Jake O'Brien Murphy questions whether the fine dining model is dead and, now looking back, whether any of it was worth it?
Noma is closing. Working in hospitality requires me to have an opinion on this. Otherwise, according to the ancient scrolls buried beneath Callooh Callay, Peter Dorelli is honour bound to strip me of my bar blade and force me to enact ritual Seppuku. For what it is worth here’s my opinion.
“It is unsustainable,” Rene Redzepi - told the NYTimes. “Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.” For many, this is an admission of heroic failure. For others, it proves the inherent contradictions of fine dining. As a business Noma set the pace lap for what followed - hyper-locality, fermentation and sustainability. Chefs and bartenders have been cosplaying with seabuckthorn ever since. No establishment in the modern canon acts as better proof that the line between homage and rip-off is micron thin. If you ‘7 degrees of Kevin Bacon’ the place you’ll find its influences inextricably woven throughout modern-day hospitality.
Here though, be dragons. The economic fact is that restaurants and bars represent a shitty return on investment. Margins are wafer-thin and are further eroded by external pressures. Still, the most prestigious restaurant on the planet closing for financial issues doesn’t feel proportionate. It’s like the Joker being toppled by Inland Revenue.
But, Noma did work. For 20 years, across various sites, across various concepts, and across various continents. Controversially, by using unpaid interns. Budding chefs were willing to prostrate themselves for glory. There are frequent accounts of coercion and bullying, which Redzepi addresses in an essay for Lucky Peach. It caused ripples of outrage when news of unpaid labour broke. Subsequently, the interns are paid. This is cited as the financial straw that broke the camel's back. The output may have been exemplary but what's the cost? Being morally strongarmed into remuneration sounds like a broken system. Surely offering a wage should be a none negotiable? Noma isn’t the only example of this - just the most high-profile case study. Leading me to my main point; is the juice worth the squeeze?
If this version of excellence in hospitality can’t be achieved within equitable parameters then maybe it shouldn’t. The subtext of Redzepi’s words ‘on a human level’ seems to suggest this. The cynic in me shrugs - the revelation perhaps comes a little late after two decades worth of critical and financial success. Hey ho. For so long the formula was as follows; Trauma + Challenge x Pathological Lack Of Empathy = Success. The niggling truth is, the tortured artist model rarely works out and when it does it comes at a profound personal cost. Boiling Point, The Bear and The Menu all point towards a mainstream understanding of this faulty narrative. To the layman, this version of success necessitates becoming a big giant bastard. It’s the ‘greater good’ justification that leads to a kind of ethical dissonance. The heave-ho of the pathologised pressure of ‘service’ sees normal, talented people contorted into megalomaniacs. Working towards the platitudes of some sanctified end goal - blinkered to the ‘how’ in service of the ‘why’.
I’m not trying to issue judgment or clemency onto anyone, that’s not my bag baby, I just want to suggest this isn’t all about baddies and goodies. Perhaps the root cause is a more nuanced, institutional problem. When the product, drink, dish, recognition, celebrity, or awards are placed above all else it moves the goalposts. Unadulterated perfection or failure are the stakes.
Of course, there are grey areas to appreciate. The adrenaline-fueled satisfaction of bossing a service with skill and composure is a part of the job. In isolation this sense of professional pride is what attracts so many to these professions, myself included. I’m proud to have an honest livelihood in this industry. It’s when that sense of professional pride is conflated with this version of the ‘greater good’ that things start to toxify. It’s telling that so many professional chefs/bartenders are migrating to less conceptually lofty projects in search of balance.
Is the juice worth the squeeze? I don't think so. The true legacy of Noma should be redrawing the parameters of what we understand as success. The stakes as we have come to understand them are artificial. I don’t think the acclaim is worth gambling our humanity away for. To continue like this is a steady march towards burnout. For what? For a bit of dinner? For a drink? The cliche has lost its sparkle. Addendum. Noma is not actually closing. It’s consolidating into a food development lab. So, please can we all just shut up about it now?