longer have trends. Still, there are fads, and there are trends. A rash of BBQ restaurants in New York will provide locals with a greater choice of food and dining styles, but is not likely to affect the way four star restaurants do business. However, a trend towards a more casual life style, may well affect the dress and service in those restaurants. Some trends are part of a bigger wave that have a longer and more widespread effect, but they may be less worthy of place in the list of next year's trends.

Globalization affects what we eat as well as how we eat. The opportunity to eat the same way and eat the same food all over the world is increasing, but it may not be that we will all want the same thing. Years ago, there was an interesting BBC program on the English language and its universality. One of the most interesting aspects of the show was mention that as the use of English spread, the variation in the way it was used increased from locale to locale, so that Jamaican's were hardly speaking the same language as Sri Lankans, although both professed to be speaking English. Does anyone think we will wipe out diversity or that food will not continue to be an interesting aspect of travel, if not one of the interesting reasons to travel? Is anyone ready to count out the slow food movement? Even after spectacular meals in what may be New York City's newest and it's longest running four star restaurants serving the best internationally available provisions, I'm not at all prepared to argue that the best restaurant in the area isn't one located on an experimental farm in Westchester County and focusing on locally raised foods. All three restaurants however, are pioneers of sorts in the art of cooking sous vide.

Llike Clark, I can’t wait to see what’s next, in this forum and later when I go out to dinner.

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I'm not sure I really know what Clark is saying but I do like the way he says it. I did especially appreciate his response to his friends who say "It's only food." It is only food but it's so much more than that, also. If it weren't, we wouldn't be having this discussion and his work would be a helluva a lot more simplistic.

Clark, the reigning authority here, at least relative to me and Steven, is the expert on the restaurateur, and a general expert on all things front and back of the house. Steven can meaningfully be said to be an expert from the consumer's stand point and I of course am thoroughly back of the house.

Dividing the subject up by front of the house, back and type of restaurant might be a fruitful way to approach the subject. If clark is right about the trickle down effect, and his examples suggest they do, then what will we be seeing in smaller market independent restaurants, and in the chains (and chains vs indies is a huge subject on its own)? How will front of the house change as more people become more comfortable and more knowledgable about dining out? And how will all the forces of contemporary culture and the explosion of food information and food interest shape emerging restaurants?

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On Monday evening I hosted a panel in San Francisco about the History, Dynamics and Ethics of Luxury Dining. Its part of a series I’ve been doing bi-coastally for a few years.

My favorite line came from a wonderful woman, a Culinary Anthropologist from India and a heck of a cooking teacher. Her name is Niloufer King. She addressed this whole globalization thing by saying something like “perhaps we’ll have globalization of ideas and a localization of food.” It was kinda swell.

When I complained about chefs cooking in baggies and not sharing good kitchen smells with line cooks, Harvey Steinman of The Wine Spectator said “yes, but those cooks get to open the bags…”

Then Michael Bauer, Executive Food and Wine Editor of the SF Chronicle said “…those bags which might give you cancer…” to which someone added “isn’t grilling carcinogenic?!” and on and on. It was a wonderful hour which could have been a satisfying weekend.

They all did mention that a scootch of formality or at least dress-up has crept back in to high-end dining. Jackets, if not along with ties, are being requested – even required – in same spots again. I admit I think its pretty medieval that woman can dine sleeveless in open-toed strappy Jimmy Choo’s but if I wear a $700 pair of Gucci flip flops I can’t always get in.

So much of this is about having a social order under control, which is why knowledge, appreciation, palate, and real personal refinement are important to me and are, to me, more valuable than fancy pretense.

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The issue of formality and fine dining (there was a time when nobody would have thought to separate the two) is, I think, representative of a host of other issues. It’s not just about the coat and tie. It’s about all the things the coat and tie represent.

Fine dining has gone from being something that aristocrats did at home, to something former aristocrats did in restaurants, to something anybody with a hundred dollars of disposable income can do. Moreover, there are now people with a lot more than a hundred dollars of disposable income who bear no resemblance to aristocracy. While there have long been nouveau riche, it is really with the dot-com generation that we see nouveau riche who have no desire to emulate existing riche.

When the unshaven, unwashed guy in jeans may be the wealthiest person in the restaurant, new rules are needed. Most restaurants have adapted. Those that haven’t are mostly out of business or near extinction. There may be room for a niche sub-sub-subculture of a couple of restaurants in a given major city where the target audience excludes the casual generation, but they are the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule: just look at the average age of their customers, who typically appear to have been kicked out of the AARP for being too old.

Now, I like to dress up sometimes. I think a man in a suit looks better than a man in Dockers. But in addition to the triumph of casual Friday and casual every other day of the week, we have another issue to contend with: men’s style is no longer dictated by the suitmakers. So you can have some schlub in an awful suit next to an impeccably turned out guy in fashionable designer garb and the schlub gets in while the other guy is in the street? Not happening. Unsustainable.

Of course this has been the case with women’s fashion for a much longer time. That’s why it’s impossible to legislate. There simply is no feminine equivalent of “jacket and tie required for gentlemen.” And now, there is no contemporary, meaningful male equivalent of “jacket and tie required for gentlemen,” either.

As I was saying earlier, though, this isn’t all about clothes. Sartorial considerations are just some of the most visible ones. But the whole style of restaurants has changed. The service has changed. The approach to ingredients has changed. These things will I think continue to change, and I would be shocked to see a full-on return to formality. Maybe a mini-cycle back the other way, sure. But the world does not appear to be moving in that direction.

This all ties back to comments made throughout this discussion (and thank you gentlemen for making it so interesting) about restaurants having been cut loose from their historical moorings in many ways. We are to a certain extent entering a free-fall stage right now. There are no rules. But there will be rules. I look forward to seeing what they will be.

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