Why We Are Mourning the Death of Fine Dining
With its arsenal of top-flight chefs and iPhone-friendly dishes, the casual-culinary revolution has a rich tradition in terminal condition.
Looking back, I can pinpoint the date, the time, the place, even the exact cost of the meal. It was, for me, the day fine dining died.
It was 6:29 pm on July 22, 2007, at Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York. I walked in without a reservation, took a seat, and ate alone for $89.20, including tax and tip. What was to be David Chang’s seminal restaurant had been open almost a year at that point, but I hadn’t rushed over. I wasn’t fond of his first East Village spot, Momofuku Noodle Bar, and I’d heard this one was no prize. At least until it got great.
I was a member of the fine-dining fellowship, and the revelation that Ssäm Bar was the start of a revolution took hold of me slowly. However, I recognized something inexplicable and brilliant on my plate during that first visit. Called Santa Barbara uni, it was a colorful concoction of orange eggs, fluffed-up bean curd, and lychee-flavored tapioca balls. I told my editor I had eaten a New York Times three-star meal at a counter, on a hard stool. He returned there with me a few weeks later and said, “Why not four stars?”
Chang was original. And visionary. He inspired people to become chefs who, in the traditional sense, had no business being chefs. He changed everything.
I called Chang a few months ago to ask how his relentless assault on fine dining was coming along. He enjoys lecturing me and began his latest effort by demonstrating an uncanny knowledge of my earlier life. “When you were a young sportswriter covering Muhammad Ali, did you ever think that someday nobody would care about boxing anymore?” he asked.
I confessed that I had not.
“If you had said that, you’d have been laughed out of the business.” I never realized he was so perceptive. Or that he knew so much about me. But at least he didn’t call me “Old Man,” his usual greeting.
Chang’s point was that the world changes. Fine dining—thanks largely to him—was not something anyone cared about anymore.