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The History of Fine Dining

Being familiar with the mold can help us appreciate those who break it.

In literature, they talk about the canon—classic works, almost exclusively written by dead white guys. Those in favor of studying the canon will say that although these books may not reflect who we are now, we must continue reading them to understand their influence.

TBH, I think, Fuck that! If we keep studying the same authors, we’ll keep sounding like them. What if we just threw out the canon and started fresh? But because food is a mentorship industry, big-name chefs influence the younger generation of chefs who train under them. And despite the fact that the story of fine dining is not composed entirely of French dudes, even the most forward-thinking chefs still espouse the virtues of a foundation in French cuisine. Was it my heart’s desire to turn a more or less blind eye to kaiseki, the complex history and recent rise of the American South, or what’s happening in South America and Australia? No, but in piecing together the traditions that chefs and writers cite as the defining moments in American fine dining, a pattern of people and events emerged, either because they presented something completely radical, embodied the culture of the time, or were just really good at self-promotion.

Being familiar with the mold can help us appreciate those who break it, and looking at fine dining as a timeline alerts us to the ways trends form (groundbreaking!) and fade (overdone). When a restaurant that doesn’t quite fit the mold gains acceptance in the world of fine dining, that’s worth noting. What happens in this relatively small corner of the food world can change the entire landscape. But at its most basic level, we hope this timeline will help orient you to the whos, whats, and whys of fine dining.

1547

Catherine de Medici becomes the queen of France. With her arrival from Florence comes a coterie of cooks, chefs, winemakers, and gardeners, who have historically been credited with establishing the roots of high French cuisine. This apocryphal tale has been widely refuted, but the influence of Italian epicureanism on French dining is still a valid concept, and something you can lord over any French people you know.

Let’s skip over the primordial ooze of fine dining and jump in again at the end of the eighteenth century:

Food service is controlled by guilds, the members of which (called limonadiers or aubergistes or cafetiers) are licensed to sell only a single product. In 1765, a Parisian shop owner named Boulanger tries to sell a dish of sheep’s feet in white sauce in addition to his restaurants (fortifying soups). The guild of stew-makers sues him, and Boulanger wins. Shops selling multiple food items slowly appear around Paris. In 1789, French aristocrats and financiers flee their homes after the storming of the Bastille, “[throwing] all the good chefs out onto the pavement,” according to Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de La Reynière. This rapidly accelerates the movement away from private kitchens; by the end of the French Revolution, Paris will be home to hundreds of restaurants.

1815

Marie Antonin Carême, who cooked for nobility across Europe and was famous for his fantastical sugar sculptures (pièces montées), publishes his first cookbooks, Le pâtissier royal parisien and Le pâtissier pittoresque. Carême’s books (including Le cuisinier parisien and L’Art de la cuisine française au XIXe siècle) codify grande cuisine: he introduces the idea of separating meat, fish, and poultry; promotes the use of four mother sauces (espagnole, vélouté, allemande, and béchamel); and classifies dishes and their variations along organizational trees.

1827

The Swiss Delmonico brothers open Delmonico’s as a café in New York City. In 1830 it becomes, if not the first fine dining restaurant in America, the most influential of its time. Delmonico’s focus on French cuisine—dishes like consommé printanier, haricots verts, and petit fours—set the standard for what Americans perceive as fine dining in the twentieth century.

1830s–1840

Boston’s Tremont House brings Russian service (dishes are plated in the kitchen and served sequentially, one dish at a time) to America. Historically, restaurants have served in the French style, where a number of dishes are presented at once. In the 1860s, chef Félix Urbain-Dubois will popularize Russian service in France.

Antoine’s, America’s second high-end, non-hotel restaurant after Delmonico’s, opens in New Orleans, serving French-Creole cuisine and setting a trend of regional fine dining in very slow motion.

