fine dining Montreal

Photo by Guy Lavigueur

Fine dining is dead. Long live fine dining

We spoke with Marcus’s Jason Morris, Beba’s Ariel Schor and veteran food writer Lesley Chesterman — and tried out Quebec City’s renowned le Continental — to get some insight into the supposed end of an era for restaurants.

Fine dining is dead — or at least that’s the general conclusion being drawn from the relatively recent news that René Redzepi and his world-renowned restaurant Noma will be closing for good at the end of next year.

Let me just get this out of the way early: The point of this article isn’t to dissect the value of Noma or Redzepi or the Michelin Guide. To me, it’s always been clear that ethically running restaurants at the scale of places like Noma is next to impossible. What’s fascinating, however, is that the forces that have been bubbling away beneath the surface for years are now affecting even the most revered and seemingly iron-clad restaurants of the world. Noma’s end isn’t the cause of the decline of fine dining — it’s a symptom. More than that, it presents an interesting opportunity for reflection, allowing us to ask ourselves what fine dining should be moving forward and if there is a place for it in the future of restaurants in our city.

There’s a second thing that needs making clear, something that was pointed out with the sort of matter-of-factness Jason Morris, the executive chef of Marcus at the Four Seasons, is known for: “There are no restaurants like Noma in Montreal.” And I get his point. If we look at Noma as the definition of fine dining, then we can’t lose what we never had, but Noma is just one interpretation of the format. While we may not have a restaurant that resembles Noma, I wouldn’t be alone in my belief that fine dining — or at least, the Montreal version of fine dining — is alive and well in this city.

The Institution

Having not been present for the golden era of traditional fine dining in Montreal, I thought it would be best to consult the woman who spent the bulk of her career critiquing the very best restaurants in the city: cookbook author and former restaurant critic for The Gazette, Lesley Chesterman.

“Fine dining, when I started restaurant reviewing in 1998, was still these restaurants called nappes blanches. Back then, you could almost (separate) the casual restaurants from the formal restaurants by the tablecloths.” That’s sort of the caricature of a fine dining restaurant — a beautiful, if a bit ostentatious, room with white tablecloths where tuxedoed waiters cook filet mignon, make caesar salads tableside and pour bottles of aged St. Emilion to jacketed guests. “At the time, this is what fine-dining was really all about — it had to be a certain level of service. It’s really true that all these waiters used to wear tuxedos.”

As Chesterman points out, “When we talk about fine dining, the food is only one part of the equation. A big part of the fine dining equation is service. That’s why, if you look at Michelin-starred restaurants — they really need to have great service. The meals that are worth hundreds and hundreds of dollars are the ones like at Bocuse, you’re standing in the place where (Paul Bocuse) changed the world — it’s about so much more than just the food. In fact, you could even argue that in a place like Bocuse, the food comes way after the service and the setting.”

Le Continental in Quebec City

It all sounds a bit pretentious, doesn’t it? I tended to think so until I went to eat at le Continental, a veritable fine-dining institution in Quebec City. In operation since 1956, this is one of the few remaining nappes blanches that is almost entirely unchanged and which continues to deliver a near-forgotten style of hospitality and service. I should say, the experience is absolutely delightful. Le Continental, as a reflection of the nappes blanches standard of fine dining, is archetypal and yet when compared with Noma, they have very little in common.

As tuxedoed waiters gracefully worked the Art Deco room of le Continental, searing steaks and flambéing pans of Crêpes Suzette, I realized that it was possible, if not likely, that a diner could enjoy a meal here without a single dish having been prepared by a chef or even in a kitchen. It’s an important realization because, in many ways, traditional fine dining, which focuses on place and experience above all, is the opposite of a place like Noma, which is completely chef-centric. It’s true that the service at Noma is famously exceptional but the restaurant’s reputation is inextricably linked to one chef and his elaborate creations that have been painstakingly executed by a team of unpaid interns. 

Casual Fine-Dining

What le Continental and Noma have in common, however, is that they are expensive, require an inordinate amount of staff and aim to produce a dining experience that is equal parts gastronomic and experiential. In my time as a cook and as a food writer, I’ve found that the places that consistently garner the lion’s share of praise in Montreal don’t really fall into those categories. Enter casual fine dining — the “jumbo shrimp” of restaurant classifications. While the terminology might be a bit clunky, I do think it’s hard to put a precise label on a restaurant like Joe Beef or Liverpool House — especially in their heyday. When you remove the ostentation of the dining room and replace it with the décor of a Normandy fisherman turned poet, the result is a masterful blending of high and low.

