South Beach Wine & Food Festival

SBWFF 2010: Miami Gets Dissed (Somewhat) at Esquire's Fine Dining Round Table Discussion

Yesterday Esquire hosted a round table talk regarding "The Rebirth of Fine Dining." Panelists were Chefs Daniel Boulud, Laurent Tourondel, John Besh, Paul Bartolotta, Mike Lata, and Michael White, while Esquire's food editor, Ryan D'Agostino, moderated.

The following lessons were learned:

  1. Fine dining is not dead. It has merely changed to accommodate the occasional denim-wearer, sustainable food fanatic, Gen X-er or Gen Y-er, and diner who wants a steak, cocktail, and a memorable experience for less than was paid in 2008.
  2. Chefs nowadays have to open more than one restaurant if they want to make a buck, so the press shouldn't give them such a hard time (waaaahhh!). Or they should open a great restaurant in a market without New York City rental rates.
  3. Having langoustines on the menu is the barometer of fine dining status (judging by the number of times the l-word was mentioned)
  4. Miami has practically no fine dining outlets because "we are too light-hearted and fun." And the ones that seem the closest to "fine" rely too heavily on their "ambiance" (loud music blasting through diners' eardrums), instead of food and service, to be seriously considered.
But understandably, most of the discussion centered around economics: the cost of meat, real estate, staff, and such. All that must be weighed against what restaurants can charge patrons and what we expect to get for our dollars. At one point, Tourondel complained the business side of multiple restaurants keeps chefs from their beloved kitchens. But Boulud said pricing is their livelihood, adding the challenge is to "prepare super interesting, super technical, but affordable" dishes with components that will provide more than a 50 percent return. Bartolotta expressed his belief that, "True artistic freedom is born out of economic freedom. If [we] don't make money, we can't practice our craft."

Boulud agreed. He said menu prices can't change by the minute as hotel rates do. Comic relief was provided when he mentioned restaurants in Rome that offer two menus: one for locals and one for tourists. [Hmmm, now there's an idea!] And he also elicited a giggle when a journalist asked about confusing dress code policies at fine dining establishments. Boulud responded with the story of a friend who dropped her jeans in the coat check at the Rainbow Room when told she couldn't dine in denim.

A serious note, however, was hit when a true tale of rebirth was told. An audience member asked how Besh survived when his restaurant was completely destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. He said, upon reflection, that he quickly found the silver lining when he and his crew went to feeding neighbors beans and rice instead of blanquettes of veal cheeks. "Going through that really helped us," he explained. "Since Katrina, we've sprung from two restaurants now to six. And we're playing a responsible part to our community."

But when I inquired as to these chefs' love for Miami, the bastard child of epicurean recognition and host to the festival, the responses were dismal. Tourondel replied, "I think Miami's changed a lot in the last couple of years. I think Miami is ready to have upscale restaurants and different restaurants."

Boulud mentioned that Miami had its opportunity years ago, but at the time we weren't "really ready for fine dining" and he "couldn't make it work." Then he lifted hopes with the mention of his DB Bistro Moderne opening in the Brickell area soon, and dropped us back down with an assurance that the restaurant was "casual." His press rep and a journalist who had toured the property the day before swore the magnificent venue was hardly so.

Perhaps by next year's festival they'll change their minds. Until then, we're happy to have $20 entrees at white cloth-covered tables. And no one will ever kick us out for wearing jeans.

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Riki Altman