Noma “Not Sustainable”
Cuisine, Decadence, High Living, Noma, Rene Redzepi
An intern said that making beetles out of fruit leather was the only culinary skill she learned in three months at Noma.
Hélas! No more “grilled reindeer heart on a bed of fresh pine, and saffron ice cream in a beeswax bowl” for you. NOMA, rated the World’s Best Restaurant, is closing.
Chef René Redzepi has decided that the actual preparation and service of food at the level necessary to please today’s Trimalchios is “unsustainable.”
“[T]he math of compensating nearly 100 employees fairly, while maintaining high standards, at prices that the market will bear, is not workable.
“We have to completely rethink the industry,” he said. “This is simply too hard, and we have to work in a different way.”
He plans to convert his ultra-elite restaurant operation to a full-time food laboratory, developing new dishes and products for distribution via e-commerce. link
“It’s unsustainable,” he said 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.”
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 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, Mr. Redzepi admitted to bullying his staff verbally and physically, and 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,” Mr. Redzepi said. “The problem is how to pay them enough to afford children, a car and a house in the suburbs.”
Mr. Redzepi’s reputation was built on his challenges to fine-dining tradition, most famously discarding imported delicacies like French foie gras and Italian truffles in favor of local and foraged ingredients like 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 Mr. 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 said. Frequent keynote speeches at food summits have elevated Mr. 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 spokeswoman replied, “While our industry has been characterized 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 labor force, supplying 20 to 30 full-time workers (“stagiaires” is the traditional French term) who do much of the painstaking labor — hand-peeling walnuts and separating lavender leaves from stems — that defines Noma’s food and aesthetic.
Until last October, the program 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 interviewed said that an internship at Noma is worth the expense, the exhaustion and the stress.
Namrata Hegde, 26, had just graduated from culinary school in Hyderabad, India, when she was chosen as an intern in 2017. 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, Ms. Hegde said, 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. Ms. Hegde repeated the process until she had 120 perfect specimens; each diner was served a single beetle in a wooden box.
She said the experience taught her to be quick, quiet and organized, but little about cooking. “I didn’t expect that I would use my knife only a couple of times a day,” she said, “or that I would be told I didn’t need my tasting spoon because there was nothing to taste.”
Ms. Hegde said she was required to work in silence by the junior chefs she assisted (Mr. 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 said. “I don’t believe that kind of toxic work environment is necessary.”
I like good food and fine wine as well as the next Yuppie, but I’d rather live way out in the boondocks where I can shoot a gun and hunt on my own land and where my neighbors vote Republican, even though local restaurants are only greasy spoons that compare unfavorably to home cooking or fast food chains.
Fine dining is nice, but it is just not the kind of priority for me that is is for your typical urban elites. They go out to restaurants the way people in my old hometown used to go to church. Which, when you think about it, speaks volumes about differing priorities, city versus small town, now versus back then.