A bridge, a lock, a solo wanderer in Rome
I sat frozen, wanting to reach for my wine. My extremities had long ago been numbed by the cold but the syrah was icing over. With two layers of thermal underwear, a parka, and wearing my puffiest down-filled winter mittens, every manoeuvre required precision. I reached out, formed my hand into a claw, advanced it toward the glass. It was like dining using the Canadarm. I slowly brought it back towards me towards my lips, tipped it up, and took a generous glug. Mission accomplished.
There we were, a collection of extreme diners, doing our best to manipulate knives and forks in sub-zero weather. It was January and we were in a farmer’s field, hours away from any city, near the aptly named town of Viking, Alberta. (Those who weren’t dressed in Everest mountaineer outfits were swaddled in animal pelts.) Here, Blair Lebsack of Edmonton’s RGE RD restaurant had built a walled enclosure with giant hay bales and was serving a six-course meal of hay-smoked pork hocks, beet “caviar” and local whisky hot toddies. We dined away under a Ted Harrison sky while coyotes yipped in the distance.
Dining outdoors in January on the Canadian prairies might be carrying things a bit far, but it demonstrates the lengths diners and chefs alike are going to in order to create alt-dining experiences. And rather than a one-off oddity, it’s part of the growing enthusiasm that has been building for some time now for the anarchic category of plein air long-table dinners (albeit usually in the summer), pop-up restaurants, food truck rallies, and underground supper clubs. Epicureans in the new Experience Economy—the term coined by B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore in 1998 to describe the shift from a service economy to an economy in which customers buy experiences rather than goods—are clearly chasing moments as much as flavours. Surprise and novelty are practically the main course. We want a tasting menu while skydiving. (Not a real thing). We want a twenty-course audio-visual extravaganza known as a gastro-opera. (Which is a real thing, courtesy of Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet, a restaurant in Shanghai.) We want to drink and dine on a Plexiglas platform, suspended above or beside a major world monument. (Real, as well, for a price, through dinnerinthesky.com.)
Of course, dining suspended above a world monument and gastro-opera are clearly on the outer edges of this trend, but the gastronomical destination is changing. Even my dining calendar is studded with “one night only” chef collaborations, community hall culinary takeovers, and invitation-only dinners where the destination is revealed at the last moment. There has been enough of a trickle-down effect that I’ve been wondering whether tastemakers and taste-breakers are growing bored with brick and mortar, stationary, make-a-reservation-for-7-p.m.-on-a-Friday-night restaurants. And yes, I do acknowledge that this feeling might be confined to a jaded, mercurial lot of overfed food writers and globetrotting frequent diners. I have many friends who are still thrilled by a night away from the kids in a dimly lit restaurant.
I recently posed this question—whether fine dining has been replaced by extreme dining—to Irish restaurateur and chef J.P. McMahon. His restaurant, Aniar, in Galway, Ireland, has had a Michelin star since 2013, the very symbol of this tradition. Even so, McMahon trucks with a group of avant-garde chefs who are changing perceptions of what Europe’s top dining experiences can and should be. Aniar’s menus change daily, and are sourced from ingredients fished, grown or foraged from west Ireland land and sea. Burnt kale ash stands in for black pepper. Tea is steeped from wild plants.
“Fine dining is often not viable on its own,” replied McMahon, reinforcing that the market is speaking loudly and clearly. He told me that his tapas bar, Cava Bodega, “pays for the fine dining [of Aniar].” He and his wife Drigìn Gaffey also own a gastropub called EAT. Without these two businesses, there would be no Michelin-starred Aniar. He told me about Bubbledogs, a popular Champagne and hotdog joint in London, the profit of which supports an adjacent nineteen-seat upscale space with a multi-course prix-fixe menu for £88 per person. “And the owner, Albert, just opened a fine dining restaurant and a taquería in the same space in Barcelona!”