As for the rest of the nineteenth century, historian Dr. Paul Freedman writes:

The mid-nineteenth century represents a distinctive phase in the history of American cuisine, one that lasted a long time, as culinary trends and fashions go. Indeed, until about 1890, less altered over the course of the century than one might expect… the dining experience of the Gilded Age was intimately tied to what had preceded it and, indeed, to traditions of American fine cuisine reaching back to the 1830s, at least.

1900

Michelin publishes its first guide, a free pamphlet for motorists with information on how to change a tire and locations of Michelin dealers and hotels. In 1923 they added a separate section for restaurant listings, and in 1926 they began awarding a star to outstanding restaurants. In 1931 a three-star system was introduced. The criteria, published in 1936, were: “one star: a very good restaurant in its category; two stars: excellent cooking, worth a detour; three stars: exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”

1903

Auguste Escoffier publishes Le Guide Culinaire, which simplifies the ideas set forth by Carême and introduces the brigade system of organizing professional kitchens.

1933

Eugénie Brazier earns three stars for her restaurants La Mère Brazier in Lyon and Le Col de la Luère. She is the first chef to receive six Michelin stars.

Fernand Point receives his third Michelin star for his restaurant La Pyramide, in Vienne, near Lyon. In his kitchen begins the rumbles of what will later become a revolution in cuisine. Point was an early pioneer of ingredient-driven cuisine—changing his menu often to reflect quality and availability—and a mentor to Paul Bocuse, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Alain Chapel, and Louis Outhier.


1939

The New York World’s Fair opens in Flushing Meadows, Queens, with the theme “The World of Tomorrow.” Participating countries create large “pavilions,” complete with restaurants showcasing their national cuisines—like Epcot, without the cartoon mice. Marcel Olivier, French commissioner general for the World’s Fair, says, “American visitors are able to dine in New York in an atmosphere identical to that found in the restaurants of the Rue Royale or the Avenue de l’Opéra: same cuisine, same wine, same personnel, same charm.” Despite being the most expensive dining option at the fair, Le Restaurant Français is overwhelmingly popular. Journalists complain about the difficulty of getting a table, although Le Restaurant is cited for violating capacity regulations by jamming twice as many seats into the space as permitted.

1941

Hoping to capitalize on the success of Le Restaurant Français, its former maître d’ Henri Soulé opens Le Pavillon in Midtown East. In 1952, former Le Restaurant Français premier commis poissonnier Pierre Franey joins as executive chef. Jacques Pépin gets his first job in America at Le Pavillon in 1959. He remembers the famous poulet Pavillon: “A harmonious, rich, glistening roast chicken. We flavored the chicken simply with thyme, salt, and pepper and roasted it on high heat, basting regularly to give it a deep-brown, crisp finish. Then we made a sauce of reduced chicken stock, Champagne, and cream, finishing it with cognac, and drizzled the reduced natural juices over the sauced bird.” Le Pavillon alumni will go on to open New York’s most famous French restaurants (including Le Mistral, La Grenouille, and La Côte Basque) under the same model: Escoffier-based haute cuisine served in a luxurious setting (white tablecloths, huge flower arrangements).

1942

The United States had entered World War II just before the start of the New Year. Restaurants cut back on sugar and coffee due to rationing, but more Americans start eating at restaurants, where they can pay for food with cash, rather than ration stamps. During the war, restaurants serve eight million meals a day (compared with three million before). French cuisine increases in popularity, while German food, once a respected fine dining option in New York City, loses its allure.

1957

Craig Claiborne becomes the New York Times food critic and edits the paper’s food section for the next twenty-nine years. Claiborne will set the standard for restaurant reviews around the country, implementing a four-star rating system in 1964 and instituting a policy of three preferably anonymous visits. Claiborne awards his first four-star review to La Côte Basque in 1967. His candor and twenty-plus cookbooks open up haute cuisine to millions of readers.

1959

The Four Seasons opens in Manhattan, under the leadership of Joe Baum. It features a seasonal menu that’s printed in English, both relatively new concepts in American fine dining.

The early 1960s

Protégés of Fernand Point begin to pioneer nouvelle cuisine, a break from the strictures of Escoffier-style grande cuisine, marked by an emphasis on regional dishes, food plated in the kitchen, lighter sauces, and shorter cooking times.

