These are unprecedented times. We all know that. We have never seen the word ‘unprecedented’ used more frequently. And we have never heard more restaurants use the word ‘pivot’ than they have in the past few months. But that’s a sign of the times.
Fine dining institutions that rely on being booked out months in advance to make ends meet – thanks, in some part, to international gastronomes with deep pockets – have been forced to find alternative ways to generate income amid the coronavirus pandemic.
It has resulted in have-to-see-it-to-believe-it changes to some of the most famously impossible-to-secure reservation-destinations on the planet. Out with the white tablecloths and the 30-course tasting menus.
In with fast-casual food constructed by some of the more innovative chefs in the game. In a year where the world has spent months cooped up indoors, scrolling through Instagram incessantly and reigniting a board game industry that was fading into the never-to-be-seen-again sunset alongside DVDs and Von Dutch trucker hats, this major shift in direction has been compelling.
We have investigated what some fine-dining restaurants around the world have done to survive – and in a lot of cases, thrive – this year.
Amass (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Since opening in 2013, Amass has established itself as one of the finest restaurants in Scandinavia and a mainstay on the World’s 50 Best list. Californian-born chef-owner Matt Orlando – who spent time inside Thomas Keller’s kitchen at iconic New York destination Per Se, either side of stints working for Rene Redzepi at Noma, who he met while working at Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck – has carved out a reputation as not just a force to be reckoned with in the food world, but also when it comes to restaurant sustainability.
When Amass first opened its doors on the waterfront of a former industrial area, they sold fried chicken in the garden during the warmer months. It became so popular that the restaurant couldn’t meet the demand and eventually decided to stop. Now they have gone back to go forwards. Fried chicken isn’t just back on the menu, it now has its very own space on the same block as the world-class restaurant. Amass Fried Chicken opened a couple of weeks before the restaurant reopened in May and has exploded. The team behind Amass, which came in at No. 85 in the 2019 World’s 50 Best list, one spot behind Melbourne giant Attica, wish they swivelled to this earlier, given the success they enjoyed years ago, and the ability to reach a wider audience at a more approachable price point.
Atelier Crenn (San Francisco, United States)
Dominique Crenn is the first and only chef in the United States to earn three Michelin stars. She has been fighting her whole life. And now is no different. The Frenchwoman grew up in an orphanage, established her name in a male-dominated industry and has overcome breast cancer.
In the era of the novel coronavirus, Crenn has found a novel way to keep Atelier Crenn ticking over. The restaurant introduced Crenn Kits not long after the pandemic swept the globe, helping those trapped at home in San Francisco find a way to celebrate milestones in 2020.
The Crenn Kits provide customers with the opportunity to recreate Dominique’s famous recipes in the comfort of their own home. The seven-course DIY menu comes with video and written instructions to assemble and prepare at home, providing food worshippers with the opportunity to enjoy Atelier Crenn at a fraction of the usual cost.
Atelier Crenn has recently returned for dinners and Sunday brunch in the outdoor seating area. The Crenn Kits will remain, potentially for a long, long time.
Lyle’s (London, England)
When the pandemic tightened its grip on the English capital, the team behind celebrated Shoreditch institution Lyle’s and trendy Borough Market bakery Flor sat down and came up with a new idea to survive in 2020. Enter ASAP Pizza.
Lyle’s, which came in at No. 33 in last year’s World’s 50 Best list, has laid dormant for the past few months, with their usually bustling restaurant – which is housed in a building that was originally used as a factory for Lipton Tea – waiting to reopen to the public.
Last month the team launched ASAP Pizza inside Flor and have quickly built a cult following in London, offering a unique range of sourdough pizzas. A simple text from one of the owners’ cousins implored them to go with ASAP Pizza.
And they did. Now they are soaring.
Alinea (Chicago, United States)
Michelin starred meals takeaway. Who would have thought this would become such a big thing in 2020? No one has done it quite as well as iconic Chicago culinary destination Alinea. When the fine-dining world was still pulling its hair out in March, Alinea developed a takeout menu that sold out within the first five hours and has continued to sell out since then.
For a three Michelin starred restaurant known for its 15-course tasting menu – that included an edible balloon – and a starting price of US$300 to pivot to US$35 to-go and be so successful has inspired many restaurants across not just America, but the entire world.
Chef-co-owner Grant Achatz designed a six-course menu to celebrate Alinea’s 15th birthday during the pandemic, featuring Blis steelhead roe, chilled English pea soup, spicy Gulf prawn, braised beef short rib, wild mushrooms and green asparagus.
For a long time, Alinea only catered for the one per cent. That is no longer the case. And the city of Chicago is the big beneficiary.
Noma (Copenhagen, Denmark)
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, many looked at Noma owner and chef extraordinaire Rene Redzepi for guidance/direction/hope/inspiration/everything. No one has been more influential than the Macedonian-born star who has turned the Danish restaurant into the most sought after dining experience on the planet.
Redzepi and his team of brilliant culinary minds opted to offer something so daring for a restaurant of its stature that it reverberated around the world. A simple cheeseburger served on the sacred soil of modern-day gastronomy.
Although this wasn’t your standard cheeseburger. It centred around organic, grass-fed, dry-aged Danish beef, ground three times to enhance the flavour, elevated with beef fat and garum – fermented beef, fungus and koji. It was drizzled with mayonnaise and Dijon mustard and accompanied by a slice of organic Danish cheddar cheese, pickled cucumbers and sliced raw red onion. And ready to be devoured from just 125 Kroner.
On the day they launched the burger and wine bar in the grounds of the restaurants in May, Noma sold 1,200 burgers and were forced to send people away. The next day they sold out, again, and continued to do so until they reopened for normal service midway through July.