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Noma is widely considered the best restaurant in the world – not only for the quality of its food, but the standard it created for fine dining. It brought a new era of excellent, locally focused cuisine, helping to break the stranglehold French food had on the cultural imagination when it came to gourmet greatness. Noma trained some of the finest chefs of a generation, spreading its ideas and values far and wide like fungal spores caught on the wind.
For 20 years it dominated and defined the restaurant scene, but soon it will be no more. Although its brand may live on in other ways, Noma recently announced that it will close its titular restaurant at the end of 2024.
Anxious questions fill the silence: is the era of fine dining over? Will we stop choosing our next vacation destination based on hot new molecular gastronomic contraptions we saw on the pages of the New York Times or in the feed of a foodie Instagram influencer? Has the multi-hour, dozen-course tasting menu – with ingredients rendered into mysterious foams, mists, or blobs for your delight and occasional exhaustion – finally come to an end?
Noma is just one of many high-profile restaurants to close in recent years. Restaurants have notoriously thin profit margins, thanks to quickly rising rents in cities around the world, energy and other overhead costs, and food being an unstable and expensive product. The pandemic and its various lockdowns were too much for many restaurants to manage, leading to much loved establishments, such as Chicago’s Blackbird and New York City’s Prune, to permanently close.
The recent success of the films Pig and The Menu and the TV show The Bear brought mainstream exposure to the exploitative and abusive nature of many fine dining kitchens, but they were preceded by years of investigative reporting about physically and sexually abusive star chefs, widespread wage theft, a massive disparity between the income levels of diners and the workers making and serving their food, and internship programs necessary to gain entry into the industry that amount to years of unpaid labor.
Noma officially blamed its closing on the difficulty of executing such consistently high work for so long under grueling conditions. Talk of burnout and the search for work-life balance transcends all forms of work, but is especially present in businesses that are considered passion projects or in the creative arts.
Some former employees, however, have told a slightly different story – of an unsustainable workplace with an environment of hostility and control and of poorly compensated but painstaking work. One intern told the New York Times of long hours spent constructing beetles out of fruit leather with tweezers in complete silence; she also said she had been instructed never to laugh.
There is also the difficulty of meeting clients’ expectations of constant novelty and trends like hyperlocality and restaurants with private farms. Consider Willows Inn, a former restaurant/hotel on Lummi Island, Washington, which claimed to source rarified ingredients like pink singing scallops and heirloom beets from the island, its ocean waters, and the Inn’s own farm.
It later turned out that Willows Inn was charging diners $500 a night to eat food that was often shipped in from the mainland, including chickens bought at Costco and supermarket vegetables. The restaurant’s one-acre farm, disgruntled employees said, could not feed daily diners without significantly greater acreage. This disparity – between the restaurant’s small farm and its brisk custom – would have been immediately obvious to the Inn’s rich clientele, had any of them known anything about agriculture.
Willows Inn closed amid a flurry of other controversies, including allegations of an abusive atmosphere. But it was hardly the only restaurant caught creating an illusion of farm-to-table freshness and a fantasy of knowing exactly where each ingredient originated. When Eleven Madison Park, one of New York City’s most famous and expensive restaurants, announced that it was going vegan, the result was a fiasco, with reports of food waste, misleading marketing, poor labor practices, and chefs paid minimum wage.
Can an industry that has been run on income inequality, labor exploitation, underpaid and undocumented workers, widespread abuse, and catering to the most entitled rich people in the world successfully pivot into something more flourishing and less soul crushing? Maybe. But in the meantime it seems more likely that we’ll see more reports of destination restaurants closing down amid nasty revelations and revolts by burnt-out workers.
But the wealthy will always find ways to cajole the talented and the exceptional to entertain them privately. (Recall Beyoncé performing a private concert at a party for Colonel Gaddafi’s son.) Our greatest culinary minds are not going to disappear. If they can’t make their restaurants work, they’ll instead show up at private estates and compounds to serve the tech giants, oil barons, and shady world leaders who can pay them. They’ll be trotted out, humiliated, to pose in Kardashians’ Instagram posts, or flown in secret to fill the bellies of warlords and tyrants when the price is right.
But people will still care, deeply, about food – about its pleasures, about its future and its limits, about how it is grown and harvested and consumed.
Chefs will still wake up sweaty at 4am thinking about what new thing could possibly be done, at this point in the trajectory of human civilization, with a carrot. Gourmands and people who miss Gourmet magazine will still look at a picture of a perfectly roasted duck and long to put it in their mouths. Diners who used to save their slim disposable incomes for annual trips to great restaurants, to be transported by a mouthful of potatoes to their childhoods or maybe to a better future, will have to find new pathways to ecstatic states.
It’s not the money-makers and the money-spenders who are going to lose out on Noma’s absence. It is, like everything else, going to be about the people who care.
Noma is closing. Are we seeing the death of ‘fine dining’? | Jessa Crispin
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