At L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, Paul Bocuse is in the first years of serving the wildly influential dishes that will define his legacy (and remain unchanged for decades): red mullet with potato scales, black-truffle soup VGE (named for French then-president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing), and Bresse chicken cooked inside a pig’s bladder (poularde de Bresse en vessie, which he adopted from Point).

1971

Chez Panisse opens in Berkeley, California. The restaurant’s hyper-seasonal, one-menu-a-night format is revolutionary in America. “It could probably only happen in Berkeley,” begins the San Francisco Examiner’s earliest review. “Any experienced restaurateur could have set them straight in a few minutes as to why it would never work. But Berkeley being Berkeley, such sage advice wasn’t sought—or, if it was, it was not heeded.” Meanwhile, Le Pavillon closes. Its progeny—La Caravelle, Lutèce, and La Grenouille—will all receive four-star ratings from the New York Times and survive the end of the century. Hunam, “the best Chinese restaurant in the city,” becomes the first non-European restaurant to receive a four-star review from the Times.

1974

Michel Guérard develops cuisine minceur, an even lighter take on nouvelle cuisine: he subs a mixture of ricotta and yogurt for butter and thickens sauces with vegetable purées. As diners in the ’70s grow more concerned about healthy living, cuisine minceur takes hold. Two years later, Guérard will begin serving cuisine minceur to New York’s highest society at the exclusive club Regine’s.

1978

Roger Vergé publishes Ma cuisine du soleil, promoting the style of Mediterranean-influenced nouvelle cuisine he cooks at his restaurants on the southeastern coast of France, Le Moulin de Mougins and L’Amandier de Mougins. Chefs like Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, Alain Ducasse, and Hubert Keller all spend time in his kitchens. Michel Bras begins serving gargouillou at his restaurant in Laguiole, France. The dish, of carefully arranged and minimally prepared vegetables, will spawn countless imitations throughout the 1990s and beyond.

1979

Times critic Mimi Sheraton correctly predicts that 1979 will see the emergence of nouvelle cuisine in America: in New York, the Quilted Giraffe and Dodin-Bouffant open, and Le Plaisir reinvents itself with a new name and two new chefs, one French and one Japanese. In Los Angeles, L’Orangerie begins to gain national recognition. In Santa Monica, Michael McCarty opens Michael’s, tying modern French service to impeccable local ingredients and training a long list of chefs including Ken Frank, Jonathan Waxman, Mark Peel, Roy Yamaguchi, Sally Clarke, and Nancy Silverton. Jean-Louis Palladin opens his first restaurant in America, Jean-Louis at the Watergate, leading the Washingtonian to dub him “the French chef who taught Washington how to eat.” Palladin will mentor Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, and Sylvain Portay.

1981

Joël Robuchon takes over the kitchen at Jamin in Paris, where he will spend the decade defining the ’80s approach to haute cuisine with his hyper-perfectionist nouvelle cuisine.

1982

Wolfgang Puck opens Spago in West Hollywood, after leaving the influential French restaurant Ma Maison. Puck introduces the world to the concept of the casual fine dining restaurant and sensations like pizza topped with smoked salmon and caviar.

Chez Panisse alum Jonathan Waxman brings California cuisine to New York when he opens Jams on the Upper East Side. New York Magazine critic Gael Greene finds the “California relaxed elegance” of the dining room somewhat “undone” but admits that “those pricey California salads” with their “inevitable goat cheese… can be sublime.” She calls California cooking “a translation of France’s nouvelle cuisine.” It will be a dominant mode of mid- to fine dining restaurants in America for decades to come.

1987

Nobuyuki Matsuhisa opens Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills, establishing the sushi bar as a part of the modern fine dining room.

In France, Ferran Adrià hears Jacques Maximin, chef at Le Chantecler, say, “Creativity means not copying,” and decides to pursue an original identity in his cooking. In Chicago, Charlie Trotter opens his eponymous restaurant; national trends emerge from the chef’s table (set and served in the kitchen), where Trotter will eventually showcase his vegetable tasting menus and, even later, his embrace of raw foods.

