Looking back, Derry Clarke is amazed at the number of staff needed to keep the show on the road – and the Michelin star in its armoury – at L’Ecrivain, the feted restaurant that he and wife Sallyanne ran in Dublin for 31 years until 2021.
“In l’Ecrivain we had 12 or 14 chefs. It was incredible. Sometimes we were almost one-on-one with the customer-to-staff ratio. It was crazy,” he said.
“Insane” was the word used by Enda McEvoy and Sinead Meacle about the running costs of their Michelin-starred Galway restaurant Loam, as news broke last week that it will not reopen.
Speculation about the demise of “fine dining” began to simmer earlier this month when René Redzepi, the man behind Noma in Copenhagen, five times declared the best restaurant in the world, indicated he will be shutting up shop next year. Paying staff properly, while maintaining three Michelin stars at prices that people are willing to pay no longer adds up, he said.
“We have to completely rethink the industry,” Redzepi said. Even gastronomes who can’t contemplate a world without high-end dining are inclined to agree.
Soaring costs are having a huge impact on a sector that was only emerging bleary-eyed from the pandemic.
I think honestly there will always be a place for fine dining, for special occasions and all of that. And if you go to a really lovely fine dining restaurant then you really do feel like putting on the high heels and the red lipstick— Darina Allen
Earlier this year Francis Brennan said he was taking fillet steak off the menus at the five star Park Hotel in Kenmare. It had gone up by 42 per cent and patrons who weren’t quibbling with a bed & breakfast rate of over €500 a week night weren’t prepared to pay the adjusted rate for steaks.
Chef Darina Allen said the sector was enduring a “perfect storm” in the aftermath of Covid with skyrocketing prices, staff shortages and customers’ tightened purse strings all adding to the strain.
“I think this has been gradually coming because our eating habits were changing anyway,” said the founder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School.
She said a trend emerged five or six years ago, when people who didn’t feel like cooking started going for “a little bite out, maybe with a glass of wine” rather than a marathon 10-course taster menu blowout.
“And obviously if you’re going for something less formal, you mightn’t want to change your clothes or dress up much,” she added.
But Allen thinks the prediction that fine dining is over “is very premature” despite the momentum behind no-frills menus that provide less choice while still promising quality. She cited research suggesting that while 83 per cent of us have less income than before the pandemic, 70 per cent say that eating out is the treat they most look forward to and has become “an integral part of many of our lives”.
“I think honestly there will always be a place for fine dining, for special occasions and all of that,” said Allen. “And if you go to a really lovely fine dining restaurant then you really do feel like putting on the high heels and the red lipstick and really enjoying the whole experience”.
She says she feels desperately sorry for chefs who have devoted their careers to perfecting their craft and who now can’t make the sums add up.
“It is so tricky to try to make money on food. It always was, but now with the cost of living crisis and the price of absolutely everything skyrocketing, it is super tough for them really.
“My little suggestion if I was in that situation would be for goodness sake if possible at all, do an alternative menu, maybe one or two courses, just even one dish to keep the cash flow going and your name out there.
“I know if your kitchen is geared to a certain kind of business it is not that easy but I think it may be the only way that some places are going to survive.
“People have been carrying debts for the last two years and have been hanging on by their fingernails and then this whole cost-of-living thing is the last straw. And people are exhausted as well.”
Gareth Mullins, executive chef at Dublin’s five star Marker Hotel on Grand Canal Dock, said he knew all too well that the price of everything from energy to food ingredients to rents has soared, but being part of a multinational group he was sheltered from some of the risks endured by Michelin-starred restaurants that cater for smaller numbers. “They have extremely high labour costs along with low covers,” said the Dubliner, who is commissioner general of Euro Toques Ireland, which consists of 200 of the country’s top chefs.
Mullins said that because fine-dining establishments needed to fill every seat to pay the bills, quite a few had been badly burned by no-shows, including patrons who “ghost book”, nabbing tables at two or three restaurants on the same night.
I don’t think the city should be saturated with fine dining. I think it is important that there are all levels of really good value brasseries from the mid-market to very high end— Gareth Mullins, chef
“There are definitely more last-minute cancellations and I see tables in my own restaurant and bar getting lost at the very last minute,” he said. “That has been a problem for a long time”.
He said the impact of ghost booking on a high-end establishment that might seat fewer than 20 people was hard to quantify.
“Can you imagine thinking you are fully booked and you cook your food for that full restaurant and then two tables don’t show up?”
Like Darina Allen and Derry Clarke, Mullins believes there will always be a demand for fine dining.
“I can think of nothing better than going out and eating somebody’s food that has spent their whole career really practising and honing their craft,” he said.
Mullins said he first heard that fine dining was dead a few years ago. “I don’t agree with that. Fine dining is still very important to any cosmopolitan city. I don’t think the city should be saturated with fine dining. I think it is important that there are all levels of really good value brasseries from the mid-market to very high end.”
As a chef he hates to hear of closures of Michelin-starred restaurants. “I know that none of these people make that decision lightly. It is more than a job for them. It really is a passion. They work their whole careers to get to that level. And to walk away from it is hard – but also you have to be realistic. You have to pay your bills, keep the lights on,” he said.
Christina O’Hara, the Ballymaloe-trained chef at Coopershill House in Co Sligo, a member of Ireland’s Blue Book, said even having their own deer pasture and vegetable and fruit garden did not cushion them from rising costs.
Coopershill can boast that when venison is on the dinner menu, the distance from farm to plate is about 200 meters for 75 per cent of the ingredients.
“But we probably don’t make any money on food – except our guests would not come and stay with us if we didn’t serve it,” she said.
A former executive at Reuter’s news agency in London, who switched career at the age of 33, she laments the loss of fine-dining restaurants. “These chefs are artists,” she said. “They champion our food. What they do is phenomenal, at a different level, and I don’t know how they survive, knowing how hard it is here.”
While the image of the temperamental chef throwing a strop in the kitchen if a customer has the temerity to ask for salt may dilute sympathy for the profession, O’Hara has seen it from the other side and said everyone was a food critic nowadays.
She gets guests who tell her they are dairy intolerant and so she devises a menu accordingly, “and then they will have a full feed of cheese”. She has also been informed by patrons when they arrive at 5pm that they are vegetarian and an appropriate dinner is served, “and the next morning, they order bacon for breakfast”.
Derry Clarke said that when he visited top restaurants in Spain, the service was much slower than in Ireland. “It’s because there are less people on the floor,” he said, adding that he now preferred fewer choices on menus, a trend he sees continuing.
Tellingly for the future of fine dining in Ireland, Clarke, who in March is heading back to the kitchen at The Club at Goffs, a new hotel beside the thoroughbred auctioneers in Co Kildare, says he is “apprehensive” rather than “excited” about his new venture.