New York Times dining critic Pete Wells caused quite a stir at the beginning of the year when he wrote a scathing review of Thomas Keller's New York City fine dining institution Per Se. Wells did not mince words. He described one dish as "appealing as bong water." But more important was what the review meant to the future of fine dining. New York Magazine declared it was another "nail in the coffin of fine dining," seeing as many diners seem more interested in fast casual eating than shelling out big bucks for fancy food.
We asked metro Phoenix chefs about the state of fine dining — and whether there's any life left in it.
Is fine dining dead?
Christopher Gross, chef of Christopher's & Crush Lounge
Is the opera or the theater dead? No. Those things, along with fine dining, will never die. It just runs through cycles. Years ago, the best fine dining was in hotels. After fine dining started to fade, then there was free standing, then there was nouvelle cuisine, then back to a little more classic, then molecular cuisine. Now that molecular cuisine is starting to fade, it seems like cuisine is reverting to be more classic again and less manipulated. For the last few years, it has been simple and and more casual dining, which hands down, has always been the most popular.
Dina Zappone, co-owner of Zappone’s Italian Bistro
Coming from a five-star French restaurant background, yes, that trend is over. People are running towards bistros and fast-casual concepts. Americans don’t have two to three hours to burn on five courses.
Michael Rusconi, owner and chef of Rusconi’s American Kitchen
No. It’s evolved and toned down. It’s definitely much more regionally adjusted because of the dining atmosphere and the weather. Who wants to wear a suit and tie in Phoenix when it’s 115 outside? At Rusconi’s American Kitchen, I serve fine dining food in a casual atmosphere
Virginia Senior, owner and executive chef of Urban Beans
Pretentious dining is dead. People want real food, prepared well, in a great atmosphere. It used to be that you had to go to an expensive restaurant for that. Now, you can have that at so many more places, minus the giant-plate-with-a-dab-of-sauce-and-bite-of-something dishes.
Rory Hewitt, executive chef of Phoenix City Grille
I feel that less people are able to afford fine dining restaurants, which makes them more for a special occasion. However, the fine dining experience is something everyone should have the opportunity to experience. Fine dining is food as art at its highest level. I feel food lovers will always appreciate this. And these chefs are presenting the greatest ingredients coursed out in an order that complement each other and lead to a climax. This is something you don’t experience when ordering only one thing off of a menu.
Silvana Salcido Esparza, chef of Barrio Cafe
What are you calling “fine dining?” A server wearing a tux? Yes, that is gone, R.I.P. I do think that the art of dining has evolved into something that is just a little too casual for my taste. That is why you can find me at Durant’s where they still wear a tux!
Beau MacMillan, executive chef of Elements at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain
Fine dining is always evolving and will continue to reinvent itself in order to keep current patrons excited and attract new clientele.
Samantha Sanz, chef at Talavera Restaurant
I do not think fine dining is dead. Dining on all levels is going through transition. Culinary art is just that - art. Whether it is a dollar street taco or a multi-course tasting at a Michelin-starred restaurant, all food has its place. In fine dining, there are some artists who are defenders of the art, and will carry it on until a new guard comes to relieve them.
Chris Lenza, executive chef of Café Allegro at the Musical Instrument Museum
Definitely not, though it can be harder to find these days. It’s just changing with the times to keep up with what consumers want, which means it’s not always served on a white tablecloth or in a formal environment. The techniques, skill level, quality of ingredients, and overall experience are what elevate it to that upper level, and those are only getting more refined.
Robert Nixon, chef of Geordie’s Steak at the Wrigley Mansion
As long as there is an appreciation for fine dining and the customer is willing to pay the price, it will never die. I think everyone should treat themselves to a fine dining experience at least once every few years, if not more.
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Becca Carlson, executive chef of Federal Pizza
I wouldn’t say dead – but dying, yes. More contemporary, fast causal dinning has swept the nation.
Jacques Qualin, chef of J&G Steakhouse
Fine dining is definitely getting harder to execute between the escalating food and staffing costs and all the intricate, time-consuming details it involves. But I think you will always have a niche for it.