Dining Out 2 minutes 24 May 2023

Gaggenau’s Black Jacket Society Talks the Future of the Fine Dining Experience

From chocolate hands to tablecloths, these chefs decode the mystique of dining out.

In celebration of Gaggenau and the MICHELIN Guide’s ongoing partnership and commitment to the exploration of culinary culture, the Black Jacket Society of chefs converge ahead of each MICHELIN Guide Ceremony for dinner and conversation. Building off Gaggenau’s Professional Kitchen Principle that cooking equipment must be at the highest level akin to the ingredients chefs use in their dishes, the first dinner, held at Elcielo in Miami, touches upon the emotion and evolution of the fine dining experience. A topic which will be explored further in San Francisco this July at Two MICHELIN Star Californios.

On one of Miami’s perfect evenings—think no humidity, clear skies, and bright lights—some of the world’s most celebrated chefs converged for a convivial meal and conversation about the future of fine dining. The setting for the evening was the idyllic Elcielo located in downtown Miami situated on the Miami river. As the sun set, the champagne flowed in anticipation of the evening’s latest inductees into Gaggenau’s Black Jacket Society, chefs Alain Verzeroli, director of culinary operations at the Bastion Collection (think L’Atelier de Jöel Robuchon and Le Jardinier), and Juan Manuel Barrientos, of Elcielo. After the toasts and pictures, it was time for everyone including Two MICHELIN Star Californios’s Val Cantu, executive chef at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Le Jardinier James Friedberg, and Chief Operating Officer of the Bastion Collection Deleon Pinto to take their seats. The topic on everyone’s mind? What does fine dining look like in a digitally minded universe?

“It’s tablecloths,” says Barrientos who famously shies away from using them. “When I first started my restaurant, that was the big question. How are we going to do fine dining, charge for it, and not have them.” However, Barrientos’s vision paid off as the aged, bare wood table sets the scene for the real event, the experience. The meal at Elcielo is—appropriately enough—called “The Experience” and walks guests through 20 courses with whimsical, innovative names including “The Tree of Life” and “Yellow Butterfly.” Pinto agrees that it’s less about the former rigidity oft associated in haute establishments and more rooted in immersive and directional moments. “You’re selling experience today,” says Pinto. “Of course the food is key, but the experience is what people are looking for.” But how does this translate across so many different styles of cuisine, menu types, and locations? “[For me], it’s a small restaurant where I feel taken care of,” adds Verzeroli. “A place where I feel like I’m part of the experience.” As diners’s expectations continue to rise in an increasingly social media friendly world, chefs too have to continue to provide quality meals, but also exclusive content. “The two hour meal is now a nine hour meal,” says Friedberg. “They’re not just looking for a meal or to get fed. They’re looking to learn something, to have a memory, to have something transformative.”

And there’s no better example of this than “Chocotherapy” a course plucked from Barrientos’s own memory. “14 years ago I was with my nephew in Colombia and we got a milkshake. The waiter came with a napkin and [poured it on his hands] he started licking it. I saw his face filled with pleasure. And I arrived to my restaurant and said we need to do this with chocolate.” Meant to awaken the senses, Barrientos hopes his dish brings out guests’s inner kid and break barriers. “[When I first did the dish] I walked over to the sink, washed my hands, put the chocolate on my hands, and then I started licking and thought, this is pretty cool.” However, in this Instagram and TikTok-centric world, how do the chefs feel about creating culinary viral moments.

“There is a huge power with ideas and visual things,” says Verzeroli. “[With social media,] there is a sense of recognition from the viewers. So we have a common sense of urgency from the guest.” But, Barrientos concedes that speed isn’t always an asset. “When you’re showcasing fine dining, you have to take the time to cook it, but also to have a good photographer,” he says. Cantu experienced this before and after the pandemic with their grilled baby banana, savory caramel, and smoked caviar dish. “I’ve never posted a photo of the caviar and bananas and it would be the one dish people would post,” says Cantu. “You don't really understand the dish just because you see a photo or read a description. You don’t really have the experience.” And that ethos is what drives the chefs. “It forces you to push yourself and not do what everyone else is doing,” says Friedberg. “Let's not try to do something new, but let's try to do something.” With the level of haute gastronomy continually reaching new highs both visually and in flavor, what’s next for the Starry group? “Now, I don't have to innovate, because I have to innovate.”

All photos courtesy of Adahlia Cole

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