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- 1 Jun 2010
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Not Your Average Restaurant Chain

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How far can the ‘chef as global brand’ concept stretch before it reaches breaking point?

LONDON – As far back as I can remember I have loved fine food. The anticipation of a gourmet meal, the rituals involved and of course the pleasure of consuming it, are for me among life’s great privileges. Although I am yet to fall passionately in love with a chef after tasting his delicacies as the protagonist of Luca Guidagnino’s film “I Am Love” does, I do agree that in every good meal lies a strong element of seduction. Given my predilection for gastronomic thrills, nothing makes me happier than to indulge my palate (if not my wallet) at the table of a world-class chef. Although the cost of seducing one’s palate does not come cheap, I always believed that as with most things in life, you get what you pay for. Alas, after too many lacklustre meals at the tables of renowned chefs over the past year or two, I’ve come to wonder whether the experience is still worth it. In particular, the advent of celebrity chefs – or more accurately the “chef as global brand” concept – leaves me increasingly sceptical.

This phenomenon is a relatively recent one. Famous chefs have been penning cookbooks and lending their names to product endorsements for years but until the last decade or so, few had ventured beyond the eponymous restaurant, except perhaps to open a lower-priced secondary outlet. The diffusion restaurant was more often than not located in the same city or region as the flagship restaurant with its management entrusted to a talented disciple who had learnt his skills from the master himself. This model had the benefit of expanding a chef’s customer base while ensuring a certain consistency in culinary experience that comes from a shared network of fresh produce suppliers and a level of personal involvement that only regular physical presence can ensure.

But as luxury hotels and resorts around the globe clamour for these names, there is now an increasing range of lucrative opportunities for talented chefs to expand their business far beyond their own locale. And many have. Alain Ducasse counts no fewer than 22 restaurants around the world, not to mention a culinary school in Paris and too many cookbooks and product endorsements to list here. Not to be outdone, Gordon Ramsay’s empire boasts a total of 24 establishments on four continents, multiple product endorsements and of course, two profanity-laced reality television series. On the one hand, it’s difficult to begrudge chefs the opportunity to branch out and capitalise on the demand for their skills. If fashion designers, fine jewellers and luxury car manufacturers can expand globally, why not world-class chefs? On the other hand, while cookbooks and product endorsements are reasonable enough, I find the idea of a global dining empire more perplexing.

British designer Paul Smith can have multiple “Paul Smith” stores across the world and stock them with the same clothing, accessories, fragrances, carpets, fine porcelain and whatever other product he feels like affixing his signature stripes to. He achieves this with the help of a design team and a network of licensing and franchise agreements. His products can be distributed around the world to stores that have been designed to faithfully reproduce his signature aesthetic. A “Paul Smith” store in Shanghai or Dubai can be built to replicate the identical look and feel of his flagship store in London and if he cares to, he can even staff it with British-sounding personnel for a quintessentially “Paul Smith” experience. It is a tried and tested business model perfected by Ralph Lauren years ago and works well in the current era of global empire-building.

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But, can a chef expand across the globe without betraying the principles of haute cuisine? When I book a table for dinner at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant at New York’s St. Regis Hotel or Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester here in London, I want to know that I am getting the authentic Ducasse experience. It’s not that I expect Alain Ducasse to personally prepare my meal (although that would be very nice). I do however expect a certain level of authenticity in my culinary experience. If not the hand of the chef himself stirring the pot, I want to know that his kitchen staff, from the executive chef down to the humble dishwasher, is operating under the strict quality control guidelines that Ducasse himself has set down and is on hand regularly enough to personally enforce. In other words, regardless of whether he is physically present in the kitchen on the evening I happen to be dining at his restaurant, I want to know that he is indeed in command of his own ship. The quality of this experience should not hinge on a chef’s globe-trotting schedule.

Even when everything is running smoothly, I still find myself wondering what I’m really getting for my money when I patronise a celebrity chef’s establishment. Can a signature dish or culinary philosophy be faithfully reproduced by local staff halfway around the world using local produce? Will a reasonable facsimile of a chef’s culinary signature be enough to seduce and satisfy the demanding palates of foreign patrons and justify the hefty restaurant bill? Even if you accept that foreign outposts of world-class chefs are frequently staffed with talented underlings handpicked and groomed by the master himself, the sheer number of restaurants operated by someone like Alain Ducasse or Gordon Ramsay would make that assumption rather hard to swallow.

Judging by Gordon Ramsay’s recent travails, which culminated earlier this year in the loss of his Michelin star at Claridge’s (his flagship restaurant in Chelsea retains its three Michelin stars), juggling multiple high-end restaurants, secondary establishments and countless other projects may not be as feasible as once thought. Losing the coveted star was less about prestige than it is about the cold, hard cash it represents. The true value of the accolade is the buzz it generates which in turn attracts customers and helps justify the cost of the experience. In a statement following the uncomfortable announcement, Mr. Ramsay blamed the debacle at Claridge’s on kitchen personnel problems. That may very well be true but one can’t help but think that if Britain’s most famous chef had spent more time at the Claridges’ kitchens and less time hurling profanities at television contestants, those difficulties might have been satisfactorily resolved before they ever reached crisis level. The mounting losses of his holding company (£4.3m according to The Guardian newspaper) would suggest the existence of deeper problems within his business model.

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Ramsay’s difficulties are hardly unique. Alain Ducasse experienced a chilly reception upon opening his original New York outpost at Essex House in 2000 (closed in 2007 and replaced by “Adour Alain Ducasse” at the St. Regis which opened in 2008). To his credit however, Ducasse temporarily shut down the Essex House restaurant and set to work on addressing the myriad of complaints. Interestingly, Ducasse spent a considerable amount of that operational hiatus personally revising the menu, securing access to fresh local ingredients and headhunting qualified personnel. Even so, it proved a laborious process which included the hiring and sacking of three executive chefs in quick succession before he finally got his culinary act together and with it the renewed faith of New York’s food critics and patrons. In other words, he eventually turned things around but it required him to literally roll up his sleeves and get personally involved in the minutiae of running the restaurant.

The personal touch of a world-class chef, like that of a world-class surgeon or concert musician, is difficult to replicate let alone sustain on multiple fronts. And while I concede that even the most skilful chefs can have an off night on occasion, too many disappointing experiences signal to me that there may be deeper problems at hand with the “chef as global brand” model. Had the protagonist in “I Am Love” dined at chef Antonio’s much-hyped London or New York outpost managed by his executive chef and a small army of assistants rather than at his humble trattoria in Milan, would she have been seduced on the spot by his prawns? I wonder.

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Helene Le Blanc