How Creativity Will Save Fine Dining After Coronavirus: A Culinary Ambassador Weighs In
Ann Abel Senior Contributor
I know the difference between expensive travel and the truly luxurious
5 421 views|May 1, 2020, 06:45am EDT
Kristian Brask Thomsen @ambassadorbonvivant anticipating his next meal Jan Coomans
Four months after the crash of 2008, Kristian Brask Thomsen (“the Ambassador”) hosted his first dinner party for a handful of guests in Copenhagen. In short order, that became a world-sought happening with globetrotting gourmands attending his feasts at Noma, then at the top of the influential World’s 50 Best List.
Since then, his dinners grew into Dining Impossible events, each one a three-day blowout in a culinary capital. Last year, he launched DI:JET, which lofted the party onto private jets.
Meanwhile, Brask Thomsen, a former restaurateur, sommelier and well-connected bon vivant, saw his business grow to include representing gourmet restaurants, creating star chef world tours, making introductions for four-hands dinners and culinary festivals, judging for influential awards and producing an acclaimed documentary about Michelin stars.
Obviously, the coronavirus nightmare is more complicated than a garden-variety recession. But Brask Thomsen had a good instinct when he shot for the moon in 2008. So what’s his take on 2020 and beyond?
He spoke to me while pacing on his Barcelona rooftop—a break from three cookbook projects, preparations for another film, speaking at an online conference for the Basque Culinary Center, an ambitious series of inspirational conversations with culinary luminaries (generally not his clients) called Instagram Talks and a whole lot of thinking.
The Best Chefs Are Getting Creative and Proactive
“Think outside the box, including academic ones,” was his advice to business graduates during the conference. “This is not the time to do long considerations, calculations and estimates. This is the time to create. If you don’t fail, then you might have created a future enterprise entirely on your own terms. Invest your free time in the future.”
With his early dinner parties, he was “trying to seed a flower of light in the fields of darkness.” This time it’s darker—not only an economic crisis but also a health one—but it’s time to get planting again.
Preparing for social distancing RASMUS NØTTRUP
The Future Is Safe and Local
“There’s no doubt that the future for fine dining is to make people feel safe,” says Brask Thomsen. “If you create safety for your guests, then they will come.”
Many fine dining restaurants already have a meter or two between tables—they’re better off than big-city bistros—but others will have to figure it out. That will likely mean removing tables, creatively using more floor space and stretching the dinner hours (those 5:30 or 10:30 tables will suddenly seem desirable—lunch, too).
As for ingredients, Brask Thomsen expects a narrower supply, shorter menus and everything—really everything—sourced locally. “The original Noma philosophy will spread even more,” he notes, adding one of his grandmother’s favorite phrases: “Nothing is so bad there isn’t some good in it.”
Restaurants Will Return to Their Core Mission
“Unfortunately, there were many things wrong with the restaurant industry,” he admits. “It was close to losing its beautiful innocence; it became so much about awards, ranking this, pursuing that quick bling-bling thing.” Many top restaurants were spending a lot of money, and there was “a lot of shotgun PR where publicists invited influencers on first class, just to potentially get their vote. Things became so FOMO that nobody actually appreciated one restaurant or another.”
Seen that way, a correction isn’t a bad thing. “Everything is on pause. Maybe now we can remember why we create restaurants.” (Hint: The word shares a root with “restore,” as in providing sustenance to hungry travelers.)
Now it can “perhaps again be about creating experiences where chefs invite people into their personal space and vision of how a beautiful culinary moment should feel. Make them fall in love with the experience and potentially each other and forget all about the stressful things.”
Meanwhile on Instagram Talks…
Jorge Vallejo Latin America's 50 Best Restaurant 2018
Creativity for the Community
On the first of 12 Instagram Talks so far, Brask Thomsen spoke with chef Jorge Vallejo from Quintonil in Mexico City. “Being helpful is the best way to get through this,” said the chef. “My first thought was our commitment to our farmers. They were already ready to harvest the ingredients that we usually use, so we sold boxes with those products, and a journalist friend and I did the biggest community cooking demo in Mexico. We got 1,000 people cooking and eating the same meal at the same time.” That inspired a donor to buy more of those farmers’ products, which Vallejo and colleagues are now using to prepare 6,000 meals a day for some of the poorest people in the country.
Rodolfo Guzmán BORAGÓ
The Creativity of Kindness
“We had an empty restaurant for the first six years,” said Rodolfo Guzmán, the chef of Boragó in Santiago, which eventually became desired for its zero-kilometer sourcing and indigenous ingredients. “That makes you confident enough to survive these bad times and sad times.” While creativity has always been important, he has settled on a new touchstone. “I think we’re going back to the basics, to be more of a community, to rethink our nature and seasonality…. Everything we do in the restaurant world is about love. The biggest power that we humans will have is love. If we’re focusing on rebuilding a gastronomic community around the world, this is fantastic…. Food is an art. But I think food involves too much art, in many senses. Behind art, there has to be love.”
Lars Seier Christensen Private Photo
Creativity and Kindness for the Long-Term
During his Instagram Talk, Danish investor Lars Seier Christensen, who co-owns the Michelin three-star Geranium and two-star Alchemist in Copenhagen, addressed the idea of chefs as first responders. José Andres, with his World Central Kitchen, is a global leader on this front. But Rasmus Munk, the chef at the Alchemist, is showing that small-scale efforts are having meaningful effects. When he closed the restaurant, he directed his energy toward his nascent JunkFood project, in which he uses his kitchen and volunteer chefs from across the city to prepare meals for the homeless. “I think many rock star chefs show a lot of responsibility,” said Christensen. “Anybody who has an audience can get more out of helping out because they get more visibility”—the Alchemist has already received several sizable donations. “I would like very much for JunkFood become permanent across Denmark, because the homeless problem doesn’t go away just because corona goes away. We hope this will go on forever on the basis of donations and crowdfunding. I think a lot of people would say, ‘I’d like to pay for five homeless tonight.’ I’m pretty sure we can find a good way.”
Kristian Baumann 108
Creativity for the Heart
In late January, Kristian Baumann of 108 in Copenhagen hosted his wedding in Thailand. There, he spoke to a friend from Korea and it dawned on him that the Covid-19 situation was getting serious. Denmark’s generous social support programs, combined with his own savings, allowed him to keep his staff on payroll and make plans to come back. While he is reimagining his restaurant, he is taking time to feed himself at home. He is also “cooking his love,” he said. His wife had to remain in Thailand, so he’s working with ingredients that she brought home from Asia over the years. “Using that to create memories and feelings has helped me a lot because she’s so far away.”
Food for Thought
Of course this time is challenging for everyone. But Brask Thomsen remains hopeful. “Within limitation, creativity thrives,” he says. “The best wines in the world are those whose stocks have had to fight their way down through poor soil. They become strong, full-bodied and exceptional.
“Restaurant workers are extremely resilient,” he continues. “They take pressure every day. They are a strong community made of strong individuals. If we stick together and do good, we shall prevail.”
Perhaps the best outcome will be a great refocusing: “Top restaurants should come back to what it’s actually about. They should put guests—not themselves—in the center of attention and make them feel special, simply because it's their calling—good old-school hosting. Because you actually care. It’s your calling to serve that plate. It’s your calling to create beautiful moments in people’s lives, to make them happy.”