DEMYSTIFYING FINE DINING

-Chef Robert Wiedmaier

As a young cook, any time I saved up enough money, I went out to a great restaurant. Eating in great places taught me a lot about cooking, as well as about running a restaurant. And so when I meet guests, as I often do, who are excited about sharing with me their experiences at great restaurants, they are kindred spirits.

I appreciate not only their stories but also the fact that they understand what goes into creating that kind of a dining experience. They are aware that the chef has been working all morning with his staff in the kitchen to source the perfect ingredients and make great stocks for the sauces. They are interested in where the food is coming from and how it is prepared. And so it is these people who are a true testament to the fact that fine dining is alive and well.

I will admit, very few people know how to do fine dining and do it well—which can be attributed to a lot of the apprehensions that encircle it. Fine dining is not just about cooking; it’s about impeccable service and attitude. Creating a sensation for guests the moment they walk through the door that they are about to have a unique and memorable experience. Because if you expect someone to be sitting in your dining room for two to three hours, you had better make it worth their while.

In 1998, an opportunity came up to buy an existing restaurant. I named it “Marcel’s” after my father and my son. Initially the concept was upscale fine dining but in a very provincial ambiance. The original space had slate floors and old wooden provincial doors on the walls. Throughout the years, Marcel’s evolved into more of a fine-dining restaurant. Carpets went in, chairs were changed. To be honest, it is always evolving. And later this year, it again will be remodeled to update its look and feel.

Of course, I am proud of what we have achieved at Marcels. Zagat has rated Marcel’s the top restaurant for the whole Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and we have many more accolades to back that up. But more than that, it is a theater every night; a new show. We never assume we have it all figured out; we just go in and try to do it right. We want each of our guests to walk out thinking that he or she just had an unbelievable dinner and can’t wait to come back. While Marcel’s is one of the premier restaurants in the nation’s capital, once you are on top of the mountain, you have to stay there. And that’s the tough part: sustaining that push, keeping that cutting edge, hiring the right people and making sure that everybody goes one step beyond what other normal restaurants do. It can be in the details: changing the captains’ ties, buying a new serving dish, or changing the amusebouche daily. But it constantly has to be changing to stay current. In that respect, too, Marcel’s is always evolving.

So the name of the game becomes not only who can do it the best but also who can do it consistently. Let’s start with the food. As with any restaurant pushing the envelope, we are constantly looking to presentation. But the bottom line is: while you can make a dish look impressively cool and fancy, you have to follow through with every bite. Make it taste unbelievable. Our menus move with the seasons, and those menus are lengthy in that they are all tasting menus, so you can really personalize the experience. I find most guests order five to seven courses, which I think really captures the restaurant experience.

You can’t go out for an expensive dinner and have mediocre service; it has to go beyond what you would wildly imagine good service to be. When you get up from a table at Marcel’s, you aren’t going to be pointed to the bathroom—you are going to be escorted there. If you walk out to smoke a cigarette, someone is going to open the door for you and ask if you need anything. And when you get your check, you will be asked if you have used the valet parking, so that your car can be waiting for you the moment you leave. We want you to have a grand experience without any attitude.

Wine lists are intimidating, no question about it. What do I order, and how do I pronounce it? It’s our job to guide you through that list and help you make the right choice. And as for price point, never feel apprehensive about ordering the least expensive bottle. No matter the price, each bottle is on that list because it deserves to be there. I always tell my captains and sommeliers to make each guest feel great about their wine choice. You might hear them tell you that you made a great choice, that it’s one of the chef’s favorite wines. Because it just might be!

I believe a lot of fine-dining restaurants fall short by failing to dissolve the tension guests feel when they arrive. Think of the investment the diner has already made: obtaining a hard-to-get reservation, dressing up for the evening, perhaps impressing a date or a client with the choice to dine there. Do you really want to prolong their agony with a haughty, uninviting stare from the maître d’? No, you need to dispel any apprehensions the moment they walk through the door. And let them know they are going to have a great time, even if they do pick up the wrong fork!

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