A casual future for fine dining?

Four of the world’s best chefs talked about their food and the future of dining at the second Estrella Damm Gastronomy Congress

Taking place at London’s Hurlingham Club, the second Estrella Damm Gastronomy Congress saw cooking demonstrations from some of the best chefs around right now. Heading up the quartet was Joan Roca, head chef of El Celler de Can Roca, the Girona restaurant, which took the top spot at this years’ World’s 50 Best restaurants. Joining him for a day of foodie discussions were Albert Adriá from Tickets in Barcelona – and the world’s best pastry chef; Brett Graham from the Ledbury in London and James Knappett the man behind Kitchen Table at Bubble Dogs also in London.

Adding some robust insight to the mix, Simon Stenning from M&C Allegra presented the findings from a new report, revealing that the UK restaurant market has grown by 1.5% in 2015 with 16 new pub and casual restaurant openings per week. He pointed to a sustained trend for casual dining with a focus on quality street food and premium pubs.

This new bigger picture of casual dining includes the fast growing street food movement, which involves entrepreneurs as well as foodies. “Food is the new rock’n’roll,” said Stenning. In the M&C Allegra report 46% of industry insiders pointed to street food as the main area of growth in the next 3-5 years while 40% said all-day dining.

He said the pubs continued to re-claim the space taken by coffee shops – they have done this through installing more lounge areas and introducing quality coffee brands. Other concepts to attract more customers include brunch, tapas and main meals while some pubs give kitchen space over to chefs to offer a different or higher quality menu.

Though the overall trend points toward a more relaxed nature of dining Stenning was clear that restaurants and pubs have got to be on their toes. “You can’t be casual about casual dining,” he said. “Brands that stand still will fall away. You have got to stay ahead of trends and challenge consumers to spend more.”

Picking up on the trends from a restaurant point of view Brett Graham of the Ledbury in London explained how his relationship with suppliers had changed what’s on his menu.

He uses different kinds of produce on the supplier’s recommendation. At the Ledbury he uses white beetroots. “Many things are not used simply because they are not pretty, but as any gardener will know it is very difficult to grow perfect looking vegetables,” he said.

James Knappett, the head chef of Kitchen Table at Bubble Dogs agreed with Graham when it comes to the ingredients he uses. “It’s about asking the supplier what they have that is good and what we should be using – not you telling them what you want,” he explained.

Knappet’s restaurant at Bubble Dogs is a very different proposition in the fine dining space: the dress code is relaxed and diners sit around a bar, so it fits in neatly with this new casual fine dining.

He said the way the dining scene is evolving in London means restaurants have to work harder to keep the customers. “People are eating out more now but you rarely see them going to the same place twice because there are so many new places to try,” he said.

Albert Adriá, the man behind Tickets in Barcelona pointed to the importance of responding to the consumers’ demands and change accordingly. When he and his brothers closed down the famous elBulli in 2011 he came up with the concept for a tapas bar in Barcelona; firmly fixed on the future he had not considered bringing any of the flourishes from elBulli. However, it turned out that customers wanted more of the dishes like those they had experienced at the former restaurant. Adriá had to change. “I opened a bar and now it is a restaurant at number 42 in the world’s best restaurants,” said Adriá. “You offer people a proposal and then they will you what they want.”

Telling the story of El Celler de can Roca, head chef Joan Roca explained that he and his brothers were inspired by their parents’ tapas bar in Girona when they opened their own restaurant. Many of the dishes they serve their guests are innovative and playful takes on traditional Spanish dishes including the famous potato omelette, the deep fried squid and anchovies.

The watchword in their cooking is respect. “If we don’t respect tradition we can’t innovate,” he said. Roca demonstrated how the tapas platter is served in el Celler – bite sized morsels packed with flavour. In a tasting menu of so many dishes the focus is on making sure the guest is not overwhelmed by the quantity.

“We do everything we can –  using techniques like freeze-drying and rehydrating – to extract the maximum flavour possible so we can serve the small bites in a very long menu,” he said.

United in their quest to offer the best in fine dining to their guests, the four all showed in their demonstration that flexibility and a willingness to change is key to success in a competitive and global restaurant scene.

 Tina Nielsen

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