Shorter menus, local substitutes?

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Noma, the best restaurant in the world four times, which single-handedly influenced every aspiring chef globally to go foraging, is set to reopen in a post-pandemic world. Earlier this week, chef Rene Redzepi announced that he is turning it into an open-air wine bar with just two burgers on the menu, one veg, one non-veg. More importantly, it would open as a far more inclusive restaurant: instead of the excruciating pain of trying to get through its portals (when reservations for its second coming opened in November 2017, it took hardly a day for all tickets till April to be sold out), diners have been exhorted to walk in “as you are”, no reservation required.

In these strange and uncertain times, it is a democratisation that is necessary. ‘Foodie’ pilgrims from around the globe are unlikely to fly in for quite a while. Local Copenhagen diners are unlikely to pack 40 tables night after night at more than $400 per head, for a 20-course tasting menu, however exquisitely prepared. In the pre-Covid world, food may have been elevated to art and prestige, but in the post pandemic world, diners may not have the patience to be bubble wrapped from that reality where food is sustenance at the most primal level.

As our cognisance of reality is redrawn and we go contend with the basics of life and death, hunger and sustenance, the idea of luxury dining is changing unalterably. When top chefs and restaurants get back into business, it cannot be in quite the same decadent, exclusivist way. Practical reasons include the need to feed local customers grappling with an economic slowdown and dependance on local supply chains. But the idea of serving 20 courses in an altered reality is rendered ridiculous morally too.

As Eleven Madison Park’s chef Daniel Humm said earlier this month, while EMP may not even reopen post-pandemic, if it does, it would mean redefining luxury. “It will be an opportunity to continue to feed people who don’t have anything. I don’t need to only feed the 1% anymore,” Humm was quoted saying, in a Bloomberg article.

The pandemic has spotlighted huge disparities between the rich and the deprived, and that is something that restaurants serving something as basic as food may not be able to look away from, and chefs will need to ask themselves: is it fulfilling creatively to focus on just the top one per cent on the economic ladder?

Customers, even the well-to-do, may be altered emotionally, seeking comfort over razzmatazz. Chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent tells me about how he envisages the new normal. “At a restaurant such as mine, if the focus was on details such as choosing a specific shape of potatoes from a lot and discarding the rest, now, we will have to rejig that entire premise of luxury. We cannot afford to waste anything any longer,” he says.

Menus will be shorter, local substitutes will need to be found for expensive foreign ingredients and prices of tasting menus will need to come down, he adds. Exclusivity based on price alone is set to crumble.

What will also go is the idea of frills and thrills. Luxury food in the BC world had aimed at inspiring shock and awe. Plates you licked, stones that turned out to be chocolate, special effects while a dish was presented dominated the dinner table. Somewhere, the idea of flavours tended to be lost amidst presentation. Diners who had paid so much for the “experience” had better appreciate it, even if they went back to burgers and fries or dal makhni and carbs later.

Food was not meant to be comfort at the rarefied restaurants. However, in a world ravaged by disease and devastation, comfort is what diners will seek from every experience. As we begin to move out of our homes, on such a high table we may find ourselves seated soon.

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