Most Important Factor in Restaurants in 2024? Vibes!

Top chefs from around the country point to vibes at FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen

I just spent several days in the mountains of Aspen, Colorado, surrounded by some of the brightest chefs, winemakers, restaurant owners, and journalists in the food world.

(L to R) Andrew Zimmern, Ayesha Nurdjaja, Kwame Onwuachi, Cheetie Kumar, Arjav Ezekiel
Photo by Jason DeRusha

FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen has been happening for 41 yearsit was my first time there. I’ll be posting reflections and observations here on some of the takeaways that I think you’ll care about.


It is the restaurant word of 2024: Vibes. As in, “How are the vibes?” and “The vibes are off at that restaurant.” Vibes is a catch-all termRed Cow/Red Rabbit owner Luke Shimp told me they used to call it the “guest experience.” At a trade-only panel at FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen, put on by AmEx and Resy, three young chefs and one young wine expert talked with Minnesota’s own Andrew Zimmern about NextGen Diners. Andrew’s question: “What are you selling?” None of them talked about high-quality technique and perfect food.

Ayesha Nurdjaja is the executive chef of Shuka and Shukette in New York City, she’s a 2022 James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef: New York State, and did not hesitate when she said she’s selling “vibes.” She added that vibes to her are all a part of creating community.

Cheetie Kumar is the chef/owner of Ajja in Raleigh, North Carolina, and she noted that “vibe always comes up in every guest’s mouth.” So, what does that mean? Yes, it’s the design, yes it’s the silver and the plates and the glasses and the plating, but more than that, it’s the feeling the team shares with the guests and how that hooks into the food. “What we do is sell connectionand a vibe has to have a through line,” said Kumar. OK that through-line part is critical, right?

This goes to a theory I’ve long had about diners and eating out: Most people don’t know the difference between good and great food, but almost everyone knows the difference between good and great service

Kwame Onwuachi & Jason DeRusha

“They come for the food, they come back for the way we make you feel,” said Kwame Onwuachi, the executive chef and owner of Tatiana (read this Pete Wells review of Tatiana, where the NYT Critic points out: “Most New Yorkers know that in many parts of the city, especially late at night, the best restaurant around is the corner bodega. But it’s not every New York chef who knows how to get that idea across while making you smile. Serving an extraordinary meal may be one of the gentlest forms of soft power, but it’s power all the same.”)

Onwuachi points out that vibes to him is about creating “a cultural equilibrium. I have people in do-rags sitting next to people in tuxedos going to the opera, all eating oxtails.” His restaurant is in Lincoln Centerit’s small, it’s beautiful, it’s fancy, but there’s a cultural equilibrium and also a cultural collision, telling the Black culinary story of Kwame in a glorious spot that may be unexpected. That’s a vibe.

In food writing, I worry that the professional writers spend too much time obsessing about the nitty gritty of the food, while the TikTokers and Instagrammers spend too much time obsessing about the surface vibes. The way the nation’s most successful chefs are thinking about the equation is more complex than either of those perspectives.

“There are restuarants that have overcorrected and have built their restuarants for the TikToker, with silly, I’ll say, stupid things that don’t add value. All that stuff is not meaningful, at the end of the day the food has to be delicious, the wine has to be delicious, the experience has to be awesome. And at the end of the day, people who feel that are going to post about that,” said Arjav Ezekiel, owner and wine director of Birdie’s in Austin, Texas.

Good vibes mean a happy staff, which means happy guests, which means more of an openness to enjoying the high-quality food. But as a guest, you have to surrender to the experience. Surrenderto the vibes.

So, who’s got the best vibes in Minnesota right now? Here are my thoughts.
Best: Hai Hai, Spoon and Stable, Gai Noi
Excellent: Manny’s, Meritage, Mr. Paul’s Supper Club, Brunson’s Pub, Bulls Horn Pub, Porzana, bar at Estelle
High Potential: Dario, Oro, 801 Chophouse, Terzo, Tongue in Cheek

Alyssa & Jason DeRusha