If you reckon museum food is tired and boring, think again. Forward-thinking operators are dusting off its image and upping the takings
A top-name chef and museum food isn't a traditional pairing. Usually, those unfortunate enough to be struck by hunger or thirst at a cultural venue have had to survive on food and drink from a faceless catering company that's well aware it has a captive market, no matter what the standard of food is like.
But this generalisation no longer holds true across the board. Forward-thinking operators are realising that food in a cultural context should be part of the overall experience instead of detracting from it, guaranteeing happy customers and upping the takings in one fell swoop. While we've given the best of these in the UK, and around the world, the thumbs up (see p29-30), the lingering bad taste of museum food isn't confined to the UK.
However, there's one place in Europe that looks set to blaze a trail others would be wise to follow. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels has launched a concept called MuseumFood, presided over by Chef Peter Goossens from three Michelin-starred Hof van Cleve, voted 14th in the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants 2007 list.
MuseumFood is made up of three concepts, all of which carry Goossens' name, although, of course, he's still based at Hof van Cleve and gets to the museum every week to work with Executive Chef Jean Philippe Kriers. All three ventures – MuseumCafe (lunch and snacks), MuseumFood (coffee and cakes) and MuseumBrasserie (lunch and dinner) – opened at the beginning of 2007 and were the brainchildren of West Flemish-born ‘ideas man'
Fernand David, who is also a shareholder. David is, by his own admission, "Not really a restaurateur, I'm a businessman first and foremost". Yet, with MuseumFood, he's achieved what many restaurateurs have shied away from, even attempting, in spearheading a €2million project, to "create a new standard, gaining credibility using a cocktail I've used time and time again: a great location or venue, a great chef and great food."
David's background is predominantly in hotels.
He worked his way through the ranks of Hilton from 1971, becoming Vice President for Western Europe in 1996. Five years later, he left the fold to create his own company – Fernand David Management Services. In 2004, David was taken on to help with the restoration of the Kursaal concert venue, a project which included creating the Ostend Queen with Pierre Wynants of Comme Chez Soi. Ostend received a major dose of publicity ahead of opening, when a smart Belgian journalist noticed Michelin had given it a Bib Gourmand before it had even opened the doors. Michelin was very publicly forced to retract the edition and do a new print run.
Anyway, when Michel Draguet became the new Director General of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, he contacted David "because he saw we had done something great with Ostend and was ashamed of what food he could offer in the biggest, grandest museum in Belgium". The food was, says David, without pulling any punches, "worse than you could imagine".
The new café is located in the former cloakroom and has opened up the space to utilise a previously disused large outside balcony. It's self-service, with sandwiches, sushi, a hot buffet and salads made in front of visitors.
Trays come with a paper place setting of the Belgian flag, with Goossens' name emblazoned across the top. Design-wise it's not your typical museum caff. Restaurateur/interior designer Antoine Pinto (who also designed Belga Queen)
has created the look of all three spaces, and in the café, it's ultramodern with a huge projection screen, orange, purple and blue leather chairs and plenty of steel as well as having a long black marble bar and velvet drapes. "We've brought it into the 21st century. We could be in Paris or London," says David.
Average spend in the café is €18 a head, which takes into account those who come for coffee and cake to those who have a three-course meal with a glass of wine. Upstairs in the brasserie it's €60. The keen prices have already helped to bring in diners who haven't actually been to the museum says David. "Look at those two ladies over there," he says excitedly. "They've just had a salad, a beer, now, maybe, they'll have some coffee and cake, and they obviously haven't been to the museum. That would never have happened before – eating here just wasn't sexy, now it's a pleasure."
The museum is judiciously placed in the centre of Brussels, close to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, plus, says David. "If you suggest meeting for something to eat in a museum you're saying ‘I'm a cultural person, you're a cultural person…'"
This may have the effect of people who come for the food then looking at an exhibition because they're there, rather than the other way around.
"We're making a quality statement about the whole experience, whether you enjoy the art, the coffee or the food, it's all part of the same experience, so if you're doing museum food you have to make sure you can create a good relationship with the people who are running the museum."
The brasserie has a separate entrance, handy for evening access when the museum is closed.
