“What this closure signifies to me is a flashing warning sign for the end of global fine dining,” says Dana Cowin, the New York City–based founder of Speaking Broadly Media and former editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine. “If Redzepi can’t make it sustainable, who can? Who will? Who wants to? Does anyone care? And what’s next?”
The food world has been thinking about those questions since Noma, chef René Redzepi’s Copenhagen restaurant often referred to as the “world’s best,” and probably the only place on the planet where a waiter might straight-faced serve you reindeer penis ragout for dinner, announced it would be ending regular service in 2024. After that, Redzepi and his team plan to reinvent Noma as a food lab, focusing on e-commerce and pop-ups. Whether this is just classic Noma innovation—or an indication that fine dining is about to drastically change—still remains to be seen.
Maybe you never reached number one in the deluge of people virtually queuing up for a reservation each day, or you were actively boycotting the restaurant because of its various labor allegations over the years—such as not paying interns, which Noma started doing just months before the closure announcement—or you don’t care much for moldy asparagus. Still, there’s no denying the ways this restaurant has shaped fine dining as we know it. It was here that so many “Noma-isms,” like fermented everything and hyper-local ingredient sourcing, were popularized and then shipped off to fine dining restaurants around the world.
But the bucolic Scandinavian vibes and incredibly creative fare seems to have come at the hidden cost of Noma’s workers, some of whom allegedly clock 16-hour days. Diners have been wising up to the grueling realities that underpin fine dining, thanks to shows and movies such as The Menu, Boiling Point, and The Bear. Social media has also given restaurant employees the means to call out poor working conditions at highly sought-after and expensive fine dining restaurants, like the Willows Inn, a now-shuttered restaurant in Washington formerly run by Noma-trained chef Blaine Wetzel, and the New York destinations Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Eleven Madison Park. Yet, despite his best efforts to shift his approach at Noma, Redzepi told the Times the model is unsustainable: “Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.”
We asked 18 chefs, cookbook authors, and food writers how they feel about Noma’s impending pivot. Some saw it as a bad omen for the restaurant industry at large; if Noma, buoyed by prestige and $800 tasting menus, couldn’t make it work, where does that leave regular restaurants? Others mourned the loss of one of the culinary greats. And some saw the move as a cop-out, claiming it’s possible to serve great food and treat staff fairly. Here’s what they had to say.
Arjav Ezekiel, co-owner and beverage director of Birdie’s, one of Bon Appétit’s 50 Best New Restaurants of 2022, in Austin
I’m saddened to hear of the news; there’s never any happiness in seeing a restaurant close for me because I know how much work and heart goes into it. But I also wasn’t surprised at all. We’ve seen so many restaurants at the very upper end of fine dining announce closures over the last few years, including Manresa just a few weeks ago. The timing makes even more sense considering they started paying their previously unpaid stagiaires for the first time in October, as The New York Times piece pointed out. I hope that the whole industry takes notice when he says the existing model doesn’t work. Even if guests want fine dining, we in the industry have to ask ourselves if we want it anymore. Are there more meaningful and sustainable outlets for creativity?
Pete Wells, restaurant critic for The New York Times
Nobody should be surprised by anything Noma does. As it’s grown, it’s been engineered for flexibility. As I wrote in the Times yesterday, when I went to see the “new Noma” in 2018, Redzepi told me the whole compound was modular—any room or building could be used for another purpose. I was sort of surprised. I seem to remember that all the kitchen appliances were on wheels, or most of them! Redzepi seemed to be anticipating some kind of change in the not too distant future.
I don’t think he was envisioning this—although I should say it’s not clear to me or anybody what “this” is. All we really know is that Noma will emphasize research and products and spend less time as a normal restaurant. It’s more than a pivot, at any rate. Now, there aren’t too many places that are in a position to make a big change like that, and I don’t think anybody will copy Noma, for once. But I do think the era of free and cheap internships and stagiaires, which sustained a lot of what I call the “overkill” restaurants, is probably over. And high time too. Restaurants should compensate their workers. Experience is great, but so’s a paycheck.
Akino West, chef and co-owner of Rosie’s in Miami, and Noma alumni
I am not the same person I was before I worked at Noma. While I will be making my reservation before they close, I am equally excited to witness how the Noma team fills a positive, creative space in a different way. I feel that this pivot translates into a positive opportunity for the torch to be passed.
