We've watched as elements of fine dining slowly creep into more casual methods of service, allowing restaurateurs to build successful business models on top of changing diner preferences. But fine dining has never gone away; it's just evolved within its own constraints.
— Kristen Hawley
Fine dining is back. At least, that’s what reports of the current state of the restaurant industry show. Experts from Bloomberg’s Kate Krader to Eater national critic Bill Addison cite the rise of classic French-inspired dishes and restaurants as a signal that the relaxed era of no-frills dining is shifting to more traditional models of service. And as profiled in this year’s Megatrends, restaurateurs’ acute focus on the in-restaurant experience and more-is-more design also communicate the shift toward more formality.
The business of fine dining, largely defined by its chefs and cuisine, has its own challenges. While diners accept a higher price point in exchange for quality and service, higher food and labor costs challenge restaurants to maintain the right balance.
This summer, marks chef Gabriel Kreuther’s 21st year in New York City’s fine-dining world. His unwavering dedication to quality earned his namesake restaurant a Michelin star, a three-star review from the New York Times after opening in 2015, and made him a venerable figure in the industry.
According to Kreuther, his success and longevity comes from staying true to his point of view, approaching every role with a sense of ownership, and studiously avoiding trends. Kreuther recently discussed his approach toward business and cooking with Skift Table, detailing what makes his restaurant work.
Balancing Creativity with Reality
Restaurants can be heavily swayed by trends, but Kreuther has mostly avoided that hamster-on-a-wheel chase. “I never really paid attention to trends or what’s in or out,” he said. “I always followed my belief in what I believe is good.” And perhaps that means being slightly selfish. “First, I think as a chef when you cook, you cook a little bit for yourself,” Kreuther said. “I cook the stuff I like to eat. I’m not going to cook something just because it’s a trend.” Most importantly, authenticity is at the heart of everything. “I really try hard to stick to my point of view and to stay authentic.”
Kreuther worked in others’ kitchens — The Modern, Jean-Georges, La Caravelle — before opening his own restaurant in 2015. While the earlier gigs weren’t his own place, he still maintained an attitude of ownership. “With the spirit of ownership comes the spirit of entrepreneurship,” he said. “Once you have that in your mind, it’s a natural transition, going from running it to owning it.” When Kreuther finally realized his longtime goal of opening his own restaurant, this attitude made it less of a hurdle to surmount.
That said, while sticking to one’s guns is valuable, Kreuther acknowledges the need to evolve to maintain success over time. His restaurant is an unabashed temple to fine dining, but that commitment to elevated style isn’t without its risks. “There is that misconception that it’s too much, but I don’t believe that,” he said. “Fine dining needed to evolve, needed to get closer to the client, needed to get closer to what people say, instead of, this is the only way we’re doing it and that’s the way it is.”
Real-Life Operational Decisions Make a Difference
When it came time to open his own place, Kreuther found partners and investors who understood the particulars of the restaurant business. Not only must they be in it for the long term (rare to nonexistent is the restaurant that turns a profit in the first six months), but they should also have an appreciation for fine food and wine, according to Kreuther. “It takes that person that understands that.”
The restaurant opened in the summer, a soft time of year for restaurants in New York City, when many locals head out of town for the season. While some new owners might have bemoaned this fact, Kreuther used the slower time for fine tuning. He likened it to getting acquainted with the restaurant. “When you open a place, it’s like moving in a new apartment,” he said. “You put in a couple pieces of new furniture, three weeks later you start moving in a little.” But within three months of a relatively sleepy opening, the restaurant had already received a Michelin star.
Staff is the restaurant’s biggest cost — and investment. Training and education are a regular part of employees’ work lives, and they share with each other research they’re assigned. “The beauty of that is we have many different people who have different background or cultures, so they can share different points of view, different ways of cooking, different flavors,” Kreuther said.
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