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MILAN (Reuters Life!) - Kitchen creativity is a better way to beat the credit crunch in the restaurant industry than cutting costs with cheaper ingredients, top chefs say.
Chefs from around the world at the Milan Identita Golose (greedy identities) forum, where cheese ice cream and cappuccino macaroons are among the dishes on offer, said this week that the recipe for a recession-busting business is: do what you do best.
"I'm going ahead like before, my creativity is going ahead like before," Italy's Moreno Cedroni, who opened his restaurant near Ancona on the Adriatic coast 25 years ago, said.
"I research products just like I did before. It's not that I'm not worried about needing to use an ingredient that is less or more expensive, we are always trying to make good dishes."
As wallets tighten, restaurant owners said they noticed customers were consuming less, but that does not mean they are foregoing quality.
"Maybe if before they had several different glasses of wine during a meal, now they will have only two but they are the best," Spanish chef Quique Dacosta said.
While no one expects top restaurants to go out of business, families are seen reaching into their cupboards more instead of reaching for their phones to make reservations, experts say.
Tullio Galli, director of Italy's FIEPET federation of restaurants, cafes, pizzerias and ice cream parlours, said consumption fell some 10 percent in the second half of 2008, but the Christmas season had held up.
"People are more careful about the price for a meal outside home, they are looking for quality," he said.
"Those who have felt it more are the medium-high range (restaurants) where Italian families cannot permit themselves to go to or where there has been a reduction in business lunches," he said.
Consumers are expected to look for better value when they choose to eat out. Serious food lovers may still splurge on higher cost ingredients but may be more selective.
Chef Carlo Cracco said he had not noticed any difference in consumption at his upmarket Milan restaurant.
"People will keep looking for more quality, sustainability," he said. "The crisis is an 'important' moment because it selects, it shows what is good on offer. Moments of crisis also help to strengthen, motivate to find new ways."
Fellow Italian chef Mauro Uliassi said strong bases were key. "You must not be afraid. You must continue with enthusiasm," he said. "Whoever has knowledge and strong traditional bases will surely find a way out of this situation."
Alex Atala, who uses ingredients from the Amazon for his Sao Paulo restaurant, said clients were looking to save.
"Those who would come once a week, are still coming once a week except that they are saving a maximum of 20 percent," he said, adding the crisis would have different impacts on consumption in Brazil, the United States and Europe.
"For the restaurant business, it will be difficult ... but it will oblige chefs to look for new ways...to make money, to not close their business."
Ice cream maker champion Alain Chartier said the key to passing the crisis was to make well made products.
"If the product is well communicated and sold well, you can pass this difficult period without problems," he said.
"I don't think to start pulling at raw materials ... is the solution ... There are other ways to manage a business but definitely not by cutting quality."
Chartier, whose desserts are sold at upmarket French luxury food maker Fauchon, wowed the conference with an edible green apple flavored ice glass, which he filled with cider.
"People still want to eat," he said. "They're not going to eat the carpet."