I will try not to refer to dry online translations and interpretations of what it should mean, what it actually is and what it should be according to experts and self-proclaimed critics.
I will tell you from my personal experience how I experience it and how my guests have experienced it. To me, fine dining is a combination of superbly prepared and honest food, a very pleasant and professional service, a beautifully set table and a pleasant and romantic atmosphere. This doesn’t mean that portions must be small, that the food needs to be pretentious and incomprehensible, that the service must be stiff. On the contrary, the art of dining, cooking and serving must have emotions. The initial emotion comes from the chef who prepares the food, then the staff who needs to present this emotion to guests for them to experience it as imagined by the chef.
I’ve been to many restaurants that aren’t listed as fine dining restaurants and that’s where I experienced simple but perfect food served in just 3 courses with so much warmth and professionalism that it would be absurd not to call it fine dining. Many times, on the other hand, I have experienced a lot of pomp, pretentiousness and glamour while the food was inedible, the service extremely arrogant and I’m still paying off the bill.
Rise and fall in Croatia
Some 11 years ago, when the first Masterchef appeared in Croatia, the term fine dining became terribly popular. Back then, there was only a handful of chefs in Croatia who understood this and who did it well, but as the trend grew, most chefs suddenly started experimenting. That’s when terms such as bed, foam, sous vide 567 hours, bud water, various French terms started to appear on menus, with one of the most popular being coulis of various fruits, then espuma… As our people from Dalmatia would say: “Gospe moja, obuci nam bilo”.
It became a trend to make menus as incomprehensible and extravagant as possible, everyone started doing food in courses and pairing wine. Winemakers were visiting restaurants on a weekly basis and food was generically paired every week with another winemaker.
We were not ready for this, we simply skipped a lot of steps to get to the core of fine dining. Guests felt it and began to shy away from it, and somehow we became the object of ridicule along the lines of “Are you that chef who makes poop and foam…”. We had to build the entire scene from scratch.
At that point a very strong bistro scene started to emerge in Zagreb, a new generation of chefs appeared, and the great rise of the Croatian gastro scene began. Chefs understood the essence of diversity and a personal signature and today we can say that we have top restaurants and chefs.
I think that Croatia not only has a future, but also a very real present. It’s amazing that there are so many quality restaurants, chefs and pastry chefs in such a small country. A quality gastro scene also includes top winemakers, the branch with the highest rise, olive growers, the bartender and barista scene. Only together can we build the identity of Croatia’s gastronomy which will, I hope, become an official part of the global map.
No need to stress about prescribed forms and definitions, the beauty lies in diversity and originality. Remember that the most beautiful stories about us are actually told by our guests.
Marko Gajski, head chef at Lešić Dimitri