A NEW class of restaurant clientele is splashing out on Michelin-starred meals while turning their noses up at fast food, according to a study which shows TV cookery shows have turned people on to fine dining.
Stuffy establishments populated by businessmen with expense accounts have been transformed by middle-class diners, University of Cambridge academic Christel Lane has said.
Ms Lane said: “The snobbery of fine dining is gradually being eroded. It hasn’t completely disappeared, particularly in restaurants with three Michelin stars.
“But there is a new developing group of largely professional people who are interested in the origin of their food and, in the same way they might plan a mini-break, are willing to save up for the occasional treat in a one or two-star restaurant.
“Most people I spoke to would go two or three times a year and it’s not just about eating but a total cultural experience, like going to a play. This isn’t a complete democratisation, it is more of a new elite.
Such customers are as likely to dine in a local restaurant or curry house as a two-starred establishment but stop short at high street burgers, she said.
“They don’t mind what a meal costs. People can’t afford fine dining all the time and wouldn’t want it if they could. But most draw the line at McDonald’s.”
She said the turning point came in the 1990s with the emergence of chefs like Marco Pierre White and the growing popularity of television cooks and shows such as Masterchef.
This, combined with travel broadening the public’s culinary horizons, continues to encourage diners to look beyond the traditional meat and two veg.
Ms Lane said: “When compared, for example, with diners I spoke to in Germany, there are certain sections of society who are now more willing to engage with new ideas.”
Chef Mark Greenaway, who runs an eponymous fine dining restaurant in Edinburgh and has recently opened the more informal Bistro Moderne, said diners were now more relaxed about eating in upmarket restaurants.
“When people see TV chefs on screen, they often come across as normal people,” said Mr Greenaway, who has appeared on TV shows including Great British Menu. “That, combined with exposure in newspapers and so on, makes them seem much more accessible. Whenever we put a new dish on the menu at my restaurant, I take a picture and upload it to Facebook and Twitter, so people know what we’re cooking. Even ten years ago, to know what a chef was cooking, you would have had to buy his cookbook – if he had one.”
The change has led to restaurants becoming more informal but the quality of what is on the plate has remained unchanged, the study said. While price may not be a deterrent, there are other obstacles. Ms Lane said: “There can be a perception that these are intimidating places. Often the reality is very different and customers find them welcoming places.”
Chefs including Tom Kerridge and Ruth Rogers, along with a sample of diners, contributed to Ms Lane’s book, The Cultivation Of Taste, described as the first sociological study of Michelin-starred restaurants.