1990

Three years after opening, David Bouley’s restaurant Bouley receives a four-star review from New York Times critic Bryan Miller. Miller says the chef’s “rabid zeal for fresh regional ingredients, his cerebral approach to textures and flavors, and his obvious delight in wowing customers make this one of the most exciting restaurants in New York City.”

Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Monaco is the first hotel restaurant to receive three Michelin stars.

1991

Gray Kunz opens Lespinasse in the St. Regis Hotel in New York, where he incorporates Asian techniques and ingredients into very opulent and otherwise classic fine dining. An impressive collection of chefs pass through his doors, including Andrew Carmellini, Floyd Cardoz, Corey Lee, Shane McBride, Fabrizio Salerni, Rocco DiSpirito, and Brian Bistrong.

The James Beard Foundation, founded five years earlier, hands out its first awards, finally giving American chefs a prize to covet. (Michelin will not land in America for another decade and a half.)

1993

Ruth Reichl pens the most famous restaurant review ever written, about Le Cirque in New York City. She documents extreme differences in treatment when she visits as an anonymous patron versus as a recognized food critic.

Daniel Boulud has recently left Le Cirque after six years to open his own restaurant, Daniel, which eventually usurps Le Cirque’s two-decades-old position as the premier French restaurant for power dining in the city and also becomes a lightning rod for critics and guidebooks looking to make a Reichl-like statement about the treatment of patrons in fine dining. Boulud’s kitchen is the training ground for many chefs, including Alex Lee, Dominique Ansel, Johnny Iuzzini, Michael Anthony, Jonathan Benno, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Riad Nasr.

1994

In Spain, Ferran Adrià’s restaurant El Bulli forms a development squad, “a team devoted to creativity,” and a style of cooking they’ll refer to as “technique-concept cuisine” is born. (“Molecular gastronomy” is a term widely applied to this style of cooking, but no one who cooks it actually likes the term; “modernist cuisine” becomes an acceptable middle ground in the late 2000s.) The team will eventually grow to fifty members, but initially includes Ferran and Albert Adrià, Bixente Arrieta, Àlvaro Martínez, and Andoni Luis Adúriz. Oriol Castro, René Redzepi, José Andrés, and Grant Achatz will all put in time at El Bulli.

After leaving his New York restaurant Rakel in 1990 (where he was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine) and spending several years at Checkers Hotel in Los Angeles, Thomas Keller buys the French Laundry (on a tip from Jonathan Waxman).


1995

Marco Pierre White wins his third Michelin star, making him the youngest chef (and first Englishman) to do so. Heston Blumenthal opens the Fat Duck in Bray, England. Blumenthal pursues a path of modernist cooking that will influence chefs around the globe and help establish him as one of the most influential British chefs of the next two decades.

1996

Joël Robuchon, Georges Blanc, Bernard Loiseau, and Alain Ducasse sign a manifesto to “save French cuisine,” which they feel has been threatened by globalization. Marc Veyrat organizes a group of French chefs including Michel Bras, Alain Passard, and Michel Troisgros, and they write their own manifesto, to “be open to the world.” Nationalism is at the heart of both manifestos: Veyrat says cuisine “must again become the ambassador of our heritage.” In the next five years, the New Yorker and Time both run stories on “the crisis of haute cuisine” as the French fear losing their supremacy in fine dining.

1997

Reichl calls Jean Georges “an entirely new kind of four-star restaurant,” crediting Jean-Georges Vongerichten with “a restaurant revolution.” He brings global eclecticism to the table within a haute-French model and is widely imitated.

1998

Alain Ducasse becomes the first chef in over fifty years to hold six Michelin stars at the same time—three for Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in Paris, and three for Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo.

1999

Marc Veyrat, building on the success of his first restaurant, L’Auberge de l’Eridan, spends twenty million francs building and opening La Ferme de mon Père in the Haute-Savoie region of France, a massive restaurant in the style of a Savoyard farmhouse, where he uses modernist techniques to showcase the region’s flora.