The chef de cuisine of Liverpool House during this period was Ariel Schor, who now co-owns Restaurant Beba with his brother Pablo. During the 2010s, the cooking at Liverpool and Joe Beef was at an insanely high level. Anthony Bourdain had put the group on the map and Momofuku’s David Chang had claimed Joe Beef as his favourite restaurant in the world despite his friend René Redzepi’s restaurant Noma ranking #1. As Ari sees it, “I don’t think there was ever really a massive foothold — not in my time anyway — of the really high end, tasting-menu-only kind of restaurants. There was a more relaxed atmosphere to dining as a whole. I personally haven’t been to many of the tasting menu restaurants here — I haven’t been to Toqué. It’s not my way to eat. I think that resonates with a lot of people, both young and old.”

Restaurant Beba in Montreal

Thanks to chefs like Ari, Montreal was redefining fine dining. They were proving that it didn’t have to be stuffy, fussy, precious or reserved. It could be festive, romantic and larger than life, provided that it was executed with a level of precision and intentionality that kept the food in league with the very best restaurants anywhere. Quality products and quality sourcing, in Schor’s view, is essential, “(Contemporary fine dining) is so ego-driven. It’s like, ‘look at what I can do’ instead of ‘look at this fine product.’”

Beba, Schor’s current restaurant, is all about the product. A neighbourhood restaurant in the heart of Verdun, Beba might not scream fine dining, but the quality of cooking, attention to detail and quality of ingredients are second to none. “There’s no time like the present to break the mould. What’s wrong with going to a neighbourhood you’ve never been to where the space is not big and it feels a little homey but you’re getting fish that was flown in from Japan, or caviar or truffles? Fine dining, for me, can be wherever as long as the ingredients are of great quality.” 

The Inner Workings

If we understand that fine dining isn’t just one thing and that it is, above all, the result of a philosophical desire to elevate the dining experience beyond simple nourishment, then you begin to understand that the concept is malleable. Morris sees it this way: “Everyone has this idea that fine dining needs to have 40 staff members and half of them need to be unpaid. It’s completely false. There are labour models that work. I’m in a completely unionized environment right now.”

Marcus, at the Four Seasons Montreal

As the executive chef of a five-star hotel, Morris is responsible for serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to hundreds of guests seven days a week. It’s not Noma, but the restaurant bears the name of celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, which means it carries a certain expectation. For his part, Morris oversees a team of 45 cooks who help make cooking at scale and maintaining the restaurant’s standards possible. From Morris’s perspective, the key to fine dining is rooted in team synergy.

“One of my most important metrics is to have a team that is over the top enthusiastic about improving every single day, about being clean and resourceful. Having a team that shares those values allows them to grow in unison — that’s the magic and that’s what I saw firsthand at Fantôme [his first restaurant]. There was this intangible feeling that I had about the team — it’s the shared standard that allows them to constantly inch that standard higher and higher, and that, to me, is how you define fine dining.”

To me, the picture Morris is beginning to paint feels like a natural blend of all the perspectives thus far: fine dining isn’t just about the food but it’s absolutely still about food — it’s capturing a moment in time when a team is working together with intentionality to achieve something unique. The magic of fine dining is that it can be anywhere, it doesn’t obey strict conventions nor is it defined by any one type of cuisine — it’s about catching lightning in a bottle. Noma managed to do exactly that, but it took a model that relied on exploitation to achieve it.

Chesterman, in reference to Rezepi’s claim that fair compensation was what did Noma in, acknowledges that the problem of paying equitable wages isn’t unique to the great brigade kitchens of the world. “There are still some similarities with the reasons Redzepi (cites) for closing Noma that can relate to restaurants here. When he talks about giving fair salaries, that’s a situation that’s certainly a problem here.” 

My view is that as prices at restaurants continue to rise and that cooks continue to demand fair compensation for their work, the future of fine dining is likely going to experience a shift toward much smaller operations. But don’t take that to mean reduced quality. As Morris points out, “There are restaurants in Japan and around the world that have two, three Michelin stars and have three people in the kitchen — and they’re all getting paid.” Fine dining, as I see it, is death-proof because as long as there are people with deep pockets and cooks with vision and creativity, there will be fine cuisine. How we define that, however, will remain in constant evolution.

So to say fine dining is dead is to miss the point of fine dining entirely — it’s already died 1,000 deaths and come back 1,000 times more. I say good riddance to the brigades of the overworked and underpaid — I wasn’t all that interested in what they were making anyway. 

The chefs of today are experiencing a rare moment of change where they can collectively decide to reshape the industry. It’s a responsibility that Morris is acutely aware of. “It’s up to us and industry professionals to be creative in how we manage our teams, create our schedules and look at our business model. There is room for creativity in every aspect of our job — not just in the menu.” ■

This article was originally published in the February 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.