Just in time for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards 2019 season in Singapore, we take a look at the way some of the world’s best restaurants are staying ahead of the curve with innovations of various kinds.
For the first time since its 18 years history, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants will be holding its awards ceremony in Asia, on our very own Little Red Dot this 25 June, and in the presence of this congregation of the world’s best chefs and restaurateurs, we will definitely witness a new restaurant take the number one spot. This is thanks to a new Best of the Best programme whereby all restaurants that have topped the annual poll will ascend into this group and no longer be eligible for the annual ranking.
The competition remains fierce, nevertheless. As times are a-changing, this Oscars of the global gastronomy has taken a step to rejuvenate itself and so have many of the feted restaurants on the list. In a world where diners have not only become more knowledgeable and discerning about their food, their geographical mobility has also rendered them more curious and hungrier for unique dining experiences. Chefs and restaurants have to be constantly innovating to stay ahead of the curve, to attract and retain diners.
For many restaurants on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, menu innovation represents being astute to changing gastronomical preferences and—for those who can afford it—intense research and development into fusing produce and culinary techniques.
Just two months ago, chef Rodolfo Guzman relocated his Boragó restaurant (No.27 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018) to a stunning new location in the Vitacura area of Santiago, Chile, where it is surrounded by the city’s highest peak Cerro Manquehue. The massive new space includes a culinary research centre that is dedicated to the education, promotion, and discovery of Chilean ingredients.
Known for cooking unique ingredients sourced from across Chile, Guzman’s intention for the lab is to have people work and think about the future of Chilean produce, and to connect with local producers, communities and cultures to understand these ingredients while presenting them in his restaurant. “We want to take it forward, we want to push it very strongly to take our responsibility. We discovered things that we have to share with the next generation,” he shared with finedininglovers.com.
For chef Niko Romito of Reale—No.36 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 (No.51 in this year’s extended list) and three-Michelin-starred—the evolution from a small “trattoria” in 2000 to the “gastronomic hub” it is today, was “driven largely by improvisation and survival instinct, accompanied by a relentless research and a strong entrepreneurial attitude”.
Restaurant Reale shares its location within Cassadona, a 16th century monastery in the mountains of Abruzzo with different culinary laboratories for researching techniques in baking, an experimental vineyard at 800 metres above sea level, gardens and orchards, as well as Accademia NikoRomito —“a professional cooking academy equipped with large workshops for the R&D where my students develop new concepts and recipes,” shares Romito.
He explains his philosophy behind culinary innovation, “At Casadonna, research is a constant flow every day of the year. We have a permanent laboratory, with dedicated spaces and equipment, adjacent to kitchen of the Reale. All the solutions and techniques we have developed over the years were born here. Often the question is: how to overcome the limit of an ingredient? How to rethink a preparation? The recognition of a limit is the strongest drive for creativity. It is with analysis, practice and reasoning that the initial questions are answered. And only when we have found an answer that has taste, sustainability, functionality, beauty and repeatability, we feel we have the solution.” The best example of this is his savoy cabbage dish, where the humble vegetable is roasted then ripened for weeks in foil before being sliced and served with a cabbage sauce and star anise distillate on a potato emulsion. It is through these research and innovative techniques that he enhances the intrinsic flavours of often underrated ingredients from the region.
It is not all just research in the kitchen for chef Ivan Brehm of Restaurant Nouri here in Singapore. Entering The Asia’a 50 Best Restaurant list this year at number 39, Nouri’s crossroads cuisine might initially come across as abstract, but it is essentially a exploration of ingredients, techniques, flavours and cultures from different parts of the world to identify moments of convergence between global food traditions. Brehm’s food channels this sense of familiarity and commonality.
Within the past two years, Brehm’s food has become “sharper and more defined; it is also better at expressing the back end research and enticing guests connection and response”. To better communicate his culinary philosophy, Brehm shares that they have increased their conceptual research by having one member of staff dedicated to grow Nouri’s archive of crossroads connection and also its cross-modal reach, by engaging architects, designers and academics with the intention of expanding their creative output. This conceptual research is then translated into the dishes served at Nouri.