During my time at Noma, I can say that fine dining was booming, and many were willing to work for experience opposed to pay. I don’t feel confident that is the case any longer. I’m proud that someone of his stature can be honest with the world about his business and himself as a leader—and to have the humility to say when it is time. Noma 3.0 genuinely feels like a chance to move upward and onward.
Rashaad Jones, former captain at Eleven Madison Park in New York City
My first reaction to the news was, “Good for him.” Our culture is so mercurial when it comes to restaurants and chefs. We want a place like Noma to be mind-bending, but not highfalutin. A guest might balk at the cost of lunch at Per Se, then go see Hamilton for the same price. None of it makes any sense.
Then after I sat with it, I thought, How clever. Noma isn’t closing. By announcing its restaurant days are numbered, it has emphasized that it is a restaurant now. And for the next two years. When restaurants close because of financial and sustainability issues, they close. They don’t close two years from now. So it’s not not marketing. It makes Noma’s current product offering scarce, and therefore extremely desirable. It’s quite brilliant. Come 2024, there are dozens of incredible restaurants and voices around the world ready to take Noma’s torch.
Nyesha Arrington, California-based chef, consultant, and caterer
The world of fine dining is a very different landscape from what it was when I was coming up on the line in kitchens. After graduating from culinary school, I remember my fellow colleagues talking about trying to get into Noma for a stage; it was the pinnacle of a cook’s dreams to have that on your résumé. But during the early days of modern fine dining, the style of cooking heavily relied on many cooks working for free in exchange for knowledge. Food culture is a bridge to the past and a gateway into the future. I’m looking forward to seeing the evolution of fine dining.
Robert Sietsema, New York City–based restaurant critic for Eater NY
I never went to Noma, it was far too expensive. I couldn’t afford it myself and no publication in their right mind would have sent me. Those who could afford to go were either rich, or financed by publications with very deep pockets. Accordingly, their responses were unfailingly reverent, making me a bit suspicious. I’m not that interested in restaurant cooking that consists of tiny exquisite morsels; preciosity bores me, and so does being around wealthy people who plan restaurant visits months in advance and pay thousands of dollars for them. There’s no way it could be that good. Give me a goat roti with plenty of pepper and tamarind, and I’m happy.
Preeti Mistry, Bay Area–based chef, activist, and author of the cookbook, The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook
There are more young people learning that they don’t have to be abused and exploited in order to work in the restaurant industry. The only surprise I felt is that if all these men are such geniuses, and they can charge pretty much whatever price tag they want, why can’t they figure out a business model that can fairly pay their employees?
Alicia Kennedy, Puerto Rico–based food, politics, and media writer, BA contributor
Noma closing doesn’t come as a complete shock, as Redzepi has been consistent in reinvention. What is shocking and heartening is the admission that fine dining isn’t sustainable—how will this ripple out? If this hugely famous and influential restaurant cannot survive while paying for interns, what does that mean for the rest of the restaurants operating at or aiming to operate at this level?
Eleven Madison Park going plant-based didn’t get every other restaurant hopeful to make the World’s 50 Best list buying up tofu overnight, and this likely won’t change the system so swiftly either. But these huge shifts say that chefs are no longer ignoring their impact—whether on the planet or on workers—for the sake of a grand display. Of course, a lot of people already knew these things and have tried to change conditions without receiving as much attention. Food media should also be asking itself whose decisions are worthy of coverage.
Telly Justice, co-owner and executive chef of HAGS in New York City’s East Village
The brand of incredibly labor-intensive dining that Noma thrust into the culinary canon has been critiqued as unsustainable for over a decade. The tastes of the public are swinging away from extravagances that dehumanize the labor force and that create a huge financial burden for fine dining restaurants that depend on the European model of unpaid, overworked stagiaires. I think there is a realignment of values going on at all levels of dining. People want to know that the restaurants they frequent have a positive impact on their communities; that the employees have work-life balance, fair pay, and happiness. It takes will and creativity to find that new path forward. We have to see a place for our work on the horizon where obsession and sacrifice aren’t necessary to construct innovative cuisine, where our own workaholism isn’t regarded as a necessary ingredient on the plate.
Adam Roberts, Los Angeles–based food writer, cookbook author, and host of the podcast, You’ve Got to Taste This
Reindeers everywhere are uncovering their crotches in relief! I’ve always had mixed feelings about Noma, partially because the food sounded unappetizing and ridiculous and partly because I could never score a reservation. The fact that laughter was forbidden in the kitchen tells you everything you need to know. It feels like the age of the untouchable, tyrannical chef—even an enlightened one—is coming to an end. And if chefs are being held accountable at the expense of perfectly executed beetle-shaped fruit leather, I’d say that’s a change for the better.
