On November 21, 2018, Spanish chef Dani García received a third Michelin star for his eponymous restaurant in Spain’s Andalusia region. After 20 years working in fine dining, he had reached the peak of his career, joining the 10 other Spanish restaurants that received the famous French guide’s highest accolade that year. The chef joyfully took the stage at the Carlos Lopes Pavilion in Lisbon to receive the honor. He even snapped a photo with the Michelin Man and later made it his Instagram profile picture.
More than 400 miles away, his staff and customers celebrated the news with a party at the restaurant. The event was broadcast from a television placed in the middle of the room. But 22 days after the celebration, García, a 42-year-old chef recognized by Michelin for the way he “[reformulates] the Andalusian cuisine in a contemporary key,” met with his team to break some news: he had decided to shut down his restaurant in 10 months. The 2019 season would be Dani García’s last, in what will be the shortest triple-Michelin-star period for a restaurant in the world.
“Once you have reached this point, it’s time to think carefully, what’s there to come?” García told his team in the meeting room, where they usually gathered to discuss recipes and other matters related to the restaurant’s daily routine. The idea had been lurking in his mind for the last three years, and although he says that he feels great respect for Michelin (he calls getting three stars “the best thing that has ever happened to my career”), he didn’t think he could continue to devote the focus required to maintain a three-Michelin-starred restaurant.
”For me, it was a very sensible decision,” he tells Eater. “I had already reached my goal in the haute cuisine world after 20 years of cooking, but this achievement could undermine my freedom to do new things, which is what I’ve been doing for the last few years.” With four restaurants and a catering service that runs food events around the globe, García has even more planned for 2019: He is poised to open three new restaurants (in Madrid and Doha, Qatar) and is slated to host a TV show in Spain. In the space where restaurant Dani García is located today, he plans to open a steakhouse focused on making hamburgers. “I am eager to create concepts [with menus that cost] 15 or 20 euros,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that I stopped believing in the haute cuisine world, but I also believe in a more casual kind of cuisine.”
García is not the first (and likely won’t be the last) acclaimed chef to close a restaurant in its pinnacle moment. To outsiders, it may seem baffling to shut down a location with accolades and a months-long waiting list, but the closing of Dani García and other internationally acclaimed restaurants raises questions about the very model of fine dining business these days, which demands more and more from chefs who must constantly innovate.
Perhaps the most famous restaurant closure of this era is that of El Bulli. Regarded as one the most influential restaurants of the century, El Bulli was named the world’s best restaurant on five occasions, and closed in 2011 after 28 years in business. “I had reached my limit,” El Bulli chef Ferran Adrià told Eater. “It was very deep research work. As an avant-garde restaurant, El Bulli was serving not only meals, it questioned the idea of a restaurant itself.” El Bulli the restaurant closed, but its philosophy continues in projects like the El Bulli Foundation, Bullipedia, and, more recently, El Bulli 1846, an ambitious “exhibition lab” taking over the former El Bulli space in Cala Montjoi, Catalonia. “Everyone asks me if El Bulli is back. No, El Bulli is not back, because it has never been gone,” he says. “It was necessary to end the restaurant to evolve with everything that came after it.”
Adrià closed El Bulli because his ambitions extended beyond what a restaurant can accomplish. But for other chefs, who must deal with issues that plague the restaurant sector, like rising rents, razor-thin profit margins, and high labor costs, striving to surprise diners with sky-high expectations for years on end isn’t always worth it.
For some chefs, 10 years is the ideal amount of time to run an ultra-high-end restaurant, a decade being the right amount of time to present their work within a pre-established concept. When chef Gaggan Anand opened his eponymous restaurant in Bangkok in 2010, he decided that the restaurant would have a 10-year life span. He worried it could become predictable if it lasted any longer.
