A cook preps ingredients inside the French Laundry. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Last week, René Redzepi announced he would cease regular meal services at his restaurant, Noma. Many wondered what the move could mean for the small, highly exclusive, closely watched group of ambitious, ludicrously expensive restaurants to which Noma belongs. Grub Street got together to discuss our thoughts on the announcement.
Alan Sytsma: We have gathered within this Google Meet to discuss the death of fine dining.
Chris Crowley: I didn’t realize it was on life support.
AS: To recap, René Redzepi said Noma would stop operating as a regular restaurant and would instead become some sort of food lab and pop-up incubator.
Tammie Teclemariam: I was surprised because my friend Gary He was just posting on Instagram Stories that he was at Noma eating reindeer penis two months ago.
AS: The argument for closing, as it stands, is that Redzepi has come to the conclusion that it’s no longer economically sustainable to run the restaurant at the level he wanted.
TT: Before we begin, we should be clear that none of us has been to Noma.
AS: I have. I went once very early in its life, when it was an extremely different, much more humble operation. I remember our dessert course was a simple bread-and-beer porridge with rhubarb and whipped cream. I don’t think I ate a single reindeer penis the whole night.
CC: I never understood why people were trying to make porridge happen, but I guess that’s beside the point.
AS: I don’t know that it’s necessary to have eaten at Noma for the purposes of this conversation. Most people haven’t, after all. I was surprised by the reaction the announcement caused. The need for any kind of superluxury restaurant has been called into question. And in The Atlantic, one chef pointed out that the stagiaire system Noma used — essentially hiring a small army of interns to perform many of the necessary menial tasks — made the entire restaurant industry worse.
CC: It seems like the restaurant is getting too much credit. To say that Noma closing — at the end of 2024, by the way — means all of fine dining is done plays into their own messaging a little bit. There’s a conversation that needs to happen about whether fine dining is really sustainable, but it can take place regardless of whatever Noma is doing.
AS: I’m always happy to point out how silly the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list is, and I largely agree with our colleague Platt that the perilous state of things right now make the idea of a coddled, six-hour luxury tasting less appealing than it used to be, but here’s my prediction: These kinds of elite restaurants will persevere.
TT: I thought everybody sort of knew that these restaurants were abusive places to work. Having worked in them and having read about these conditions — are we expecting fine dining to become angelic and delicious? Is it even possible to run a restaurant like that without some of the abuse?
CC: Were you a stage?
TT: I got paid €400 a month, and my apartment was covered, and I got two staff meals a day. But we only got one meal on Christmas because we weren’t open for dinner. I was hungry that night.
CC: People have been willing to work for free because the deal is that they’re supposed to learn something, but they always end up performing a bunch of menial tasks.
TT: What it takes to make these restaurants work is free labor and abuse — that’s what you’re learning.
AS: A cynic might note that the timing of the announcement is coming when Noma’s influence is starting to wane and the idea of “new Nordic” dining has lost its cachet.
CC: I was always confused by the Noma-inspired restaurants in New York. I’d go and wonder why they were good. Why were we all excited to eat sea buckthorn? What was that Scandi restaurant inside Grand Central?
CC: Yeah, what the fuck was that all about? You walk into some of these dark dining rooms and you feel like you’re in a gothic-horror movie.
TT: I wouldn’t be surprised if René Redzepi is just bored. He can go and do sold-out pop-ups anywhere in the world. Why would he want to stay in Copenhagen? René Redzepi is sick of Denmark — and so are we!
AS: But I don’t think it’s impossible to imagine a world where some young, ambitious cook opens the hot new global dining destination by making worker welfare a big part of the messaging. There are always going to be people who want to eat at the “best” restaurant, and there are always going to be chefs who are striving for that recognition.
CC: That was the story at Mission Chinese Food … until it wasn’t.
TT: And then, you know, the French Laundry still exists. But at least they’re serving food that people seem to like. If a restaurant just exists to represent some guy and some place, and I don’t care about that guy or the place, then, yeah, I don’t know. They aren’t going to force me to eat brains or whatever.
CC: It comes down to the labor. These kinds of restaurants can only exist as long as people are willing to work in them and view them as a necessary step for their careers. But I don’t know how many people are willing to do free work anymore.
AS: So the new model becomes something smaller?
TT: One person running a restaurant or something like sushi — where you see the value up front with a restaurant’s size and the interaction with every single ingredient.
AS: But we’re going to run out of fish soon.
TT: Some people will always have fish. And they’ll be able to eat their $600 dinners without being bothered by the rest of us.