There have been a lot of discussions and opinions swirling around after Rene Redzepi announced the closure of Noma, arguably one of the top restaurants in the world. While Noma’s run as a Michelin restaurant is now at an end, there are many reasons why it doesn’t spell the end of fine dining cuisine as we know it.
Noma’s announcement generated a healthy debate on how we can improve the restaurant industry as a whole and how we should defend our food systems and culture. And that’s where we should focus our energy at this stage.
There’s a high cost in running fine dining restaurants, but the value rests in their place in society. Fine dining establishments provide a space for the most creative chefs and the boldest of all hospitality entrepreneurs to experiment, innovate and offer unique and upscale dining experiences–something that’s hard to replicate at regular dining establishments. At the heart of these restaurants is their commitment to sustainability, with top chefs championing locally-produced sustainable ingredients to create their award-winning dishes and working with smallholder farmers and suppliers.
A fine-dining restaurant can also spur economic growth, and more importantly, its growing fame and reputation can help put the city or area a culinary destination.
Tackling the Challenges Ahead
The restaurant industry has been finding its feet again after the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. As a sector beset with labor shortages and low ROI over the past two years, using the same strategy is no longer viable in this new reality.
How do we move forward from this?
The answer lies in technology. There are many platforms in the marketplace designed to help owners with restaurant operations like table management service (TMS), online reservations, scheduling, and payroll to marketing. Automated solutions like call-in waiting, online bookings, etc., can help restaurateurs automate tasks and lessen the burden of staff running the front and back of the house. They can allocate lesser staff during off-peak hours. With automated marketing solutions like EDM (electronic mail), restaurateurs may no longer need a marketing team to create promotions to reconnect with their loyal clientele. These are just some of the few solutions out there that restaurants and hotels can access to bring their operations to the next level.
Meanwhile, mobile delivery and online takeouts, or even opening an online store can be new revenue streams. Noma, for instance, will pivot into a food lab, and a pop-up restaurant, and may even offer Noma-branded products, which will ultimately require some form of platform and technology. Although takeouts and delivery have been around before COVID, priority online ordering can help fine-dining restaurants offer some exclusivity to make them stand out from the rest of the restaurants offering delivery options. Having an online delivery or takeout but still maintaining that elevated service is an added plus.
While most fine-dining restaurants have their go-to sustainable suppliers, there’s a need for local governments to build a database to make it easy for chefs to find more sustainable options and new ingredients to help them keep their costs down.
Governments should step in and offer rebates, assistance, and incentives for restaurants that run their business sustainably – whether they use more energy-efficient commercial equipment, manage food waste better, or donate leftover food to charities. These rebates will cut overhead costs to improve operations and can help raise staff wages.
Cultivating Kindness in the Industry
According to a recent study by Cardiff University, emotional and mental tolls are high in elite kitchens. More importantly, the overall working conditions remain an issue as restaurant staff, front-of-the-house managers, and servers have to put on their A-game daily, working grueling hours, despite the low pay.
While owners, head chefs, and restaurant servers have to undergo rigorous training to keep their technical skills in tip-top shape, mental health training, essential to survival in this industry, is rarely taught.
Owners and managers should attend mental health training seminars as part of a requirement for running operations.. Food is a business of making people happy. An unhappy staff means unhappy guests, and no restaurant is sustainable in the long run with mentally stressed workers. When the suicide of a three-starred Michelin chef hit the news many years ago, it was already a wake-up call. With a huge staff turnover in the industry, restaurant leaders need to empower their employees and recognize those who provide outstanding service. For this to work well, it should be a community-wide effort. Restaurants should put aside competition and work with each other to think of best practices to help their industry thrive than dive.
A Look at Japan and the Omotenashi Culture
In Japan, fine-dining restaurants embody the spirit of our Japanese omotenashi hospitality culture. Omotenashi is hard to define in words alone, but it generally speaks of the selfless and high standard of service we commit to for our guests. It’s the attention to detail at every step of the guest journey, the commitment to culinary craftsmanship, and our willingness to provide the best service and food to guests-all of which make up the omotenashi culture.
More than that, because our cuisine is rooted in tradition and traditional cooking techniques, fine dining – the highest form of culinary expression – can preserve our culinary heritage.
While it’s great to have the reputation of being a country synonymous with Michelin stars, the dining industry also has to evolve to move forward, especially at a time when Japan is experiencing economic and social challenges.
The availability of top-tier ingredients is a concern or challenge for top-tier restaurants. Due to the declining population, and the aging of the population, many fishers and farmers have no successors.
Japan’s fine dining industry is also suffering from labor shortages and one way to tackle that is through digital tipping. While this isn’t part of the culture here in Japan, it should be reimagined in a way that will benefit both the worker and consumer and in a form that’s still considerable of the culture.
Bringing these restaurants outside of Japan, whether having a pop-up or a new restaurant branch is another way of building a global audience and a new revenue stream. As Japanese fine dining defines our omotenashi hospitality, It’s important to widen our reach globally for guests worldwide to experience it while building our brand along the way.
Whether dining in Japan or elsewhere, we need to rethink ways to maintain a high quality of service for these fine-dining restaurants for generations to come.
Because fine-dining isn’t just a trend, it is an art form, and art forms are timeless expressions of culinary refinement and culture.