- It Means More Than the Price
Chef Robert Wiedmaier has opened a restaurant for almost every level—from the haute cuisine of Marcel’s to casual dining at the Mussel Bar & Grille, with Brabo and Brasserie Beck in between. Each has a specific purpose in its offered dining experience, even if you do find dishes on their menus with comparable price points.
What makes fine dining? Is it driven by price or experience? There seems to be a little confusion about that recently, and perhaps rightly so. If you walk into a casual gastropub, sit down at a wooden table, order pan-seared diver scallops, and the dish costs $32, isn’t that fine-dining prices?
Or is it simply the price you pay for ingredients that have been impeccably sourced and precisely cooked?
Take a handmade veal-cheek-and-mushroom ravioli on a bed of parsnip puree with a veal reduction and sprinkled with chives—that’s a great dish that involves a lot of work. It deserves to cost $30, no matter where it is served.
With the inundation of cooking shows, the dining paradigm has shifted. We see a lot of celebrity chefs opening restaurants, but media exposure does not guarantee that their establishments are fine dining, regardless of prices on a menu. To do fine dining you first have to understand what that entails, both physically and philosophically in the dining room and the kitchen.
Make no mistake: it costs a lot of money to open a finedining establishment. Fine equates with special. And at Marcel’s, similar to a lot of the fine-dining experiences you’ll find in New York City, that includes ironed linen tablecloths, Bernardaud china, Christofle silverware, Spiegelau glassware, and mise en place showplates. Add to that all the little accoutrements, from the amuse-bouche skewers to the demitasse spoons, and the costs begin to accumulate quickly. When I worked for Eddie Van Maele in his two-star Michelin restaurant in Brussels, we had to wash all the glassware by hand. If you broke one, you paid for it. When it comes to fine dining, you have to be diligent on breakage and cleanliness and putting things away. Not just in the dining room, where our waiters inspect each table to make sure it is spotless, but in the kitchen too. Even beyond the phenomenal execution of the food, you should find an immaculate kitchen, where you could literally eat off the floor and all the cooks and commis are presentable and in uniform.
To me, fine dining is defined by the experience, the whole package. It is three to four hours of indulgence and education and pampering. Eating is just one part of that equation. It’s about walking into a restaurant and seeing the whole brigade in suit and tie, ready to serve you. It means having a menu presented to you and a napkin placed on your lap. It includes going through the wine list with the sommelier, enjoying six or seven great courses, where the wines pair perfectly with the food, and then perhaps even walking away from the table for a cognac and a cigar.
Don’t confuse proper dining with “old school.” Fine dining means lining up your whole staff—the front of the house and the back—to inspect their shoes, their fingernails, the way they look, and the way they smell. Too much cologne and you are going to ruin the ambiance. We don’t even have flowers in our restaurants, because they take away from the food and the wine.
It’s also about attitude. I always tell my staff that it doesn’t matter if you are the captain or the food runner, when you are in the dining room you have to up your game. It’s imperative because everyone is wearing the same uniform, and no matter who the guest asks a question to, you have to be prepared to answer it then and there. It’s likewise in the kitchen: everyone is equal. I want the garde manger and the commis to strive to be the sous-chef. I treat everyone the same, and I expect my staff to do likewise with their coworkers, because the guy who cleans the copper and makes it spotless deserves the same credit when our customers remark on it as the chef who is recognized for creating a superb dish.
Fine dining is more than a price tag and a set of fancy linens. It’s a state of mind that starts the moment you walk in and are greeted with a smile or a handshake and continues way past the valet pulling up your car when you leave. It’s about creating an incredible memory of a place and time long after the effects of that last glass of Sauternes wear off.