All eyes are on the fine-dining scene as restaurants, even the most critically successful ones, admit to overwhelming operational challenges. The most recent was Deanes EIPIC, which last week announced it was shutting its doors due to economic problems.
It was becoming too expensive to run the Michelin-starred venue in Belfast, chef Alex Greene told CNN, as costs spiralled “out of control”.
The question of financial sustainability has been simmering for a while. At the beginning of the year, three-Michelin-starred venue Noma in Copenhagen announced its looming closure. Famed Danish chef Rene Redzepi said it had become unsustainable to operate, promising that “Noma 3.0" will take the form of a full-time food laboratory, developing new dishes and products for its e-commerce operation, Noma Projects.
Two-Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko, chef David Chang's New York City restaurant, and Contra by chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske, also ceased operations citing changing preferences on the dining scene.
This series of high-profile shutdowns has put a spotlight on the restaurant industry, with many asking the crucial question: Is fine dining – the kind that most seems to impress Michelin Guide inspectors – a bygone era?
'People still love to treat themselves'
“At 52 years of age, I have been through recessions, cost-of-living crises, financial crises, Brexit and so much more, and during this time Michelin-starred venues have always existed,” Atherton tells The National.
“People still love to treat themselves in high-end venues. It’s a luxury, like haute couture,” says the chef who runs several restaurants around the globe, including the Michelin-starred City Social in London.
For him, fine dining will always have an audience, but it's a matter of making tweaks to create a viable business model. One trend Atherton points to is how high-end venues have become smaller in recent times, a concept he is experimenting with in his newly launched 22-seater Dubai restaurant Row on 45.
“It becomes easier to control consistency, the quality of the produce and execute an experience at a really high level, which is not possible with a 70 or 80-seater venue,” he says.
There are many operational elements that make up the cost of running a restaurant, too. In the UK, for example, staffing is a “large problem”, says Atherton.
“It has become so difficult to find candidates that offer the same quality of service as you used to get,” he adds. Inflation has also affected people's purchasing power, “so we are constantly making sure our menus are as affordable as possible. The only way to overcome these challenges is to work meticulously on your purchasing, to be able to get the best deal without compromising the quality,” he explains.
But Atherton is adamant that these challenges are seasonal at best, adding: “If you have it easy all the time, you will never appreciate it when it is good. You need to take these harder times and learn from the lessons they provide so you can appreciate full restaurants, satisfied guests and the pressures of keeping everything up to standard.”
Chef Takashi Namekata of TakaHisa, a fine-dining Japanese restaurant in Banyan Tree Dubai (formerly Caesars Palace Dubai), says the synergy within the industry helps to maintain an “enduring market for high-end fine dining”.
He explains how the restaurant's founder, Aimi Shibuya, has created a network of other A-list chefs and restaurateurs who help to keep the restaurant updated, “adapting to evolving preferences within the culinary landscape”.
'Not profitable at all'
Operational costs aside, restaurants are also confronted with changes in diner preferences.
According to Indian celebrity chef Ritu Dalmia, who runs restaurants in Italy and India, people who can afford fine dining are “those over a certain age, and they are now fed up sitting through long meals. They would rather go to quality restaurants where there is a sense of intimacy, not intimidation.”
One way to do this, the chef reckons, is to not “add too much”.
“What's interesting about Indian cooking is the amount of spices available to us,” she says, “but the real challenge is to use them intelligently.”
Deanes EIPIC in Belfast is planning a relaunch with a value-for-money focus, and Dalmia believes this is the way to go.
“Many Michelin-starred restaurants have opened bistro-style counterparts. The Michelin-starred venue is their showcase, but the money is made in the bistro,” she says. She even goes on to say that high-end fine dining is “not a profitable business at all” in comparison.
'Out with stuffy experiences'
Balancing profitability and quality is critical in the restaurant business, says Soleman Haddad, the chef-owner of Moonrise, which has one Michelin star. The Omakase-style restaurant only serves up to 12 diners at a time, and Haddad admits to the sacrifices, including on the financial front, to achieve what it's done since 2021.
“I had no salary for the first year and was living on a very small amount of savings. I had to think twice before making any expense,” he tells The National.
“The sacrifices you have to make to balance your passion with business require the business owner to take so many hits,” says Haddad, who adds he does not have any regrets.
On top of his passion for food, Haddad views Michelin stars as an achievement that could “lay some foundation for your future”.
“They bring credibility, a strong network, access to exclusive ingredients and opportunities for business growth.”
Being a young chef and entrepreneur, Haddad knows people “don't want stuffy food or service any more”, echoing Dalmia's sentiments. At Moonrise, he says it's all about “celebrating being human and enjoying special moments. It's not so much that fine dining is out, but rather that people care more about experiencing happiness rather than stuffy, old-school service.”