P(our) Symposium 2019: Can the bar industry avoid the fate of celebrity chefs?

Laura Foster

Laura Foster

09 July 2019

Every industry has its issues. Yes, even the wonderful bar industry. We’ve enjoyed a golden age of cocktails, the growth of premium spirits and the pushing of cocktail boundaries for the last 10 years, which can all lull us into a false sense of security, and distract us from any underlying issues. It’s not silly to say, however, that there are some potential dark clouds looming – not on the horizon, but overhead.

Lisa Abend
Lisa Abend

And listening to food critic Lisa Abend’s talk at this year’s P(our) Symposium about some of the issues the restaurant world is currently facing brought them into sharp relief.

Speaking about such luminaries as René Redzepi (of Noma fame) and David Chang (founder of Momofuku restaurant group), she suggested that most top chefs now seem unhappier than they were a decade ago.

‘They’ve become famous beyond their field, but they’ve also found themselves spending less time and energy doing the things that had drawn them into the field in the first place,’ Abend said. ‘They spend more time managing their brand. It was a slow evolution that predates 2009, but in the last decade those forces that had been gathering storm for a while really took off into something of a frenzy.’

Abend blames three factors in this ‘frenzy’: the advent of celebrity chefs thanks to increased exposure on television through platforms such as the Food Network; [the culture surrounding] World’s 50 Best Restaurants; and the rise of social media.

She spoke of chefs flying around the world, hosting television series, writing books and more besides, in order to build this brand that they suddenly found themselves cultivating.

While the top bartender names in the drinks industry don’t enjoy the same levels of exposure as these chefs, there is a similarity to this ‘brand management’ that rings true.

It is, however, the second and third factors that appear to be the biggest dangers to the bar world right now.

These organisations and awards are not more powerful than you are. You are not powerless within it

Lisa Abend

First is the threat of peer-judged competitions such as World’s 50 Best Restaurants. ‘When it started chefs loved it,’ Abend said. ‘It was seen as more transparent and in touch with what was happening on the ground of the actual dining scene than the Michelin Guide. They loved that, in part, the judging panel was made up of their own peers. As it goes on its influence becomes stronger and stronger.

‘The thing about this voting system is that its very strength is also its greatest weakness. You’ve got this panel who have to vote on the 10 best dining experiences they’ve had in the last 18 months. They’re going to visit those they hear about, so they’ll go to places that are new or have a buzz.

‘What’s becoming clear [though] is that the list can be manipulated. You can make sure that people come to your restaurant and have an incredible time. That’s what’s happened. The PR industry are also involved – they’re now on full-time contracts, and sometimes these PR companies market themselves on their ability to get restaurants onto the list.’

Abend spoke about national tourist boards flying in people they knew who were on the World’s 50 Best judging panel, just to try and boost a restaurant’s chances of being on the list, and of publicists who would organise events where they’d get chefs from two client restaurants to cook together, to increase the chances of judges visiting and voting for both venues.

While the bar industry may not have gone that far (yet), what we see instead is an endless merry-go-round of bars on global tours, taking their hospitality experience to far-flung shores, to increase their exposure. It’s very easy to pick out which bars are pushing for inclusion on the 50 Best/Spirited Awards lists in any given year.

That’s before we even discuss the unsavoury begging emails or messages asking for nominations or votes that have done the rounds in previous years (and may still be doing so).

While the top bartender names in the drinks industry don’t enjoy the same levels of exposure as... chefs, there is a similarity to this ‘brand management’ that rings true

Abend worries that the advent of social media is also dragging the restaurant industry into the shallows. ‘The conventional media is threatened by the rise of the internet and social media,’ she said. ‘Influencers in particular are not operating under the same rules as journalists. For content they’ll simply take selfies with famous chefs or form partnerships with restaurants [for comps or payment], rather than forming thoughtful pieces. And chefs go along with it [thanks to the exposure].’

We’ve seen similar factors start to play out in the drinks industry.

These problems don’t remain contained, warns Abend, but continue to spiral into large black holes that demand even more time.

‘There are these three forces bearing down on the chef, and all of these experiences start expanding even more. You get new awards, new conferences, new events… it just keeps going. What this means for the chef is they spend less time in the kitchen, more time on the road. It’s exhausting and soul-sucking in some ways.’

So what does Abend suggest?

‘You all have 50 Best too, you have drinks brands who want to use your influence, I know that you relinquish your own intellectual property in competitions – you do this for exposure.

‘I’m not saying that we should walk away from all of this. I know that 50 Best has done real good for this industry. We’re all human and we all seek approval. I am suggesting that we try and think a little bit harder about the world of hospitality that we’re building. Don’t give up on rankings, but think about whether they’re as important if they’ve been paid for.

‘These organisations and awards are not more powerful than you are. You are not powerless within it. You have helped make it, and we can remake it to be the industry that we want. Not one of the famous chefs got into it to be famous, they got into it for the craft, the sense of camaraderie, the tribe, and to make other people happy. It’s worth understanding that.’

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