At Le Boullion’s beautiful dark wood bar on a Friday afternoon, I sat down with Chef Paul Kulik to discover what was piquing his interest as of late. He had just returned from a family visit to his birthplace of Berlin. When I casually asked about the food scene there, Kulik replied, “Everybody everywhere is curious about food. It’s no longer extraneous, just something we do to nourish our bodies.” This statement proved an excellent meta question for our greater conversation: what takes a meal from animalistic satiation to a harmonious conversation between creator and consumer that feeds and expands both bodies and minds?
Given that we are at peak restaurant saturation nationwide, diners are in the driver’s seat more than ever, which puts the onus on the creators of the dining experience to delight and engage diners from entry to exit. “You have to be a ‘passionate fool’ to be in this industry,” said Kulik. “When you open the doors, you don’t know if anyone is going to come or who those people might be.” Kulik postulates that dining experiences are influenced by both a priori and posteriori knowledge—everyone comes in to an experience with inherent knowledge independent of specific experiences and leaves with enhanced knowledge based on the experience itself.
Food and food experiences are fleeting, so how can establishments make their mark with such brief moments to influence and educate a diner? By creating a feeling, a moment in time—something that cannot be recreated exactly (though consistency in preparation is important) but sparks interest in curious guests, encouraging them to return for continued conversation.
Restaurants are often an expression of a community’s culture, and the public often feels a sense of ownership over the meal that extends past the establishment to the ingredient purveyors. But the real joy of a meal comes from surrender, in which diners trust that everyone involved in both front and back-of-house is keen to take them on an enticing journey of taste and discovery.
For example, unfamiliar words on a menu draw guests in, and servers must convey appropriately through genuine and enthusiastic description the dish that the kitchen is crafting. Chef Kulik likens an intriguing dish to trompe-l’oeil—it can at first appear pedestrian, but through visual, olfactory, and finally gustatory senses, the complexity of the creation is revealed. Conversely, diners’ experiences are lessened when there is a gap between what the chef is trying to convey and the diner’s actual experience. It is incumbent on the staff to bridge that gap.
Trends in food and service change, but hospitality—how the delivery of a quality product makes its recipient feel—never goes out of style. The industry should endeavor to both educate and intrigue guests so they are comfortable both revisiting places they love and challenging themselves with new experiences. Ultimately, diners are best served when restaurant communities work with each other to create destinations worthy of exploration.