The food, which David describes as "any more Belgian and you'll die", certainly has a lot of the country's traditional dishes. In that, there's some ingredient crossover with Goossen's Hof van Cleve but as Goossens says, "MuseumFood is not gastronomic", or as David puts it, it's "Goossens lite". So in MuseumFood there's Goose Liver Terrine with Rodenbach Beer; North Sea Shrimp Croquettes with Fried Parsley; Eel off the Bone with Green Herbs; Veal Head Stew with Tomato and Gherkins; Dame Blanche (hot chocolate sauce and Chantilly cream) Ice Cream; and, of course, Waffles with Cream. Chips are served in cones with good mayonnaise. Goossens says, "It's a very important museum, but a lot of people didn't eat here because the café had no passion for food. I wanted to do Belgian food for the people of Belgium – and for tourists."
Estimates of how many people they will serve with the new food offering are high. There are 400,000 museum visitors a year and they expect to serve 60,000 meals in MuseumBrasserie and 180,000 in MuseumCafe. Of these, only 10 per cent in the brasserie are expected to have been to the museum, rising to about 80 per cent for the café, which is already doing 300 to 400 lunchtime covers on weekend days. The contract for the concessions is 15 years, with an automatic renewal option.
David expects to break even by February 2008.
Goossens is on a percentage of profits at MuseumFood, but the project also has the added benefit of ensuring his name is well-known in central Belgium as well as western Belgium before the opening of Peter Goossens Brasserie next February/March in the Bruxelles-Midi Station, also in partnership with David.
"We encourage people to fill in these little survey cards," says David. "And one customer wrote that now she'd eaten at MuseumBrasserie she was going to have to go to Hof van Cleve. That's wonderful."
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Museumstraat 9 Rue du Musée, 1000 Brussels +32 2 508 32 11 museumfood.be fine-arts-museum.be
Exhibit A to B
Return tickets to Brussels on the Eurostar start at £59. All Eurostar tickets to Brussels are valid to/from any Belgian station at no extra cost. London's terminal is currently at Waterloo International but on November 14, it will run from St Pancras International, and journey times will be reduced by at least 20 minutes.
Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 08705 186 186.
British museums are making themselves presentable, making poor dining a thing of the past
For some lucky patrons, taking refreshment during a cultural visit means gazing out over the twinkling London cityscape from Tate Modern's elevated Members Room, pomegranate Margarita in hand. For the rest of us, it triggers memories of hard plastic trays and the enervating bustle of the timeworn British museum café, an institutional place where the Victoria sponge looks older than the exhibits.
But things are changing, as museums try to balance their considered curatorship of the past with the rigorous economic demands of the present. Many are still operated by the museums themselves, the proceeds from homemade soup and prawn baguettes a welcome additional income stream. Since re-opening in 2005, World Museum Liverpool has prided itself on the multi-disciplinary nature of its varied collections, and this broad expertise extends to running the popular top-floor restaurant, with all profits re-invested.
Other venerable institutions have chosen to enter into (sometimes unlikely) partnerships with catering specialists. The café at the Victoria and Albert Museum – which, dating back to 1865, can claim to be the oldest museum restaurant in the world – combines three largely unchanged period rooms with the New York deli-inspired smarts of the Benugo chain. Over at the British Museum, the Viennese gastronomy corporation Do&Co took over all food activities last year; while traditional English Tea and Scones with Clotted Cream still features at the impressively-situated Court Restaurant, there's a global fusion feel to the menu, from Fig Antipasti to Indian Butter Chicken. Heading north, the Danishoriginated Kro Bar recently opened Café Muse at Manchester Museum. After exploring the Egyptian collection or observing lizards, patrons can choose from a range of ‘Danwiches' or chow down on Spicy Medister Sausages.
At the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, the construction of an ambitious extension in 1998 was also the chance to create the city's first roof-top restaurant. Under the stewardship of lauded Witchery man James Thomson, The Tower quickly established itself as one of the country's best dining rooms, piggybacking the establishment credentials of the museum, while – thanks to its dedicated express lift – discreetly positioning itself as a destination in its own right. But while the trend for separate restaurants seems to be gaining momentum around the world, museum cafés in the UK are mostly embedded in the overall experience. So if you're looking for a bite at the National History Museum, you'll find the self-service restaurant opposite the giant plesiosaur... for now, at least.
