Kitchen Confidential: The Secret Chef on ten years in hospitality

Some things have changed, but many have stayed the same, says The Secret Chef, as he reflects on the last 10 years – and what may come next

If a week is a long time in politics, a decade in hospitality may as well be a lifetime. There are certainly times when it feels that way to me, especially when I think about where I was, what was happening and what I expected of myself – and others – 10 long years ago. 

But then there are other times when it feels as if no time has passed at all and the industry, far from being unrecognizable and distant, is actually easier to navigate than expected because it’s almost exactly the same. That’s a roundabout way of saying that some things have changed, and others have remained resolutely the same. 

There are some sectors within hospitality that have seen significant changes: food delivery services, many of which were founded around the same time as this publication, have transformed from fringe players to major participants in the foodservice industry. Though doubtless assisted by conditions created by the pandemic, recent years have seen their business model flounder slightly under the pressures of tightening fiscal conditions and rising costs. It remains to be seen if the model has long-term sustainability or if it requires specific conditions in which to be successful: namely, cheap money and the closure of every single dine-in restaurant on the planet. 

The rise of the dark kitchen is another key theme that, I’m sure, will become more significant, and one that goes hand-in-hand with many of the app-based food delivery services. With increasing cost pressures and more and more questions being asked as to the ethics of the grey economy, any approach that shaves costs is going to be the only way for all involved in the delivery system to make a sensible income. Not having to pay the costs of having a city center location from which to cook looks set to be an aspect of the system that is here to stay. 

Challenges and trends

One sector that, for me, is difficult to call is that of the future for plant-based iterations of familiar meat-based products. While the quality of the newcomers has improved over the last decade, customer appetite seems to have waned over the past few years. Technology has doubtless assisted in the search to create sustainable alternatives to burgers, sausages, bacon, and chicken nuggets all made from a variety of plants: it is now even possible to eat a 3D printed ‘steak’ made from pea protein – but currently there doesn’t seem to be the same appetite for them as there was four or five years ago. Where the sector goes from here remains to be seen. 

One thing I can say with certainty though is that at the top end, we are in the midst of significant change. Despite outward appearances – the New York Michelin Guides from 2013 and 2023 look remarkably similar – the long view is that the years between 2013-2019 will be seen as a high-water mark for a particular approach to fine-dining. Driven by enthusiastic investors, highly motivated (demanding) chefs and a relaxed attitude to the use of near infinite hours of free labor in order to achieve their goals and accolades, the first half of the last decade saw a boom in the proliferation of aspirational restaurants, and a rise in the number of people willing to eat in them. 

Recent exposés on toxicity, abuse, poor conditions, and the innate unsustainability of this style of hospitality have exposed some fundamental fault lines within the model and the backlash is beginning. Precisely how this will transpire remains to be seen, but if there is one thing I know for certain, it’s that kitchens are adaptable places. Chefs are always keen to meet a challenge and the consumer is always looking for the next trend. Here’s to the next 10 years – I can’t wait to see what happens.

The Secret Chef

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