The concept of a restaurant, or a business that offers meals prepared by a separate individual outside of one’s home is a concept that dates back several hundred years. Restaurants began as roadside inns, a proprietorship that focuses on providing shelter, food and drink for travelers. These early restaurants left diners at the whim of the chef as no options or substitutions were offered to the guests (Mealy N.P.). Over time, the dining portion of these roadside inns evolved into what we are more familiar with today as restaurants.
Spanning the timeline of the development of restaurants, we as a society have grown the concept of a place to conveniently get a bite to eat while traveling, to an institution that provides exactly what you want, when you want it, from a variety of cultures and levels of quality. Instead of, “I am starving and need a bite to eat while on my travels home,” we have, “no, I don’t think I want Japanese tonight, I already ate sushi this week.” Like many other concepts that have developed as we have grown as a society, we have increased access to an increasing variety of options for how we get our sustenance, and with the aforementioned progression, we have become more and more wasteful as a society.
In the following pages, I would like to address the history of fine dining in society as well as several environmental and social concerns that are exacerbated by a modern fine dining experience. After touching on how we have reached the position that we currently are in, I would like to address some of the issues that are prevalent as a result of modern restaurants, with an emphasis on fine dining. Included in the issues of modern dining are the environmental impacts of restaurants compared to their alternatives, and the ethical dilemmas associated with both the production of the exclusive ingredients that permeate high-end eateries as well as the wealth disparity we have in the world with some people eating single meals at a price point (Bruning et al. N.P.) higher than the average yearly income of our world’s poorest nations (Burton N.P.).
Each of these issues is pertinent to fully understanding the impact that a fun evening out or a celebration of a special event at one of these establishments can have on a global scale, both environmentally and societally.
A History of Fine Dining:
Like many other modern progressions in the culinary field, fine dining, as it is known today, evolved in France. The sale of products in France at the time was divided between guilds, and only authorized members of each guild were able to sell their respective products. However, as a result of the French Revolution in the late 18th century, guilds were deemed illegal and thus dissolved, and as a tertiary effect, many of the chefs that were formally employed by the aristocracy and royalty in the country were left without employment. As aristocracy was toppled, the chefs were left unemployed, and the dissolution of guilds allowed these chefs to pursue a previously unreachable market.
In these tumultuous times, chefs brought the traditions of aristocracy with them to their restaurants, such as “delicate china, cutlery and linen tablecloths” (Mealy N.P.), and fine dining was born. One such example of early fine dining was La Grande Taverne De Loudres, an establishment created by Antoine Beauvilliers. Beauvilliers was a former pastry chef for King Louis XVIII’s brother who was able to start his own restaurant that showcased what French cuisine had to offer (Spang 140). Antoine’s restaurant is considered by many to be the first fine dining experience in the world.
Following Napoleon’s downfall after the French Revolution, the wealthy of Europe flocked to the culinary hotspot of Paris in order to enjoy what the world now had to offer. This process repeated again and again after any large-scale conflict, such as the ending of each world war, and the demand for high quality dining spread across the globe to the point where there are now internationally acclaimed restaurants throughout the world.
On a modern stage, we have critically acclaimed restaurants throughout the world. In “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list, a list aggregated by polling the world’s top chefs and restaurateurs, restaurants from all over the globe are represented. In the top ten alone, seven different countries are present. The concept of fine dining has become a widespread phenomenon that is present from its hometown in Paris, all the way to local establishments in Humboldt County – albeit not to such an extreme.
Fine Dining Through the Lens of Environmental Impact:
While some restaurants focus on attaining local goods and sustainability, at the highest level, excess and a lack of restraint lead the way. Just based on personal experience, I have seen numerous shows of excess and a lacking of any conscientiousness during my visits to some of the ultra high-end restaurants in the United States. During my time spent at these restaurants, I have seen: a presentation of over a dozen cheeses from almost as many unique countries, cuts of beef that were flown from Japan to the middle of the Nevada desert in Las Vegas, and a dish starring “foie gras” – the result of force feeding geese to the point that they cannot move. These are all products that closely resemble conspicuous consumption, and have relatively large negative impacts on the environment.
When it comes to fine dining, a culture that expects the absolute best has developed. If you are dining at one of the best restaurants in the world, you need to have the best ingredients in the world backing up your product. The first two products that I would like to look at are imported products, such as international cheeses and wagyu beef. According to a report from the Environmental Working Group titled “Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health,” imported cheeses produce 19.68 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of imported cheese compared to 13.52 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of domestic cheese. Looking at these numbers, cheese, a product that is already the third worst food in terms of carbon dioxide production per kilogram, creates almost 50% more carbon dioxide when it is imported. The culture surrounding fine dining has created an expectancy of perfection that demands the best products in the world, even if they require ten times the transportation resources as other similar products.
Another example of the garish excess present throughout fine dining is the import of wagyu beef from Japan. Wagyu beef is a beef product that is distinguished from other beef varieties as a specific breed of cattle that produces more flavorful meat and extremely well marbled cuts. While it is difficult to acquire specific information regarding wagyu beef, the aforementioned report reports that transportation impact is three times higher for the transport of beef compared to cheese per kilogram (Environmental Working Group 12). This would give wagyu beef an estimated level of pollution at forty-three kilograms (25 kilograms of carbon dioxide for raising and processing the cattle, in addition to 18 kilograms for transport) of carbon dioxide per kilogram of beef. This results in the impact being almost twice as high for wagyu beef as it is for domestic beef, a product that is already known for having a high negative impact on the environment.
