That’s the true hallmark of a top restaurant today, says Steve Plotnicki, a former music executive turned food blogger whose restaurant ranking Opinionated About Dining (OAD) solicits the input of the culinary elite around the world.
Because the best restaurants understand that it’s no longer enough to serve an impeccably turned out meal, he said in an interview ahead of the unveiling of the OAD’s Top 100+ European Restaurants 2017 in Paris this week.
Today’s globe-trotting diners are savvier and more sophisticated than ever before, while theatrical dining and performance art are no longer surprising or novel. To up the ante, the most attentive restaurants are doing their homework and establishing a customised dining experience for guests.
“If you look at the top 50 restaurants on OAD and the World’s 50 Best, I’ll bet that they’re all Googling their customers beforehand,” he said.
For the customer, that means a more personalised experience in which the chef or server may be able to recommend a pork dish if the diner has expressed a love for all things porcine online, or exchange pleasantries about the guest’s hometown.
To illustrate his point, Plotnicki refers back to a meal in which 46 OAD members were invited to dine at Noma in Copenhagen last year before it shuttered. Noma owes much of its fame to having topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list four times.
A few days before, chef Rene Redzepi, a celebrity name in the world of contemporary gastronomy, emailed Plotnicki asking for short bios on every single guest.
“He wanted to talk to them at the table when he visited them, showing that he had some knowledge about them,” Plotnicki explained.
“To me, that marks a change in the way restaurants operate.”
Plotnicki is a walking encyclopaedia of food who can rhyme off the meals he’s eaten along with the year, much like a culinary discography.
In order to illustrate his analogies, he often uses musical references, a relic of his days as a music executive whose claim to fame is having discovered Run-DMC.
During a discussion about French chef Alain Passard‘s influence — whose Paris restaurant Arpege topped OAD’s top European restaurant’s list this year, for the second time — Plotnicki credits the chef for influencing generations of some of today’s top-ranked chefs, including Ferran Adria.
It’s like listening to rock ‘n roll, he says. “I hear so many instances of music that come straight from the Beatles. And in the Beatles, you hear Beethoven.”
He also uses music to illustrate a less flattering portrait of gastronomy in France today, where chefs haven’t evolved from playing the same classical tune — classical French cooking — they’ve been playing for years.
“France is very insulated from the rest of the world. Most French chefs cook in a classic style. It may be very good. But it’s not very influential. They’re quite provincial that way,” he says.
To add to his classical music analogy, he adds: “It’s like being in Jamaica and hearing only reggae music.”
Nevertheless, Plotnicki speaks fondly of France’s gastronomic heritage, which he credits for having first opened his eyes to the power of good food.
When asked to share his most memorable food epiphany, he reaches back to the year 1982 — one of several moments archived in his personal culinary discography — and speaks euphorically about an egg caviar he had at a Joel Robuchon restaurant; a lobster bisque “that must have had a whole stick of butter floating in there” and steak frites at Bofinger, where he learned the correct way to eat steak (quiveringly rare).
“That trip changed the way I approached food. Food was no longer just a necessity. Food was pleasurable,” he said.
“All of a sudden eating well was something you could do for every meal. It went beyond eating for necessity and turned into eating for pleasure. That was a great moment of conversion.”
But after decades of playing the same tune, France’s reputation as the temple of Haute gastronomy has been eclipsed by more audacious countries and chefs and risks becoming irrelevant.
“Today, influence is the single-most important component for a chef. It never used to be. It used to be that the best chef was the chef who makes the best roast chicken. But most diners are looking for something more than that. They want something unique.”