RESTAURANTE GUGGENHEIM, BILBAO
If not the most famous, then certainly the most recognisable museum in the world, the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim in Bilbao celebrates its 10th birthday this year. All that time, it's been home to a restaurant that's as forward-thinking as its architecture. Since 2000, Head Chef Josean Martínez Alija (a protégé of triple Michelin-starred Basque gastronomic deity Martín Berasategui) has tirelessly worked to nudge the restaurant out of the building's imposing shadow and has become a name to be reckoned with in his own right.
On the walls: The Guggenheim is an oasis of conceptual modern art, the kind of stuff flustered art snobs say they can't get their head around.
On the plate: Working with natural bases, extracts and distilled liquids, Alija's aim is to provoke emotions in his patrons. With dishes such as Sea Bass on a Base of Black Olives Treated in Sherry, Oregano and Rhubarb Leaves followed by Grilled Apple Gnocchi with Layers of Green Cardamom and Cinnamon Ice Cream, you get the feeling fellow innovator Gehry would approve.
They say: "In each dish, there is a provocation, a product, an architecture, a technique and an aroma."
The critics say: "Not only a world-class art collection but also a world-class restaurant." Frommers Avda Abandoibarra 2, 48001 Bilbao, Vizcaya, Spain restauranteguggenheim.com email@example.com +34 944 239 333
THE MODERN, MOMA, NEW YORK
When New York's Museum of Modern Art reopened in November 2004 after an ambitious refurbishment, the city's art crowd swooned over the white, airy spaces. They keeled over for a second time two months later when hospitality guru Danny Meyer opened The Modern, a poised, Bauhaus-inspired restaurant with room-length views of MoMA's famous sculpture garden; the perfect setting for the French-American cuisine of Alsatian-born Chef Gabriel Kreuther. The separate entrance allows patrons to get their fix of Kreuther's inventive culinary flourishes outside museum opening hours.
On the walls: Picasso's ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' recently celebrated its 100th anniversary here, and the sculpture garden is home to a retrospective of American sheet metal wizard Richard Serra.
On the plate: Kreuther's Chorizo-crusted Seasonal Fish – currently Chatham Cod with White Cocoa Bean Purée and Harissa Oil – is talked about in hushed whispers.
They say: "Taking museum dining to sophisticated new heights."
The critics say: "Sit back and let the artful dishes emerge from Kreuther's kitchen". Gourmet Magazine 9 West 53rd Street, New York, NY 10019, USA themodernnyc.com firstname.lastname@example.org +1 212 333 1220
NOVUS, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SINGAPORE
Augmenting neo-classical architecture with modernist design, the National Museum of Singapore reopened in December 2006 following a three-year refit. Within its marble-cool, highceilinged interior, you can experience a superior dining experience in Novus, the 48-seater restaurant overseen by Executive Chef Dan Masters and Executive Sous Chef Philipp Meisel, who have previously worked together at Le Gavroche in London. There's even more star power to come as Jean-Christophe Novelli drops by in October to collaborate on a special lunch menu for the Sensual Botanicals & The Food Of Love brunch, part of the Singapore Sun Festival – one of the restaurant team's regular collaborations with the curators.
On the walls: As well as paintings and artifacts from Singapore's colonial past, there's also room for modern work, such as Japanese artist Naomi Kobayashi's washi paper sculptures.
On the plate: European cuisine with a Far Eastern spin, such as Seared Scallops with Four Times Cooked Pork Belly, Chestnut Purée and a Red Wine Reduction.
They say: "Novus strives to become an iconic destination that offers a unique sensorial experience, visual enchantment and service excellence."
The critics say: "The cuisine is stylish, with many of the French-style dishes given a lighter touch as befits Singapore's tropical clime" Time 93 Stamford Road, 178897 Singapore nationalmuseum.sg email@example.com +65 6336 8770
AROLA-MADRID, MUSEO REINA SOFÍA, MADRID
Spain's national museum of 20th century art, housed in a former hospital, is named after Queen Sofia. When a very modern extension, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, opened in 2005, flamboyant, double Michelin-starred restaurateur Sergi Arola added his own name to the address with Arola-Madrid. This futuristic tapas restaurant is decorated in super-hero silver and red, and catapults Spain's traditional bar snacks into a new dimension. Executive Chef Angel Palacios oversees the production of exquisite mini-marvels, food so exquisitely detailed you probably need a jeweller's loupe to properly appreciate the work.
