At one of the least-attended panels of the New York Wine & Food Festival, chefs and writers — Gabriella Gershenson of Time Out, Andrew Carmellini of Locanda Verde, Kate Krader of Food & Wine, Daniel Boulud, and Andre Soltner, formerly of Lutece — pondered the future of fine dining. But an unnamed sixth panelist hovered over the proceedings: Mr. David Chang.
In keeping with every navel-gazing panel discussion, Gershenson began by asking what exactly is fine dining? General credence was given to the idea that it’s about the food, not white tablecloths. Boulud said, "There is a difference between fancy dining and fine dining. Fine dining is about ingredients. Today we find fine dining in restaurants that aren’t necessarily high end." The wizened, benevolent Soltner agreed: "Fine dining is simplicity. A very simple restaurant can be fine dining." Kate Krader asserted that fine dining is something experiential and Andrew Carmellini chimed in, "Whether you are making fried chicken or something fancier, the intention, the attention, and the passion is the same." Well played, panelists! If fine dining just means good food, perhaps its prognosis will be better.
The elephant in the room — and pretty much at every panel discussion of the festival — was David Chang. Though rarely alluded to by name, he was frequently cited as a warrior against fine dining. Carmellini made repeated reference to the replacement of fine-dining establishments with hybridized versions involving "backless chairs and punk rock music" (both signatures of Chang’s empire). With a hint of disdain, Daniel Boulud mentioned in passing that "David Chang is the baby of Andrew Carmellini" (under whom Chang worked at Café Boulud). Andre Soltner woefully brought up the very good point — one often overlooked by those ensconced in the eat-out-a-lot bubble of bourgeois Manhattan — that for many people, visiting a fine-dining restaurant is a big event, something they may do only once in their lifetime. "And they don’t," said Monsieur Soltner, with a Gallic sniff, "want to be next to someone wearing blue jeans." It should be noted here that Soltner was the only panelist in a suit.
Though Chang might be changing the game, all agreed that the end of traditional white tablecloth, geisha-like service in New York coincided with Alain Ducasse’s failure at Essex House. "The public pulled back from that sort of excess," said Soltner. Everybody nodded ruefully. As for the future? "Fine dining won’t go away," said Boulud. "After all, it’s a very affordable luxury." Perhaps David and Karen Waltuck from recently shuttered Chanterelle or Cyril Renaud from Fleur De Sel, or even Ruth Reichl, might have provided a less sanguine outlook.