2001

Alain Passard takes the bold step of removing red meat and seafood from the menu at his restaurant L’Arpège in Paris, effectively pushing the principles of nouvelle cuisine to their logical extreme and helping to redirect the culinary world’s attention to vegetables. A year later he buys a farm, setting the new standard for restaurants concerned with the quality of their produce.

2002

Restaurant magazine starts the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, which will later become a stand-alone enterprise partnered with San Pellegrino. Though the list has detractors (Fred Morin and David McMillan of Joe Beef refer to restaurants in its purview as “bottled water restaurants”), it inarguably brings many chefs and restaurants from outside the Michelin fold into the international conversation about cuisine.


2003

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon begins serving guests at intimate “chef’s counters” inspired by Japanese service, a rethinking of what constitutes fine dining service. Chefs around the world will imitate this in the years that follow.

After training at El Bulli and the French Laundry, René Redzepi returns home to Copenhagen to open Noma, the restaurant he hoped would define Nordic cooking through the use of its produce. Seven years later it will be named the best restaurant in the world by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, replacing
El Bulli. (Michelin consistently awards it two stars.)

Chef Bernard Loiseau kills himself, allegedly because of rumors that his restaurant, La Côte d’Or, would lose its third Michelin star. The tragedy brings to light the intense pressure chefs face to achieve and retain their ratings.

2005

Michelin releases its first North American guide, for New York City. Four restaurants receive three stars: Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, and Per Se. It is the beginning of a run of global expansion that undercuts the almost holy authority of Michelin as an arbiter of taste. For instance, in the same year, Alain Senderens, chef of the three-star Lucas Carton in Paris, decides to take the restaurant in a more informal direction and return his stars to Michelin, labeling them “old-fashioned, outdated.” Michelin’s director, Jean-Luc Naret, tells the Times: “There is an interesting tendency with the chefs who think the stars belong to them. They belong to Michelin first.”

2006

Iñaki Aizpitarte opens Le Chateaubriand, leading a movement toward more relaxed dining in Paris. Around the world, more chefs coming out of top-tier kitchens open less formal restaurants than those they trained in, but continue to cook in a way that pushes boundaries.

2008

Chef Santi Santamaría decries the modernist cooking of Adrià and his squad, setting off a debate within Spain—and later around the world—about cooking in old versus new styles, “natural” versus not. This will ultimately bring about the end of the modernist cooking style as the vanguard of cuisine, although its techniques and ingredients are now firmly part of the fine dining kitchen.

2010

Del Posto, owned by Mario Batali and Joseph and Lidia Bastianich, with chef Mark Ladner in the kitchen, becomes the first Italian restaurant to receive four stars from the New York Times since Parioli Romanissimo in 1974.

2011

Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer for Microsoft, spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to self-publish the six-volume Modernist Cuisine.

In July, El Bulli has its last service.

Restaurateur Danny Meyer sells Eleven Madison Park to chef Daniel Humm and general manager Will Guidara just as EMP receives its third Michelin star. Meyer, whose restaurants have helped shape the path of fine dining in New York City since 1985, will become a force in fast food; Guidara and Humm will rocket up the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

In the New York Times, Julia Moskin writes that Noma’s influence has saturated the United States: “Evidence of the Nordic invasion is everywhere, once diners know the signs: cellared vegetables, unripe fruit, conifers, buttermilk and whey; rocks, shells and twigs used as serving pieces; garden scraps like radish leaves, turnip tails and nasturtium pods whorled, piled and clustered on the plate as if by waves or wind.”

2013

Time publishes “The Gods of Food,” featuring Alex Atala, David Chang, and René Redzepi. The issue—and the cover—gains notoriety for its lack of female chefs. Perhaps just as interesting, however, is that the cover includes a chef from South America, a chef of Muslim heritage, and one of Korean descent. Nobody’s French or cooking food that is recognizably French.