Albert is Albert Adrià, of the Adrià brothers’ culinary fame. At the turn of the millennium, their groundbreaking el Bulli restaurant in Spain pioneered molecular gastronomy, a culinary pursuit in which chefs doubled as scientists to reshape the presentation of ingredients. Until it closed down in 2014, it was untouchable as the world’s most inventive restaurant. But even before closing el Bulli, the brothers were moving ahead, envisioning a collection of Barcelona-based restaurants in which nary a single white tablecloth would be spotted. Their stated objective from the outset was to create the world’s first culinary amusement park.
Currently, their park includes Bodega 1900, a vermutería (a neighbourhood bar that specializes in vermouth- based drinks, cold cuts and potato chips). There’s Tickets tapas bar, and 41° cocktail bar, both casual. Pakta is a Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant. Add to that the aforementioned taquerìa, Niño Viejo. Albert Adrià has been blunt in discussing the business model—the casual (and profitable) sites make the upscale restaurants possible.
I met Albert Adrià in October 2015, in Calgary of all places. He was travel-weary from weekly commutes between Barcelona and Ibiza (apparently, their culinary amusement park has an outpost on the Mediterranean island). It was an entirely new concept, he told me, switching between Spanish and English mid-sentence. Heart Ibiza wants to combine theatre, live music, dance performances and culinary experiences as you wander the various spaces of this hedonistic nightclub. You might be thinking that it’s as if the Adrià brothers went into the restaurant business with Cirque du Soleil’s founder Guy Laliberté. But wWait, they did go into this business together. And who does experience better than Cirque du Soleil? That said, I’m not sure that I want an actual circus in my face while I’m trying to eat. It’s enough to make me pre-nostalgic (in that I haven’t visited Heart Ibiza yet) for those expansive, baroque dining rooms where waiters glide phantom-like between a sequestered kitchen and your very own table, at which you dine with your very own friends or family, and eat food that’s actually about the food. Ah, the good old days.
I found myself wondering, not for the first or last time I suspect, where the fickle winds of food trends were blowing this past July as my skin prickled in 38-degree Okanagan heat. I was lined up with some friends, waiting to board a yellow school bus. We were schlepping our own chairs, our own small table, our own food. We were, as dictated by a set of rules, dressed hat-to-heels in white. Not beige. Not ivory. Not eggshell. But bright, stark, white. We didn’t know where the bus would take us—that’s part of the fun. More than a thousand of us arrived in concert and were herded into a public park overlooking a beach, an invasion of white that was probably visible from space. It was my third Diner en Blanc, a flashmob dining event that bills itself as a “secret posh picnic” in multiple locations around the world on a set day. Despite the hassle, the rules, the rigid dress code and that it’s by invitation only, the event is wildly popular. In 2015, there were white dinners in 65 cities such as Kigali, Mexico City and Paris (where the registered trademark event originated).
Our group’s leader marched us to our designated spot on the lawn. We were instructed to set up our chairs and tables. Dinner would commence in less than 10 minutes with the waving of our white cloth napkins above our heads. Soon enough, we uncorked our one allotted bottle of wine, ate our dinner (which we’d made ourselves earlier that day) and danced barefoot on the grass. On cue—and on schedule—we decamped as quickly as we came. It was fun, but it was an awful lot of effort.
The effort did make me begin to wonder what is there to do when both diners and chefs have moved, strange as it may seem, beyond the food and habits of traditional fine dining? Is “experience” the only thing left? Diners sweat through a regulation all-white outfit at a secret group picnic. Restaurateurs serve pub food and tapas to pay for their more creative impulses. And if you’re the Adrià brothers, you literally send in the clowns. Sigh. Cheque please.
• This story is from the winter 2015 issue of Eighteen Bridges. Subscribe here.
• Jennifer Cockrall-King is the author of Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution. Her forthcoming book Food Artisans of the Okanagan will be published in April 2016 by TouchWood Editions.