On the walls: Until relatively recently, Picasso's immense ‘Guernica' mural was kept behind bulletproof glass. It remains the museum's biggest draw, although Reina Sofia also boasts an impressive Salvador Dali collection.
On the plate: The place is famous for reimagined Patatas Bravas, transforming the tapas staple into a minimalist sculpted delight, presented on plates that deserve their own place in a museum.
They say: "The minimalist expression of a whole gastronomic revolution."
The critics say: "A wildly innovative tapas menu"
Food And Wine Magazine Calle Argumosa 43, 28012 Madrid, Spain arola-madrid.com firstname.lastname@example.org +34 91 467 02 02
LE TRANSVERSAL, MAC/VAL, VITRY-SUR-SEINE
The first museum of modern art in the Parisian suburbs, the Musée d'Art Contemporain du Val-de- Marne (MAC/VAL for short) opened in November 2005. From the outset, its restaurant, Transversal, was fully committed to reflecting what was being exhibited. According to General Manager Gilles Strassart, the aim is to "bring art to the people, using food as the medium". While the descriptions of the work in the museum are often off-puttingly chewy, Head Chef Laurent Chareau has taken a lighter, wittier approach with his pick'n'mix menu, which regularly attracts Parisian taste-makers away from their comfort zone in the City of Lights.
On the walls: Mostly French art from the 1950s onwards, but watch out for Malachi Farrell's installation ‘Nature Morte', featuring two electric chairs – and they say that art has lost its power to shock.
On the plate: The 10-course evening tasting menu is the centrepiece, although the 47 mini-dishes on the lunch menu will suit both the adventurous and the indecisive.
They say: "An experimental footbridge between the visual arts and the gastronomic."
The critics say: "The step of this merry team is innovative". Le Monde Place de la Libération, Boîte postale 147, 94404 Vitry-sur-Seine cedex, France restaurant-transversal.com email@example.com +33 1 55 53 09 93
Oliver Peyton breaks tradition providing quality modern public dining in old institutions "Personally, I got tired of just running restaurants; it's too niche. I find the challenge of selling people a cup of tea or bottle of Champagne more interesting. The remit is to feed everyone at all price points. One of the problems we have in this country right now is that we have [either] really smart restaurants or the disease of chains, which purport to be changing the face of British food. This is a problem as a foreigner's experience of British food will not be through a restaurant in Mayfair, it's more likely to be from eating out at a gallery or museum.
"At the National Café, we serve 300 egg and cress sandwiches a day and 2,000 cups of Breakfast tea.
We ensure the quality while producing food at a good price by making all the pastries internally, buying most of our fish and meat direct from the farm. For the sandwiches to be sold at £1.50 each we can't use organic eggs but we do get really good free-range eggs from the farm.
"Many restaurateurs don't want to open in public spaces because you're not really independent. You have to work with the space you're in and the people who run it and serve food at a certain price.
Also, you might not be able to open at night, outside of gallery or museum opening hours. There are three-and-a-half million visitors to The National every year and of those, 75 per cent used to eat elsewhere. I do think the quality of food in public spaces is generally getting better in the UK and will continue to force itself upwards. Flexibility is necessary. If it rains, it gets packed; how busy you are also depends on the exhibition.
"Restaurateurs need to realise it's a very different proposition to running a stand-alone restaurant and decide whether they want to make that leap.
They need a certain level of infrastructure and there will usually be a higher financial expenditure.
Running operations, mainly throughout the day means less wine sales, so you have to be surefooted in what you're doing.
"I won't go for the tender on contracts of less than 10 years because, in my experience, it takes two years to make it successful and the third year, you start to reap the rewards. It's bloody hard to make a restaurant in a gallery work and it takes that long to understand the ebb and flow and to get the right team in place. At the National Dining Rooms, we now get 40 per cent of our business from local companies, which gives us a level of security that makes us less dependent on gallery shows. However, we'd never want to get to the point where people couldn't get in after visiting the museum."
Oliver Peyton runs The Wallace Restaurant, London W1, Peyton and Byrne at the Wellcome Collection, NW1 and The National Café and The National Dining Rooms, WC2.