Is An Era Ending?

By Beacon Staff

People who knew me when I was growing up (a/k/a the peanut-butter-and-jelly kid) are still somewhat aghast that I made the career switch to culinary and that I am an aficionado of fine dining.

Don’t get me wrong. I like casual, quick-serve (but not fast food) and catered dining, too. But the fancy places with what is known as “French service” are special, holding exalted places in the pantheon of culinary feats, innovations and pioneering of new taste combinations.

So I’ve been watching the announcements in the restaurant industry trade journals about openings and closings with a bit more interest as I’ve seen more of the “white tablecloth” places placing padlocks on their doors, never to be heard from again.

The recession has plenty to do with it, but it’s also an ongoing trend, as companies trim their budgets and technology makes the business trip less and less necessary. Hence, fewer expense account lunches and dinners that usually took place at fine dining establishments are the norm and are now a rare exception.

When most of the American public does not patronize the white table cloth places, does it really matter?

Yes it does, and here’s why:

First, classical culinary technique never goes out of style. As long as there are culinary schools, classical technique will be taught. It used to be that you’d only need it if you were going to work in a fine dining establishment. Not any more. There is an economy to be realized by using classical technique, such as cutting everything the same size so that it all cooks evenly and finishes at the same time.

Second, most food trends – both the combination of ingredients and the employment of the aforementioned technique – largely originate in fine dining establishments. Fernan Adria, the Spanish genius behind El Bulli; Jean-George Vongerichten; Wolfgang Puck; Alain Ducasse and other luminaries would not be around for us to admire and copy. The current rage is “molecular gastronomy,” in which chefs use food-safe chemicals to create essences rather than sauces; flash freeze to create paper thin slices of various foods; and more hocus-pocus that brings food science, gourmet dining, and food service in general to new heights.

Third, because the fine dining restaurant’s kitchen is set up and used to taking longer periods of time for preparation, this is where experimentation takes place – cooking techniques such as sous vide, in which a food is vacuum sealed and placed in a liquid at a constant temperature for hours and sometimes days.

I completely understand that we could afford neither the cost nor the calories if we were to eat in fine dining establishments every time we went out for dinner. But we need them as anchors in our culinary communities.

When the Food Network began exposing more Americans and Canadians to fine dining and essentially created the “celebrity chef,” our culture became a little richer. No longer was the fancy French or Italian restaurant confined to Paris or Florence. Our palates became educated to new cuisines and we learned new techniques – all because fine dining restaurants exist.

Is there innovation occurring at places like Applebee’s or KFC? It’s certainly possible, but not likely.

Quick serve and fast food also have their places in our culinary world.

But a world without fine dining restaurants would leave all of us much the poorer.

Valentines Day is coming. Where ya gonna take your sweetie – to Mickey D’s?

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