From chefs and sommeliers to mixologists and servers, a large part of the fine dining experience is the human element. Remove that and what is left behind is barely a reflection of its grander stately version.
A few months ago, as I was enjoying my course of pasta before the mains were scheduled to arrive, the maître-d’hôte came along and generously drizzled my plate with truffles and parmesan cheese. Today, if the same were to happen, I’d give a silent shudder if the person wasn’t wearing rubber gloves. And even then, I’d most likely ask them to simply leave it at the table and let me do the garnishing myself. So much has changed in so little a period of time. The pandemic, in that sense, has set us back and moved us forward a 100 years simultaneously!
In Europe, restaurants have started opening. Gone are the days of cosy bars where elbows rubbed. The term ‘can’t touch him/her with a barge pole’ is the norm for setting up social spaces today. Places have gone all-out inventive in trying to find ways to keep people feeling safe and secluded without losing too many covers. Acrylic enclosures, sliding dividers, smaller table settings, all this is being done to create a sense of letting people be isolated in a crowded space.
The paradox of it all makes home delivery sound like a much more convenient option. Just order your food home, call up your friends on Zoom (or Hangouts or MS Meeting, or whichever app you are all commonly using) and enjoy it as the next best way to socialise without the worries. Home delivery has truly been picking up and even the big five-stars are giving in to the demand. I still don’t feel that they have their pricing pegged right, but maybe over time, it will work itself out. And with WhatsApp allowing eight people on a video call, I think socialising over the net isn’t all that hard to do.
So that’s food and friends sorted, but what about the drinks? Well, with the home delivery of alcohol commencing, it makes the idea of staying in sound ever more lucrative. You can finally do it all from the comfort of an armchair.
But what about fine dining, an experience which isn’t just about the food, drink and company, but also about the ambience and service? How will that fare going ahead? Will they, too, start delivering course-wise meals to home? But how is that fine dining if I am sitting at my own dining table? Also, who is serving me here and guiding me through the wine list, or preparing my aperitif of a peated whisky sour? From chefs to sommeliers, mixologists and servers, a large part of the fine dining experience is the human element.
Remove that and what is left behind is barely a reflection of its grander stately version. Bare-bones fine dining is an oxymoron and it just doesn’t work when we try to understand it out of context. Maybe the finer places could send the team home to cook and serve me, but where does that leave social distancing? And would I be able to afford that experience, considering how the drying up revenue streams means that my spending capacity already stands diminished compared to even a few weeks ago? If others feel the same, will there remain enough takers for the service to keep it afloat?
Just before we went into lockdown, the team at Indian Accent shared the news with me that once again they were the top-rated Indian restaurant (climbing to number 13) in Asia’s 50 Best list. Alas, I never got around to sharing forth that information and, now, all I can do is sit and reminisce my last meal there. I certainly hope they (and others like them) will find novel ways to see themselves through these times.
In times today, when few eateries can live beyond their first year, my heart goes out to all those who have managed to stick around for longer, but are now faced with this very real scare of having to permanently shut doors. I don’t have any solutions to suggest, but let’s wait and watch how things pivot. The coronavirus may become a permanent bane for all of us, but if there’s one thing history has taught us it’s that there is no species more resilient than the homo sapiens.
The writer is a sommelier