The final example of excess in fine dining that I would like to address is a dish that is known as foie gras. Foie gras is a product that is both controversial from an ethical standpoint as well as wasteful from an environmental standpoint. The reason for foie gras’ controversy stems from its production – foie gras is the liver of a goose or duck that has been fattened through a process referred to as gavage, or force-feeding. In their production, the geese or ducks are force-fed for about two weeks of their four to five month lives including consumption of over a kilogram of food per day towards the end of their feeding. Just during the force-feeding period alone, they are fed an amount of grain that equals close to ten kilograms for a yield of approximately one kilogram, whereas the entire lifespan of cattle uses seven kilograms of grain per kilogram of meat, at the high end.
In addition to the environmental costs, foies gras has been an object of concern for years with one of the more recent controversies surrounding foie gras being the banning of sales in California. California had deemed the production of the product to be unethical and therefore banned the sale of it for several years and was only overturned recently due to a legal technicality that argued that the law regulated interstate commerce and was unconstitutional to have at a state level.
Fine Dining Through the Lens of Ethics:
In addition to the environmental impacts and wastefulness of fine dining, the social ramifications of restaurants are widespread as well. According to CHD Expert, a data analysis company that specializes in the foodservice industry, there are over 5,100 restaurants in the United States that they classify as “fine dining,” or as having a per guest cost of over $50. These fine dining establishments average just less than two million dollars in annual sales, whereas the average restaurant brings in under a million. These 5,100 restaurants bring in over ten billion in sales, or just less than one percent of the annual sales in the restaurant business, whereas they make up less than half a percent of the overall number of restaurants. When delivering these products, these restaurants charge rates that range from a magnitude higher than preparing your own food, to multiple magnitudes higher at the most extreme, with some restaurants approaching or exceeding $500 per guest.
While these ultra nice restaurants are in the minority, spending what amounts to more than the average annual national income in several countries for a family dinner borders on offensive. In addition to the absurd amounts of money that could arguably be spent more efficiently and ethically, the meals contained in these restaurants consist primarily of environmentally demanding dishes. CHD Expert continues their fine dining analysis and they state that “the Steak & Seafood menu type makes up 21 percent of the fine dining segment, while Family Steak / Chophouse accounts for 20% and American Traditional makes up 16 percent” (CHD Expert, N.P.). These three types of food are primarily heavy in lamb, beef and cheese, the first, second, and third most environmentally damaging ingredients per pound. This distinction also takes place before considering that among these ingredients, they tend to choose the especially environmentally damaging products, such as imported meats, cheeses and wines.
While there are many forms of excessive consumption, one could argue that spending an unreasonable amount on something that others need to survive and are unable to afford as especially garish. While lavish, conspicuous spending on cars, clothes, houses, or other material items may have a greater impact on wealth disparity in both this country and globally, it is reasonable to consider the disparity between the starving and those who consume fine dining to be greater on an individual level.
Ever since their inauguration into society, restaurants have been a symbol of convenience and opulence over necessity. Beginning with their origins as a place for travelers – an affair reserved for the moderately well off – to acquire a bite to eat, to their evolution as high quality dining experience after the French Revolution, restaurants have consistently conveyed the idea of consuming food for more than survival. We as a society trade the convenience and quality for waste and gluttony, an idea that a vast majority of today’s world cannot afford.
In the modern day restaurant, we have huge amounts of waste, both in the literal sense of food being disposed of, and in the margin between what is needed and what we consume. From the aforementioned products – such as imported cheeses, wagyu beef, and foie gras – that excessively, negatively impact the environment, to the social disparity that occurs between the highest level of restaurants and the lowest levels of accessibility for food, fine dining as well as restaurants in general portray a questionable alignment of our priorities, and it is imperative to consider the impact of our choices going forward.
Burton, James. “Countries With the Lowest Income in the World.” World Atlas, 25 April 2017. http://www.worldatlas.com/articles/countries-with-the-lowest-income-in-the-world.html. Accessed 11 December 2017.
Mealy, Lorri. “A History of the Restaurant Part One.” The Balance, 12 April. 2017. https://www.thebalance.com/a-history-of-the-restaurant-part-one-2888654. Accessed 11 December 2017.
“Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health.” Environmental Working Group, 2011. http://static.ewg.org/reports/2011/meateaters/pdf/methodology_ewg_meat_eaters_guide_to_health_and_climate_2011.pdf. Accessed 11 December 2017.
Morton, Caitlin, and Sarah Burning. Conde Nast Traveler, 16 August 2017. https://www.cntraveler.com/galleries/2014-04-19/the-most-expensive-restaurants-in-the-world/. Accessed 11 December 2017.
Spang, Rebecca L. The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern
Gastronomic Culture. Harvard University Press. 2001.
“The ‘White Tablecloth’ Segment: CHD Expert Evaluates the Fine Dining Landscape of the United States.” CHD Expert, 31 October 2016. https://www.chd-expert.com/blog/press_release/the-white-tablecloth-segment-chd-expert-evaluates-the-fine-dining-landscape-of-the-united-states/. Accessed 11 December 2017.
“The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.” William Reed Business Media. 2016. http://www.theworlds50best.com/list/past-lists/2016. Accessed 11 December 2017.