‘This is too hard. We have to work a different way’: Noma and the future of fine dining

As he announces the closure of his acclaimed restaurant, René Redzepi says fine dining has reached breaking point

Since opening, two decades ago, Noma – the Copenhagen restaurant currently serving grilled reindeer heart on a bed of fresh pine, and saffron ice cream in a beeswax bowl – has transformed fine dining. A new global class of gastro tourists schedules first-class flights and entire vacations around the privilege of paying at least €460 per person for its multicourse tasting menu.

Noma has repeatedly topped lists of the world’s best restaurants, and its creator, René Redzepi, has been hailed as his era’s most brilliant and influential chef. Nevertheless, Redzepi says, the restaurant will close for regular service at the end of 2024.

Noma will become a full-time food laboratory, developing new dishes and products for its ecommerce operation, Noma Projects, and the dining rooms will be open only for periodic pop-ups. His role will become something closer to chief creative officer than chef.

This move is likely to send shock waves through the culinary world. To put it in soccer terms, imagine that Manchester United decided to close Old Trafford stadium to fans, though the team would continue to play.

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The decision comes as Noma and many other elite restaurants are facing scrutiny of their treatment of the workers, many of them paid poorly or not at all, who produce and serve these exquisite dishes. The style of fine dining that Noma helped create and promote around the globe – wildly innovative, labour intensive and vastly expensive – may be undergoing a sustainability crisis.

Redzepi, who has long acknowledged that gruelling hours are required to produce the restaurant’s cuisine, says that the maths of compensating nearly 100 employees fairly, while maintaining high standards, at prices that customers wil pay, is unworkable.

“We have to completely rethink the industry,” he says. “This is simply too hard, and we have to work in a different way.”

The chef David Kinch, who last week closed his three-Michelin-starred restaurant Manresa, in Los Gatos, California, says that “the last 30 years were a gilded age” when ambitious restaurants multiplied and became less formal and more exciting.

His casual restaurants will remain open, but he says fine dining is no longer something he wants to do himself, or to inflict on his staff, calling the work back breaking. “Fine dining is at a crossroads, and there have to be huge changes,” he says. “The whole industry realises that, but they do not know how it’s going to come out.”

The Finnish chef Kim Mikkola, who worked at Noma for four years, says that fine dining, like diamonds, ballet and other elite pursuits, often has abuse built into it. “Everything luxetarian is built on somebody’s back; somebody has to pay,” he says.

Mikkola, who is building a chain of sustainable, equitably run fried-chicken sandwich shops, KotKot, says he values the artistry he learned at Noma. “Do we want to tell everyone not to have great experiences, to just eat potatoes?” he says. “Absolutely not. That’s the dilemma.”

As the human cost of the industry comes under scrutiny, Redzepi’s headaches have multiplied, with media reporting and online activism critical of Noma’s treatment of foreign workers and reliance on unpaid interns. In October, Noma began paying its interns, adding at least €45,000 to its monthly labour costs.

In the past two years Redzepi and his staff also scaled their last remaining mountaintop, receiving a third Michelin star, and for a record-breaking fifth time Noma topped the influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, making it ineligible for future wins.

Redzepi denies that any of those factors have prompted the decision to close Noma’s doors. Instead, he says, operating at the high level that has earned Noma international adulation has long felt untenable. But until the Covid pandemic kept him at home, he explains, he had never stopped working long enough to question whether the whole business model might be broken.

For the past decade, the 45-year-old has been on a rather public spiritual journey, embracing therapy, coaching and walking meditation in order to exorcise the famously rageful, mercurial and workaholic young chef he was when he opened Noma, in 2003. He says that process brought him to this breaking point.

“It’s unsustainable,” he says of the modern fine-dining model that he helped create. “Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.”

Noma’s internship programme has served as a way for Noma to shore up its labor force, supplying 20 to 30 full-time workers who do much of the painstaking labour

A newly empowered generation of workers has begun pushing back against that model, often using social media to call out employers. The Willows Inn, in Washington state, run by the Noma-trained chef Blaine Wetzel, closed in November after a 2021 New York Times report on systemic abuse and harassment; top destinations like Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Eleven Madison Park have faced media investigations into working conditions.

Recent films and TV series like The Menu, Boiling Point and The Bear have brought the image of armies of harried young chefs, silently wielding tweezers in service to a chef-auteur, into popular culture.

In a 2015 essay, Redzepi admitted to bullying his staff verbally and physically, and he has often acknowledged that his efforts to be a calmer, kinder leader have not been fully successful.