Genuine Guest Interaction
Perhaps Romito sums it up most succinctly when he says, “A restaurant today is not just a place where food is prepared and served.” Discerning diners of today are constantly looking out for more unique, personable, and relatable dining experiences, and chefs and restaurateurs are unanimous in agreeing that it boils down to providing a holistic and intimate dining experience and genuine connections with diners.
“Our work is not only linked to food, but always with an eye to fashion, design, art and the latest trends. This gives many stimuli and naturally we keep our identity and reality solid. The challenge is therefore to make the customer feel good, to make him feel at ease creating a welcoming, exclusive, unique and at the same time familiar environment,” Romito shares. “We make ourselves ambassadors of a territory, its suppliers, tradition and local raw materials. We are also a place where training, experimentation and innovation are central in our system. We offer the customer an experience that I would call cultural rather than just gastronomic. A customer who enters our restaurants, lives a complete experience, made of emotions, sensations, pleasure, visual taste, perfumes, to embrace all the senses.”
Chef Julien Royer of Odette, the newly minted Asia’s Best Restaurant 2019 concurs, “More people are into fine dining today and it’s less about traditional opulence but about the connections that you make—with your server whom you enjoy conversation with, with your chef through the food they have prepared. And it even extends to the producers behind the ingredients, or the artisans behind the plateware. People are looking for sincerity and authenticity in their fine dining experiences.”
And for Royer, the communication of this authenticity is the touchstone of what dining at Odette is about, ”The Odette experience has always centred around telling a story, of ingredients from passionate producers and recipes from my heritage. We’re constantly finding new ways to bring that to life and to a larger audience, everything from the dining touch points, to our brand communications is designed to engage guests with the background of an ingredient or a dish.”
In the context of the local restaurant scene, where adequate and competent staffing can be a major challenge, Brehm circumvents it by blurring the lines between front and back of the house. “[Our] service functions [are] being performed by a wide range of restaurant staff in order to maximiseefficiency but also guest interaction levels. The design of the restaurant was also thought out in terms of increasing that interaction and highlighting the human quotient,” he explains.
Also not one to follow stiff conventional ways of running a fine dining restaurant, chef Bjorn Frantzén of Restaurant Frantzén has no qualms about playing Guns and Roses at his three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Stockholm. As does Frantzén’s sister establishment Restaurant Zén here in Singapore, the restaurant eschews a formal sit-down style meal and treats diners to a literal culinary journey through that establishment, all the while serving up an innovative tasting menu that highlights the best regional ingredients. There is even a live feed of the Frantzén kitchens broadcasted in Zén and vice versa, to bring diners closer to the action in either country.
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Keeping Up With Social Media
In a bid to convey they culinary philosophies and to engage and educate diners directly, restaurants and chefs all over the globe are using various communicative channels and as such, social media has become a convenient and vital tool to help them keep their edge.
While Guzman already has an app documenting the native ingredients of Chile, just a quick perusal of his and other chefs like Royer’s and Frantzén’s Instagram accounts and one will be able to see regular posts of new dishes and peeks into the restaurant, behind the scene shots and videos of ingredient testings and dish creations. Frantzén admits that it is now second nature to document such happenings in the kitchen and the restaurant; it is almost like an indirect extension of the dining experience.
In fact, we need look no further than chef Rene Redzepi of Restaurant Noma for an example of a chef with strong Instagram game, as they say. Earlier in April, Redzepi posted a picture of different fish eggs and challenged his Instagram followers to correctly identify the fish roes to win a free dinner for two at Noma. With just one post, Redzepi was able to provide an education about a special ingredient, a peek into what the restaurant is working on, and the thrill and engagement of a public competition.
Whether in the kitchen, on the restaurant floor, or into the realms of social media, there’s no denying that restaurants need to consistently innovate and evolve with the times to keep diner’s interest. Brehm notes, “The idea is to come to work with a fresh eye every day not assuming that yesterday’s success can be replicated today through the same means. It keeps us on our toes but also makes sure that the creative process and it’s output is relevant and timely.”
This article was first published in Wine & Dine May/June 2019: Game-Changing Innovations.