Viktor Mercier attended a prestigious culinary school in France, worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and made it to the finals of the popular television show “Top Chef.” Last year he opened his first gourmet restaurant in Paris. Now, the 30-year-old makes hot dogs.
They’re not just any hot dogs. In keeping with his restaurant’s strict no-imports, Made in France identity, the sausage comes from free-range pigs in southern France. They’re served in soft bread from a celebrated French bakery and topped with glazed onions, shallot pickles and water cress. One hot dog costs €11 ($13).
With France in the middle of a second partial COVID-19 lockdown and restaurants forced to close yet again, fine dining establishments like Mercier’s have scrambled to adapt. Many have pivoted to takeout.
On a recent afternoon, Mercier, along with some of his staff, packed the gourmet hot dogs into cardboard boxes and scrawled “thanks” on the paper bags as customers dropped by his restaurant, FIEF, to pick them up. It’s a far cry from the elaborate €70, six-course meals they used to cook from behind a large counter where customers could watch.
They’re not making money from it either. The hot dogs and a few other sandwich options rake in a fraction of the €4,500 the restaurant would normally make each night. But Mercier says it’s important to boost his team’s morale.
“In the hospitality sector, if you don’t work for several months, it’s really tough to come back with the same motivation. That scares me a bit,” Mercier told DW. “I decided for my team, we have to keep moving, show that we’re doing something.”
The counter where guests usually watch their food being created has turned into a delivery-cum-working space
Fine dining in a box?
Mercier has kept six of his 10-member staff on furlough thanks to state aid. The French government has pumped in billions of euros to prop up the struggling hotel and restaurant sector, which employs a million people and is one of the mainstays of the economy as well as the French way of life.
Amid COVID lockdowns, the government has also rolled out a solidarity fund for bars and restaurants, and extended a furlough scheme through which the state pays an employee’s salary for workers in the industry.
Mercier is grateful for the government’s support. But unlike some restaurants that are offering a stripped-down version of their gourmet menus for takeaway, he’s skeptical of replicating the experience of fine dining, where precision timing and presentation is a priority.
“We’re in the business of hospitality. I know we have to adapt, but there’s no hospitality to putting food into boxes. I hate it,” Mercier said, shaking his head. “We need to see people, show our skills, and they need to see the amount of work that goes into a plate of refined food.”
In crisis, an opportunity
Elvire von Bardeleben, who writes about food trends for French newspaper Le Monde, says the pandemic has thrown up fundamental questions about eating out.
“Chefs are asking, ‘Who am I cooking for and what does it even mean to go to a restaurant in 2020?'” Bardeleben said. “And customers are more aware of the food they’re consuming and values such as sustainability. Seasonal and local products are more important when it comes to restaurants.”
According to the restaurant expert, the last five to six years have produced few creative surprises in the French haute cuisine scene, with many eateries dishing out the same old concepts, presentations, products and menus.
In recent years, restaurants, especially in Paris, have also struggled during the sometimes violent yellow vest protests and the crippling transport strikes that kept customers away.
“I think the COVID crisis could provide an opportunity to do things differently,” Bardeleben said, adding that younger chefs who are more eco-conscious, nimble and willing to innovate are more likely to emerge winners.
Taking the plunge
Mory Sacko, a contestant in this year’s “Top Chef” series, has worked with some of the biggest names in French gastronomy and is an upcoming star in the industry.
Chef Mory Sacko calls the government aid for restaurants a Band-Aid: ‘We can survive but we can’t make money’
The 28-year-old did the unthinkable by opening his first restaurant in September this year in Paris, between France’s two national lockdowns. Called Mosuke, it melds Japanese, French and African influences, in a nod to his Malian roots.
“I knew it was a gamble to open when I did. But at the back of my mind, I was already making plans of what to do if there were another lockdown,” the lanky chef said during a recent interview in his small restaurant with room for 30.
His solution was to spin a new €19 street food takeout version of his gourmet restaurant, complete with new logo and branding. Sacko changes the menu every week, from fish burgers to fried chicken with pickled vegetables and pineapple slices on cream infused with Japanese pepper to Pissadiere, a pizza-like dish from southern France, with west African yassa.
Sacko is set to take the plunge for the first time over Christmas when he offers a full-fledged, €85 takeout menu, complete with starters, a whole roasted chicken, foie gras made with his signature African-Japanese touch, and a Christmas cake with exotic fruits.
“It will be a real challenge to put our gastronomic creations in a box and at the same time keep the emotions that go with that kind of food,” Sacko said. “But we’re used to challenges. These past months have been full of them.”
All eyes on a coveted star
Despite the turbulent year for the restaurant industry, the iconic Michelin Guide — seen by chefs as the Holy Grail of achievement — is pressing ahead with its picks for this year. They will be revealed in January.
Fine dining establishments in France have been open for about four months this year, long enough for Michelin’s inspectors, known for their exacting standards, to have paid furtive visits.
Viktor Mercier, who says his restaurant enjoyed three good months between the lockdowns, is jittery.
“I want a Michelin star. That is my goal. I feel we have what it takes,” he said. “But I’m nervous, too. I’m not sure whether the inspectors even had time to visit us. It all just adds to the uncertainty of this year.”