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The Face of Fine Dining will Soon Change Forever

Noma, the three-Michelin star Copenhagen-based fine-dining restaurant co-founded by chef René Redzepi and Danish restaurateur and entrepreneur Claus Meyer, announced on January 9, 2023 that it will close in the winter of 2024, with plans to reemerge as “Noma 3.0” – a pop-up-restaurant incubator and test kitchen.

Since the restaurant’s opening in November 2003, Noma’s Nordic/Scandinavian menu – an interpretation more so than classical Nordic food itself – has redefined not only Nordic cuisine, but elevated the concepts of fermentation and foraging. The restaurant’s most famous dish, for instance, ‘The Hen and the Egg’, includes a wild duck egg, slightly wet hay, wild forest plants, and local herbs, which diners cook themselves at the table.

Along the way, between 2009 and 2015, Noma ranked no worse than third on “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list, topped the list four times (2010-12, and 2015), and reclaimed that top spot in 2021. Thus, diners from around the world flocked to Copenhagen for the 3,500- Danish Krone ($500-per-head) tasting menu, accompanied by either a $260-per-head wine pairing, or an approximately $190 juice pairing.

It must be said, however, for all of that innovation, Noma’s story isn’t one of unfettered adulation.

Oh No, Noma

Most famously, over five days in 2013 (February 12-16), the Danish Food Administration (DFA) reported that some 63 diners became ill with norovirus after eating at Noma, on account of a kitchen employee initially unaware of their own infection. This happening at the literal “best restaurant in the world” left something of a blemish on Noma’s reputation. More problematically, the DFA learned of the outbreak a couple of days prior and informed Noma of the problem via email on February 14. The restaurant apparently “didn’t read its mail that day” and served guests for another couple of days.

More pertinent and concerning than the norovirus incident, which could generously be chalked up to the human error and a simple case of poor communication, are the accounts of the inhospitable conditions (which, in fairness, are not exclusive to Noma) in which the restaurant’s employees have worked. 

A Flawed Model, Or…

In the wake of Noma’s recent announcement, Rob Anderson, a writer and owner of The Canteen, a restaurant in Provincetown, Massachusetts, penned a piece for The Atlantic entitled “How Noma Made Fine Dining Far Worse.” Anderson, who recounts two trips to Noma, acknowledges the “wizardry” that takes place in its kitchen, but otherwise pulls no punches, declaring that “for those of us in the restaurant industry, Noma’s announcement felt less like a seismic event and more like the dampened thud of a silver spoon falling on a plush dining-room carpet.” 

The crux of Anderson’s critique is that “despite its global reputation and eye-popping prices, the restaurant basically depended on uncompensated labor.” He also laments “brutal dynamics” in the industry that “result in the mistreatment of the lowest-ranking workers, which everyone then justifies as how things have always been done or the only way a restaurant can work efficiently.” 

Anderson highlights a 2015 article, in which Redzepi himself references the toxic conditions under which he cut his own teeth, and how he came to believe that “bullying and humiliation” were the only way to get a message through. In that same piece, however, Redzepi asks: “How do we unmake the cultures of machismo and misogyny in our kitchens? Can we be better? Perhaps, the real question is this: Do we want to be better?

Is Attainable Quality A Fine Dining Alternative?

In light of Noma’s impending departure from the fine dining scene, a question arises. Can this model, one reliant on maniacal perfectionism with regard to every last detail, survive? After all, if a revered restaurant at which every table was always spoken for, that pulled in between $600 and $800 per guest is no longer willing to give it a go, how many others stand a realistic chance?

It’s a question that bears consideration. In light of persistent staffing shortages driving higher wages, it’s fair to wonder whether the finest of fine dining establishments can even find enough capably skilled hands to ensure that every microgreen is placed just so, let alone the means and the inclination to pay each pair of hands a living wage.

In light of the existential threat that was COVID and in an inflationary (off the peak, but still inflationary) environment, restaurateurs may justifiably be skittish about trying to operate in the uppermost tiers of the market. 

At the same time, diners whose appetites for a fine fare at eye-popping prices have been sated aren’t simply going to stop going out. 

Some will seek out more immersive experiences. Others, meanwhile, will begin to seek out more approachable, yet still inventive quality dining experiences, like those offered by Bamboo Sushi at 10 western U.S. locations and Plank Seafood, at two outstanding restaurants in Austin and Omaha.

By no means are these three-star Michelin establishments, but then, who says they have to be? These days, there’s an awful lot to be said for offering approachable, unpretentious “non-fine upscale dining”, at attainable prices, in sleek, yet welcoming surroundings.

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