Gaggan says he never imagined the restaurant would make it to the 10-year mark, but it did (with two Michelin stars), and in keeping with his original intention, Gaggan is set to definitively close in June 2020, six months after the closing date the chef had initially announced. “There are many restaurants that [are open for longer] than that which end up predictable, you know what you can expect from them,” says Gaggan, whose restaurant was No. 1 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for four consecutive years. He’s ready for a new challenge. “This is my mom’s philosophy: If you climb a mountain, you have to go higher until the peak,” he says. “And to climb another one, you have to go down and then go up again.”
For chef André Chiang, seven years was enough time to achieve his goals for his acclaimed Restaurant André. In 2018, hours after celebrating the restaurant’s seventh anniversary, Chiang announced that he would close the tasting-menu restaurant to “re-prioritize his career.”
“I truly believe every masterpiece has its time, when you decide to stop the painting and sign your name next to it, because you simply know when the artwork is ‘ready,’ and it has completed its mission,” he says. “I am very pleased with Andre’s golden years.”
Chiang comes from a family of artists, so he says he understands that great work takes time to be presentable — and that goes for a fine dining restaurant, too. “If you ask any artist, ‘How do you know when to stop?’ he might tell you, ‘I just know, and it will be finished when it is finished,’” he says. That’s exactly how he felt one day at Restaurant André: it was just another day, everything was working perfectly, but he “knew it was time to let it go.”
The lifespan of a restaurant isn’t what it used to be. Sixty percent of U.S. restaurants don’t make it past the first year, and 80 percent go under in five years, according to a 2005 Ohio State University study. The National Restaurant Association estimates that around 50,000 restaurants close each year in the U.S., but for every restaurant that closes, new ones open (around 60,000 open in the U.S. each year). When fine dining chefs close their acclaimed restaurants, it’s often to focus on other projects and frequently, as is the case for Gaggan and García, the next restaurant is more casual.
“People are looking at value differently. It used to be fine dining restaurants were high value because the quality they brought was hard to come by other places,” says Jake Young, managing partner of Vucurevich Simons Advisory Group, a restaurant and hospitality consulting company. Now that Michelin is giving stars to street vendors around the world that charge well below tasting menu prices for their meals, Young explains, “people see the craft and artisanal qualities behind the menus, and that is the value they are looking for.”
Over the last three years, Gaggan has proven to be a savvy entrepreneur as well as chef, investing in five different food businesses in Bangkok, from a European-Asian fusion concept (run by his former head chef, Garima Arora) to a recently opened natural wine bar. He’s also partnering with Japanese chef Takeshi Fukuyama of La Maison de la Nature Goh, a French restaurant in Fukuoka, Japan. In 2021, they intend to open a pop-up food business of some kind somewhere in Japan.
While Chiang continues to devote energy to fine dining with Taipei tasting menu Raw, which he calls “the pride of Taiwan,” he also has his hands in other styles of dining, from contemporary yakitori omakase Bincho in Singapore to modern eatery Porte 12 in Paris. Dani García Group runs restaurants that similarly cover a range of dining styles, including Lobito de Mar, a Spanish chiringuito, and Bibo, a whimsical brasserie with a tapas menu. Soon, he’ll add burgers to his portfolio.
Announcing that a restaurant is closing during the height of its acclaim has proven to be good publicity for chefs and their future businesses. News of Dani García’s closing, for example, yielded more headlines than when the restaurant acquired a third Michelin star, according to a Google search. And given many chefs’ desire to continuously create, closing one restaurant in service of another isn’t a bad strategy.
“I wouldn’t mind running a cafe for 30 years if I made my living off that. But I don’t do anything in this business just to survive — that’s way too little,” Chiang says. “Creating a great dish is also hard; running a new restaurant is hard. But if this is the mentality we have, we are not going anywhere; we will suffer every day for not being able to do something new, challenging.”
Chiang and his team have given each of his eight different restaurant concepts a unique vision, but he has the same goal for each of them: “It is simply like life: it’s not about the length, but the intensity of it,” he says. “Not about duration, but donation.” Set to open a new Sichuan fine dining restaurant in Macau’s Wynn Palace Cotai hotel, the only thing Chiang knows for sure is that, if all goes well, it will stay open as long as he wants it to. Or in other words, until he decides to hang up the paintbrush.