The rewards and perils of chef collaborations.
There was a time in the not so distant past when fine dining was something almost unattainable, something for the other half, or for a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. The age of the celebrity chef has brought the fashionable and the foul-mouthed out of the kitchen and into our living rooms. Suddenly fancy tables weren’t so remote and chefs gained the recognition of pop stars.
Diners flocked to restaurants in droves to sample the wares of their culinary idols and if they were lucky, have a brief tableside audience. But over time, even that wasn’t enough. Diners craved for more.
That leads me to a global trend that the Bangkok food scene like that of many other cities has embraced, one that is loved as much as it is loathed: I give you the four-hand dinner, where two chefs share the same kitchen, creating a mash-up of two distinct restaurants. Restaurateurs see collaborations as a way to offer an added incentive to attract diners on a quest to collect unique dining experiences.
Collaborations can also be a conscious strategic decision by which brands or owners work together, build alliances, and curry favour with organisations and sponsorship corporations. One also assumes that these events are seen as guaranteed money spinners.
Which would all fine and dandy, if it were actually the case. The expectation is that the insatiable foodie will shell out top baht, more than covering the cost of bringing in a visiting chef plus his or her entourage, plus paying for the marketing involved to promote such exclusive events to the masses. Prices could be triple or quadruple the ordinary price of a single restaurant, depending on the weight of Michelin stars, the theme of the menu or the notoriety of the chefs of the restaurants involved.
There may be a handful of uber wealthy who can pay those prices without blinking, and the odd fanatical foodie who is willing to break the bank for a meal with their idols. But how often have I looked around to find the room either sparse of diners or full of other invited (read: non-paying) media and influencers, yours truly included?
I have had extraordinary tasting menus that could justify to the price. Chefs may have a long list of rare, exotic and expensive ingredients or equipment that must be shipped in or provided, driving the cost up.
But frankly the best experiences I’ve had of four-hand collabs are ones in which the chefs combine their skills to create a few original recipes by using the resources that are most fresh, accessible and local to them. Sustainability is cool, haven’t you heard? When they are on the same wavelength and their culinary personalities click, they make magic.
What makes for a less cool collaboration? The “you do the starter, I’ll do the main” approach to a four-hand dinner, with dishes selected from the restaurants’ existing menus. I understand the desire to try a guest chef’s signature dishes but why would you pay through the nose for the privilege? What has the potential to be a uniquely creative process turns out to be a tired greatest hits playlist, two menus on the same menu, for one night only.
When it’s done right however, these people bringing us four-hand events are providing foodies with a wonderful opportunity: the pleasure to experience the culinary delights of two chefs (or in the case of six-hand or eight-hand dinners even more), which creates a great buzz and excitement in the dining room and a rare treat on our plates. Plus we get to finally have an informed opinion of the cuisine and take awesome selfies with our favourite chefs.
We just hope that these same people will see the advantage of more bums on seats rather than just collecting brownie points. Lower prices and fuller dining rooms would mean more happy diners as well as a better bottom line for the restaurants and chefs.