Ryan Bartlow, chef-partner at Ernesto’s in New York City’s Lower East Side
I am not surprised they are closing. To perform at that level for so long requires extreme dedication and determination and a lot of personnel. The margins to operate on that level are extremely tight. I feel there will always be a place for fine dining and the people that enjoy going to those types of establishments. Yet, it’s not a sustainable formula, long-term. The world is full of many more incredible restaurants that might contain some of the better elements of fine dining values, and are more accessible and approachable. People are more aware of that now, and from large cities to rural areas you can go for a great meal without having to dip into the upper echelon of fine dining if you don’t want to.
Dana Cowin, New York City–based founder of Speaking Broadly Media and former editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine
While we can look at Redzepi closing Noma in 2024 as a radical change, it seems to me more like an evolution of what Redzepi has been building over time. His core mission doesn’t change—he’s long been devoted to his R&D lab—but he appears to be accentuating the more financially viable expression of that mission. What this news signifies to me is a flashing warning sign for the end of global fine dining. If Redzepi can’t make it sustainable, who can? Who will? Who wants to? Does anyone care? And what’s next?
As someone who never got to experience Noma, I am selfishly heartbroken to watch its doors close. Redzepi has given many in our industry some incredible things to aspire to. Most people don’t really think about the foundation that we (owners and chefs) were given by our predecessors. The model that many of my contemporaries have used to build these magnificent restaurants is, and always has been, one that is unsustainable.
Jeff Gordinier, New York–based author of Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World
These are the last words of my 2019 book, Hungry, which chronicled my travels with René Redzepi to various parts of the world: “It can change. It can change. It can change.” In that instance, back in 2018, Redzepi was telling me about Noma’s new compound at the edge of the Freetown Christiania neighborhood in Copenhagen. But ultimately I had a feeling that that phrase would wind up applying to the future of Noma and to fine dining itself, which is what we’re witnessing now.
Fine dining is undergoing a shift because of problematic elements that have made it unsustainable, as Redzepi has said, and as we see in shows like The Bear—but also because styles change as time passes. No one digs being trapped in Tweezerville. Still, I have dined at Noma eight times and it has always been worth the trip. Each meal introduced me to absurdly delicious flavors that I wouldn’t have been able to experience anywhere else. I think it’s only natural that fine dining will evolve into something else, but I do hope that restaurants will keep prioritizing the sort of innovation that Noma made a mission out of.
From afar, it seemed like everything was going well. But I don’t think Noma closing reflects the state of fine dining at large, because the issues Redzepi has pointed to are prevalent throughout the industry, not just in fine dining. I think we’re currently in, and will continue to see, a huge shift in the industry in terms of how we view what a restaurant is, and what the responsibility of the chef is.
Max Coen, head chef of Dorian, in Notting Hill, London
I think Noma’s realization that the working environment required and created by them is unsustainable will be a wake-up call for a lot of restaurants. There is a massive gain to committing your career to fine dining. However, I certainly think the industry needs a refresh. I want Dorian to be somewhere people are lining up to apply to work due to the food we cook but also the desirable working environment we create. I feel a lot will change given this news.
Taka Sakaeda, chef-partner at Nami Nori in New York City
The fine dining model has long been propped up on “free” labor to sustain it. Without it, it is very difficult for the model to make financial sense. Even with an army of people in the kitchen, days are often very long, and it seems like there is never enough time. Compounding all of that is the added pressure and stress of executing the work at the highest level. Fatigue can lead to emotional instability, bad diet choices, then creating a very negative feedback loop. If not addressed, one can find themselves in a very painful downward spiral. I was shocked at first just reading headlines, but excited to see what Noma 3.0 will be.
Aaron Arizpe, writer and hospitality consultant based in New York City
Retired actors get royalties for reruns. Musicians? Cents on every stream. Athletes? Checks anytime their logo is stitched on a sneaker. Chefs see residuals of a different sort: a bad back, bum knees, hypertension, strained relationships. Yet we lionize and scrutinize them with equal verve. We watch them work in open kitchens, pressure cookers without lids. We visit their restaurants expecting an experience but pretending that we pay only for food and drink.
Redzepi is right: That isn’t sustainable, in the human sense or the financial sense. Kudos to Noma for finding a path forward. But as long as this distorted value system remains, my prediction is that fine dining will only become more precious, and casual dining more prosaic.
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