The Demand for Fine Dining – Is it Sustainable?

Posted on: July 1st, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

‘Sustainable’ is a new favourite. In 2008 our fine dining experiences revolve around the implied need to consume local produce that is organic and sustainable.

One might argue that local produce has too many benefits to ignore: Cultivating a local market community, a reduction in unfriendly transport costs and showing off what the local area has to offer.

If our opinion of the world is also a confession of character, as RW Emerson once famously said, then perhaps it also holds that our view of the world is coloured by our own experiences.

Should this be true then the ‘local’, ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ bandwagon is rolling right through fine dining from top to bottom. Why? As new diners come to the market their expectations and experiences require these things.

After all, it is all they hear about, all they read and all they see in the media. New chefs too want to rise to the challenge and meet this demand. Eventually, even the old guard will adorn their menus with platitudes about local, sustainable produce.

Since Al Gore’s pivotal Nobel Prize and Oscar winning piece An Inconvenient Truth, the notion that the environment is our best friend has seeped, by osmosis, deep into the ocean of world psyche.

It may not quite be the end of Bresse and Anjou or ‘line caught’ or ‘hand dived’ appearing on our menus but they will become increasingly marginalised over time.

But this is just a diversion, we are asking is fine dining itself sustainable not just its contents.

It is fair to say that over the last 10 years the demand for fine dining has exploded. And this appetite for top end eating has not been confined to Britain – We have seen Michelin produce Guides for the United States and Japan as they continue to expand into further markets.

Michelin is just a signal, a sign of the times, people demand to know what’s out there and, importantly, have had the economic clout to go and experience these best of establishments.

As has been said in previous editorials, people are influenced by near blanket media coverage in how best to consume in line with lifestyle aspirations and who have we seen on TV more than chefs in the last decade?

People have become so much better educated and discerning in their choices and over the last period considerably better off financially.

However, here comes the crunch – the ‘credit crunch’ in fact.

The economic circumstances of 2008 are far more worrying and gloomy than 1989, when the beginnings of the last recession hit Britain. The commonly coined credit crunch is unprecedented in economic history and in the modern world everything economic follows from the cost of credit.

The accompanying (but unrelated) record oil prices make a potent and potentially catastrophic combination.

(I have a conspiracy theory – one of many – that the price of oil is a fix to deter India and China from rapidly expanding their consumption of fossil fuel: OPEC control supply and supply determines price and as yet I don’t see the US leaning too hard on OPEC to fine tune their delivery of Crude.

Understandable and logical. Why? An expansion in supply and reduction in price would fuel demand in these developing countries to a point where the ‘unsustainable’ comes uncomfortably into view for the whole oil dependant world.)

But where does this leave fine dining? An economic downturn, one that is severe and prolonged, will hit all sectors of the market. Indeed , the first to suffer in a downturn are luxury disposable income items and who could argue that fine dining restaurants are not at the top of that list!

It may not be too long before the plethora of chef programmes follow the property programmes off our airwaves.

However, I suspect the top end will survive, a form of hibernation, before the first blossoms of economic spring in around 2012.

Perhaps a period of adjustment: fewer new ventures, fewer front of house, fewer chefs in the kitchen.

In any event, I’ve no doubt that fine dining restaurants will be sustainably selling sustainable menus to the sustainably wealthy for the foreseeable future.