Some like it haute: shift dining

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Fine dining in New York is a mirror image of the city. It is inventive, global and unstuffy. It is also very pretentious, brash and pushy, as well as faddish. But worst of all it is big business. You could probably say the same these days about London, but New York still takes haute cuisine to its commercial heights.

In France, or for that matter elsewhere in the Old Continent, there is very little – if any – of that ghastly shift culture that now prevails in Manhattan and London, where restaurants operate two sittings and, in some cases in New York, even three. The concept may make good business sense. But seeking to maximise revenues certainly does not make fine dining the pleasurable and memorable experience it purports to be.

In Manhattan a few weeks ago, I booked a table at the two-Michelin-starred Gilt restaurant in my hotel, the New York Palace. “We can accommodate you at 7.30pm,” I was told, “as long as you release the table at 8.30pm.” I asked if it was possible to eat a meal in an hour. “Yes, of course, if you opt for the three-course menu rather than the five- or seven-course menus.”

This spectacular restaurant used to be the old panelled dining room of the 19th-century railway baron Henry Villard. It is still extravagantly baroque, though also adapted to modern times and design. The food is delicious if somewhat complicated in the profusion of exotic flavours in every dish. But I would strip its stars away for the simple fact that you hardly have time to enjoy the food before the perfectly civil waiters and maître d’ start hovering impatiently to suggest that your time is now up.

That same evening I bumped into Eric Ripert, the chef of New York’s three-star Le Bernardin restaurant. Ripert oozes charm and is very talented, but his arguments as to why New York restaurants operate a shift system sounded a bit hollow. New Yorkers, he explained, get up very early and also end their working day very early after the Wall Street close. Many like to eat at about 7pm to catch a show.

This bunch constitutes the first shift. Then there is a second shift between 8.30pm and 10.30pm for all those in less of a hurry. The third and final shift is for the after-theatre diners, as well as the night owls. All this may seem logical except that if you are charging $200 or more for a meal (service not included), it seems a bit rich to tell your customers it’s time to go.

But then you can also understand why they do. On my first night in New York, I was taken to the one-star Café Boulud in the boutique Surrey Hotel. This is one of the many establishments run by Daniel Boulud, another super-chef of the New York dining scene. Unfortunately we arrived early so had to wait in the bar until the first shift had moved on. This was, quite frankly, a trifle frustrating.

I’m not the only one to complain. Just before flying back to Paris, I happened to sit next to Florence Fabricant, the dining columnist of the New York Times, at Jean Georges, flagship of that other icon of the Manhattan culinary scene, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Fabricant is an affable person, married to a New York lawyer, but she does command respect and fear among Manhattan’s top restaurateurs.

“I really don’t approve and I find it awful,” she muttered. New York chefs should take note. One day even well-heeled Manhattan diners may decide to organise their own Tea Party and chuck these turnover-obsessed chefs overboard.

Next week: Peter Bazalgette samples smoked salmon

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