Fine dining.
Fine dining.
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Time and time again, I come across countless op-eds gleefully relishing in the demise of fine dining. This year has been no different with a slew of beginning-of-the-year trend pieces featuring lines the likes of "fine dining is out", "tourists don’t want fine dining" and "fine dining is dead" filling up my news feed.

These are then often accompanied by some humdrum about fine dining not being a true reflection of ‘who we are as a country’ - whatever that means.  But together the two arguments are often conflated and used as clickbait as publications time and time again call time of death on fine dining.

The fact that sense of place and fine dining don’t exist together, should be relegated to opinion pieces of the late 90s, if even then. We have countless restaurants which offer an unrivalled sense of place and purpose through the finest of cuisines.  

There are the likes of Eike by Bertus Basson which is a great example of one such restaurant which can be seen to be doing both, as too is Chef Mmabatho Molefe at Emazulwini with her modern Zulu-inspired tasting menu. Whether an Afrikaans or Zulu inspired menu gives an idea of “who we are” given the melting pot of cultures and ethnicities that make up our beautiful country is also up for debate. Rather both are individual celebrations showcasing but a part of the culinary diversity of our country, both through fine technique.

So here I am, putting my head on the chopping block, proclaiming fine dining — just because it may not be what you’re doing as a chef or what you enjoy taking your guests to experience as a tour guide or perhaps even just don’t understand yourself — is definitely not dead or even dying for that matter. In fact, it’s very much alive — we’re possibly at the forefront of what we’ve been doing in the fine dining sphere as a country to date.

Image: Jirayu Koontholjinda/Unsplash

It’s the style of cooking that indisputably and firmly placed SA on the culinary map and continues to do so today. Whether it’s Luke Dale Roberts and Margot Janse, who catapulted the Western Cape to international attention with The Test Kitchen and The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Francais, respectively; or Peter Tempelhoff, who is competing among the world’s best with Fyn; or chef Mmabatho Molefe, who is making waves globally with her Zulu-inspired tasting menu. It’s clear that fine dining is what has been and remains keeping Cape Town top-of-mind as one of, if not the, continent’s culinary capitals.

Having spent the better part of tourist season in Cape Town and crossing paths with a fair share of tourists, both eating at fine dining restaurants and in passing, as well as speaking to many a restaurateur about their season, it seems locals and tourists alike are actually quite enjoying our fine dining.

It’s undeniable that our fine-dining restaurants have been inundated with foodies from around the world who are flocking to our top establishments and positively loving what they’re experiencing.  

On a personal level, at a recent wedding with a predominantly international guestlist, in the space of a few hours I met a couple who claimed Salsify provided the best meal they’d had in ages, while singing the praises of the wine list at Aubergine, another who absolutely loved the theatricality of La Colombe and yet another who was desperately trying to snag a coveted table at Fyn before they left for home the following week — having tried an array of our other fine restaurants during their visit. A small sample size, but you get the point.

Perhaps it’s because of the higher prices, smaller portion sizes, or fancy and finicky techniques that have some, not all, locals turning up their noses. Our relatively young culinary culture means there’s still a lot for all of us to learn when it comes to fine food appreciation — which is understandable, but also doesn’t mean that fine food doesn’t have a place.

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Some publications and journalists relish taking a swing at the predominantly white, male cohort of the industry’s head/executive chef community — yet again another discussion to be had, but one which can hardly be used to justify the “end of fine-dining”.

All of this is to say that the counter arguments, though they may be valid discussions and worth being had, are just not arguments that can be used as proof that fine dining is done for. Is there space for growth and evolution, as in every industry? Of course there is. Is there more than just fine dining to experience?Without a doubt! But fine dining is very much a hot and happening component of our food culture and it should be celebrated as such.

Most tellingly though, personal anecdotes and controversial topics aside, our fine-dining restaurants are full, which I imagine is a rather good indication that people do, in fact, want fine dining.

The foreigners definitely don’t seem to have an issue with our top-notch restaurants. So why is it that we, as an industry — be it media, some chefs or consumers — are so quick to call its time of death, when in fact it’s positively thriving?

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