“In an ideal restaurant, employees could work four days a week, feel empowered and safe and creative,” Redzepi said. “The problem is how to pay them enough to afford children, a car and a house in the suburbs.”

Redzepi’s reputation was built on his challenges to fine-dining tradition, most famously discarding imported delicacies such as French foie gras and Italian truffles in favour of local and foraged ingredients such as spruce tips, two-year-old carrots and duck brains. The cooking style became known as New Nordic, and swept all of Scandinavia into a new status as an elite culinary destination.

Scores of chefs have moved to Denmark to study Redzepi’s work, then spread his style to other countries; having a Noma pedigree opens doors and investors’ wallets all over the world, several alumni say.

It’s a Mafia mentality, and he is the don. No one defies Redzepi publicly or privately

Frequent keynote speeches at food summits have elevated Redzepi to the role of global visionary. He has been knighted by the queen of Denmark, and published a book on leadership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

But the kitchen culture at Noma did not always live up to the ideals it projected. In interviews, dozens of people who worked at Noma between 2008 and 2021 said that 16-hour workdays have long been routine, even for unpaid workers.

A Noma spokesperson replied, “While our industry has been characterised by long working hours, this is something we at Noma constantly work to improve.”

Noma’s internship program has also served as a way for Noma to shore up its labour force, supplying 20 to 30 full-time workers (“stagiaires” is the traditional French term) who do much of the painstaking labour – hand-peeling walnuts and separating lavender leaves from stems – that defines Noma’s food and aesthetic.

Until last October, the programme provided only a work visa. However, being able to say “I staged at Noma” is a priceless culinary credential. For that reason alone, most of the alumni we have interviewed say that an internship at Noma is worth the expense, the exhaustion and the stress.

Namrata Hegde had just graduated from culinary school in Hyderabad, in India, when she was chosen as an intern in 2017, at the age of 26. Knowing nothing about Noma except that many called it the best restaurant in the world, she flew to Copenhagen to live and work at her own expense for three months

For most of that time, Hegde says, her sole job was to produce fruit-leather beetles, starting with a thick jam of black fruit and silicone stencils with insect parts carved out.

Another intern taught her how to spread the jam evenly, monitor the drying process, then use tweezers to assemble the head, thorax, abdomen and wings. Hegde repeated the process until she had 120 perfect specimens; each diner was served a single beetle in a wooden box.

She says the experience taught her to be quick, quiet and organised, but little about cooking. “I didn’t expect that I would use my knife only a couple of times a day,” she says, “or that I would be told I didn’t need my tasting spoon because there was nothing to taste.”

Hegde says she was required to work in silence by the junior chefs she assisted (Redzepi was rarely in the kitchen where she worked) and was specifically forbidden to laugh.

“I thought an internship was about me learning, as well about contributing to Noma’s success,” she says. “I don’t believe that kind of toxic work environment is necessary.”

The Noma spokesperson says that all restaurant workers are expected to perform repetitive tasks and that Hegde’s account “does not reflect our workplace or the experience we wish for our interns or anyone on our team”.

The fact that exploitation and abuse in kitchens persist, even in protective societies like Denmark’s, has recently been highlighted by the Danish activist Lisa Lind Dunbar, an industry veteran in Copenhagen (who has not worked at Noma).

She and a dozen other people say a code of loyalty among Noma alumni, including chefs at many of Copenhagen’s top restaurants, makes it impossible for workers at those restaurants to speak out about working conditions, sexual harassment and other problems.

“It’s a Mafia mentality, and he is the don,” she says of Redzepi. “No one defies him publicly or privately.”

The Noma spokesperson responds, “That is not something we recognise as accurate.” She also says that Redzepi has long acknowledged these systemic problems, and worked to change them.

But Dunbar says the chef had two decades to do that. “He hasn’t tried enough.”

So what will become of the Noma brand?

Redzepi says it has not made him wealthy, because his commitment to high-quality ingredients and flawless execution is so costly. He declines to provide specifics, but according to public records he is a majority owner of Noma and part owner of multiple popular ventures run by Noma alumni.

Opening satellite restaurants around the world, as many chefs have done to increase revenue, would not solve the problem, he says. “I have been offered countless blank checks in Qatar. It doesn’t entice me.”

Redzepi, who has been cooking professionally since age 15, says he has long wanted out of the “production line” aspect of restaurant cooking. He says outstanding commitments and building Noma Projects – including a new production facility, with 60 to 70 full-time employees – are the reasons the change will not take effect for nearly two years.

“I hope we can prove to the world that you can grow old and be creative and have fun in the industry,” he says, “instead of hard, gruelling, low-paid work under poor management conditions that wears people out.” – This article originally appeared The New York Times