Is fine dining unsustainable?

25 January 2023 by
Is fine dining unsustainable?

René Redzepi has made public what many operators feel: the real cost of a fine dining menu is far higher than what is being charged, but price rises are met with derision. Ben McCormack reports

The news that René Redzepi is to close his three-Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant Noma at the end of 2024 was one of those rare hospitality stories that makes headlines around the world.

"We have to completely rethink the industry," Redzepi told The New York Times. "This is simply too hard; we have to work in a different way… It's unsustainable. As an employer and as a human being, it just doesn't work."

Yet if the reactions of the world's fine-dining fans have been ones of shock, fine-dining chefs themselves seem less surprised at the news. Sven-Hanson Britt, chef-patron of Oxeye in south London, tweeted: "He's not wrong. The whole system is so fucked. What's the solution? £1,000-a-head menus or two-day-a-week restaurants?".

Britt firmly believes that diners need to pay more for fine-dining experiences. "It's just too cheap. It's as simple as that. No-one should expect to go out and be waited on hand and foot for a few hours, have all their requirements met and leave happy and full for under £150. Prices need to go up because it doesn't look like costs will come down anytime soon."

Putting up prices, however, is not so easy. When James Knappett, the chef-patron of two-Michelin-starred Kitchen Table, announced last April that the cost of the 20-course tasting menu would be increasing to £300, with a commitment to spend at least a further £150 on the evening, the backlash led to a swift backtrack. The Daily Mail likewise reported on the "outrageous" £55 increase for L'Enclume's tasting menu in the wake of the Cumbrian restaurant winning its third Michelin star. But Britt says that the price hikes were criticised by just as many chefs as irate Mail readers.

"It was as if we, who are meant to support each other, said, ‘fuck you, you're not allowed to be a sustainable business, you can't make a profit, you have to carry on struggling to pay your bills – because we all can't, so why should you try and make some money?'

"When anyone puts their prices up we all jump on it like a pack of wolves out for blood. Striking a balance between charging the right amount to be viable and charging an amount that won't get you publicly ridiculed is the hardest internal battle for a restaurateur."

Mark Birchall, chef-patron of two-Michelin-starred Moor Hall and one-Michelin-starred the Barn in Lancashire, says that despite skyrocketing food and energy costs he has little room to pass costs on to the customer.

"We can't simply slap up the price of our menu. If we were in Paris, our menu would probably cost another £200, but we'd get absolutely slaughtered for that in the UK. We just can't charge that sort of money."

Like many fine-dining chefs, Birchall has had to become more creative. "All the margins have become tighter, so we've made sure that we're tight with everything we do. We use lobster tail in Moor Hall and the lobster claws in the Barn. We spread the cost that way."

A tasting menu (£225 at Moor Hall) does offer the advantage of predictable costs, says Stacey Sherwood-French, co-owner and director with husband Luke French of Jöro in Sheffield. "You know what to expect, how many dishes to prepare, and it's quite easy to manage financially as long as you have those numbers coming through the door."

The couple get their numbers through the door by offering two sittings per night for tasting menus of eight or 10 courses (for £75 or £95). The first sitting begins at 5.30pm and the second at 8.15pm, with a 15-minute turnaround in-between for tables to be re-set. Sherwood-French sees the closure of Noma as an inevitable shift in the landscape of fine dining. But if the fine-dining finances only add up when tables are turned, surely it's a business model as unsustainable as Redzepi says?

"Luke and I have had this discussion many times and when we saw René's announcement we said, wow, we've been talking about this for a while. Are we delivering the best experience we can when we're having to turn tables? It's probably not as good an experience as what you'd get if you were to have the table all evening. But in order for us to do that, we would need to charge double or triple we do now and the restaurant would no longer be viable. There isn't an appetite in South Yorkshire for paying that."

Diversify to survive

Noma will become a food laboratory once it closes and there is already a limited line of merchandise, Noma Projects, which is set to expand. Luke and Stacey have likewise diversified into selling drinks and gifts to fund their fine-dining operations.

"It gives us a safety cushion," Sherwood-French says. "Not only are we saving money on some of the products we use in the restaurant, but we're able to buy them in bigger volumes. And in terms of how the restaurant runs day-to-day, if numbers do drop slightly, we have the retail side to fall back on."

Moor Hall Dairy will launch this spring in collaboration with Martin Gott, the producer of Cumbria's acclaimed St James Cheese. Britt's Oxeye site is also home to Cartografie Chocolate, Bar Rex wine bar, the Sandwich Shack hatch and an events business.

"Our plan for surviving is to open as many different styles of outlets under our roof as we can," Britt explains. "This was the plan, but it's now more necessary than ever. It's like a hotel model. Traditionally, the two- or three-star hotel restaurant doesn't make any money, but it's propped up with the massive margins in afternoon tea, bar, events and private dining."

Moral maze

But what of the human cost that Redzepi spoke about? "The emotional and physical toil of building and operating a fine-dining model restaurant is like nothing else," Britt says. "You will miss the first steps of your child. You will have constant conversations with your partner about priorities. You will lose your friends and family through your own personal choices, and those choices will constantly see you skimming your own personal line of ethics when the end-of-month profit and loss is less than satisfactory. Do you use service charge to pay your ever-increasing bills? Do you ask your senior team to pull more hours? Do you take on more free labour and interns? Fine dining is a perpetual battle."

Free labour has been cited as one of the reasons Noma has become unsustainable. Redzepi began paying his interns at the end of 2022, which is believed to have added £40,000 to Noma's monthly wage bill. None of the UK chefs we spoke to, however, use unpaid interns. Britt believes there is nothing wrong with working for free in exchange for learning a new skill, but he points out that it excludes all but those from privileged backgrounds, usually "rich white blokes". Starting salaries at Oxeye are in the region of £30,000. But if fine-dining is such a struggle, why open a fine dining restaurant in the first place? "You can change someone's day, their mind, their life by showing them the true meaning of hospitality," Britt says.

"The problem comes when the restaurant forgets why they're doing what they're doing. Every plate of food is just as important as how you make the person feel. Real fine dining is about the personal connection we make every day to our guests. The moment ego gets in the way of this, hospitality is lost."

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