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31 January 2007

Where is the originality?

Frank Bruni, the New York Times restaurant critic has given Gordon Ramsay at The London two-stars.  In NY Times review lingo, that equates to Very Good.  When you read the review, it is clear that very good is not that good.  The meal was well cooked, with good ingredients but was uninspiring, the room was too clinical and there were some serious duff points in the meal.

However, what really interested me was Bruni's take on the homogeneity of restaurants across the globe:

...while looking forward to the seemingly inevitable day when your top-tier restaurant choices in a major destination on one continent are much the same as those in a major destination on another.

Ramsay? Ducasse? Vongerichten? Perhaps you just go with the restaurant of your countryman, supporting the home team. That’s the route suggested by the makeup of the dining room at the new Ramsay, where British visitors were abundant. It’s comforting to know that Americans aren’t the only tourists who travel far from home and then stay and sup in reminders of it.

The world's best chefs are keen to spread their brand as far as possible.  Alain Ducasse is a fine example.  He is a fantastic chef, but where is he chef of?  He has two restaurants that in theory he cooks in, Plaza Athénée in Paris and Louis XV in Monaco.  However, in his group there are a further twenty restaurants crisscrossing the globe: Tokyo, Las Vegas, the Basque region and various places in between.

Despite spreading himself so thin, he has not come in for any criticism.  True, no-one suggests he cooks at any of these places other than Plaza Athénée and Louis XV, but he is developing a global footprint.

There is a strange disconnect with this trend and the growing popularity of eating locally sourced and inspired food.  This tends to be a home cooking phenomenon, but there are a lot of chefs who have taken the concept to heart and make a virtue about the local nature of their restaurant.  The flip side, and rarely voiced side of fine-dining, is that most restaurant's could not survive without having large quantities of their food flown in from around the globe.  In complete contrast to the local evangelists, restaurants like Kuruma Zushi make a virtue that some of their fish is flown in from Japan on a daily basis.

So while at home we want to eat food grown within sight of our front door, when we eat out we seem to be pursuing an internationalists dream.  When Joël Robuchon opened his Atelier in London there was a lot of excitement, as there has been around Ducasse coming to The Dorchester.  Which is odd because in this age of cheap travel, lots of people have access to their cooking in Paris or New York, or even Tokyo.  And given the dining habits of most Londoners, they are as likely to hop on easyJet to Paris, as they are to pop into The Dorchester for a morsel of Ducasse.

So why do we care so much and see it so positively that these new restaurants will be on our doorstep?  I can only conclude it comes down to us buying into the chefs brand.  I do not mean to denigrate the quality of food or service at these restaurants, but the brand is all important.  Which means it is a very commercial enterprise.  Again, no problem with that, chefs have to make a living.  Nonetheless I feel a certain unease, expressed by Bruni above, that there is a growing homogeneity of fine-dining restaurants.  Is there any difference knowing I can get the same fantastic mashed potatoes at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in London and Paris, as knowing I can get the same McDonald's chips in both those location?  Aren't they just as regimented as each other?

Maybe this is the future of fine-dining restaurants, if it is I find it a bit depressing.  I like the idea that when I go overseas I am going to have new experiences not the same mash/chips I can have at home.

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From the moment I started reading your post I was thinking of the McDonalds similarities. I'm glad you made that point at the end of your post because that's all these restaurants are. McDonalds for the dining educated. It's a shame because all I see is the greed and ego of the chefs who make these 'brands' shining through. But hey - they wouldn't be chefs without their egos.

Bonnie, I agree with you to a point. However, we must not forget that these chefs are only successful with their brands because the punters keep flocking to them. It goes back to Bruni's point that people actively search out these chefs. Although, it doesn't always work out, however strong the brand. Alain Ducasse shut his restaurant at Essex House in New York. Whilst we don't know the full story, we can safely assume it wasn't the world's most profitable place.

Oh, I totally agree that the chefs must be not just good but extremely talented to get to the point where they are able to open more than one restaurant in the world's major cities.

What I don't agree with is that they feel the need to spread themselves so thinly that their quality is compromised. At McDonalds - it's about the systems - the amount of time that the chips are fried or that the burgers are grilled. In the worst of the McDonalds restaurants the kids may pull the chips too early or leave the burgers too long on the grill and because the system is failing that McDonalds won't be as successful as the one across the street.

Joël Robuchon may do fabulous and therefore famous mash at his restaurant in Paris but will he be able to replicate it here in London if his focus is on two restaurants rather than just the one? What systems has he put in place to ensure it won't fail? Aren't all systems in some way fallible? Why take that risk?

I assume he puts management structures in place. However, the point is that there is clearly the demand there for him. We can only have a dig at the chefs up to a point, after that, the punters are to blame. It's a classic case of "Open it, and they will come."

A very interesting and intelligent take on this subject Anthony. I've had similar musings myself recently, I think we're thinking along the same lines. The McDonald's bit was very intriguing, I'm not sure if you know this, but they are technically the most consistant restaurant on the planet. This is because every single burger etc. they sell is weighed out identically to the gram, all of course to their own regulations. Personally I would hate to think I would be served the exact same mash potatoes/chips at Joel Robuchon's Paris and London ventures. Food is all about variety, and although consistency is a very important factor to the success of any restaurant, its the ability to use your instincts and "freestyle" that shows your skills and capabilities...

Anthony, I agree with virtually every word you've written here. My own musings on the subject are in a paper I wrote a couple of years ago for the Oxford Food Symposium, "Authentic? or just Expensive?": http://www.whitings-writings.com/essays/authentic.htm

Thanks John. I haven't had a chance to read your article yet, but it looks interesting from a quick skim.

You reminded me, I must look into the Oxford Food Symposium this year. I keep meaning to and then keep forgetting until it's too late.

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