“Nobody just happens to eat at NOMA,” said the late Jonathan Gold, food critic for the Los Angeles Times. “The seat lottery for a reservation makes the Powerball seem like a sure thing.”
He goes on to say, “Noma, as you have probably heard, is the Copenhagen restaurant considered by many people, including me, to be the most influential in the world, the place where dominant strains in world cooking, localism, seasonality, sustainability, and science – come together in a whole.”
He is not alone. In fact, five times Nova was named “Best Restaurant in the World!”
The Danish dining mecca is the brainchild of the now famous chef, Rene Redzepi, who in his younger years learned and honed his skills as an intern under such culinary giants as Ferran Adria at EL BULLI in Roses, Spain as well as Thomas Keller at THE FRENCH LAUNDRY in Napa.
His culinary mission is to redefine classic Nordic cuisine itself with a focus on foraging and reinterpretation. His creations are wildly innovative and labor intensive. They’re vastly expensive, too.
Redzepi has his own farm complete with a greenhouse to buttress his focus on local vegetables. Run by a squad of local farmers, it has an organic bee farm on the grounds. There are acres of prolific meadows where interns forage for berries, herbs and the day’s edible flowers. The farm also boasts a fermentation suite where grains, fruits and yeasts are brewed for later use in sauces, bitters and who knows what.
Now, even though you’ll probably never go to Nova (I’ll tell you why later), it’s worth noting that if you do snag a coveted reservation this year, you should prepare yourself to spend an eye-popping $800-900 per person (not a misprint). But if you’re very, very, very lucky, you’ll be sumptuously rewarded. Again, Jonathan Gold: “You will taste foods you never thought about tasting before.”
And Pete Wells of New York Times rhapsodizes, “A scallop is likely to be the sweetest you’ve ever tasted.”
Chef Redzepi, a slave to following the seasons, offers three menu frameworks a year. Seafood Season runs late winter through spring. Vegetable Season spans summer, and Game & Forest Season fills out the fall and winter.
Joanne and I have never been to NOMA, but we can’t help marveling at Redzepi’s creations. Among them…
YOUNG ARTICHOKE on a bed of lemon-thyme flowers
RAZOR CLAM SALAD
COD ROE WAFFLE with roasted grains and hazelnut oil
DUCK FEET glazed with chocolate and caramel
RAW SEA URCHIN
PICKLED VEGETABLES with Arctic herbs
CRISPY MARIGOLD TEMPURA with whiskey-egg sauce
COD HEAD with CHEEKS
REINDEER PENIS RAGOUT (served cold)
WHITE CHOCOLATE with flowers
WOODRUFF ICE CREAM with PINECONES
SAFFRON ICE CREAM with chocolate
I could go on, but you get the gist of Noma’s imagination and ambitions.
SO WHY IS NOMA ABOUT TO CLOSE FOR GOOD?
I guess one could blame the French because it all began in the late 19th Century in France with Chef Auguste Escoffier (the king of chefs, the chef of kings). He created the brigade de cuisine, a military-like hierarchy system for precision in kitchens, detailing who does what in every instance. Decades later, the legendary chef, Paul Bocuse, of Lyon, France, introduced the brigade system to kitchens around the world. The strict method of kitchen organization he resurrected was incorporated into a host of ultra-fine dining restaurants everywhere.
As you can easily guess from the attached kitchen brigade organizational chart, there is a category of worker at the very bottom of the hierarchy called “STAGIAIRE.” Stages, (pronounced “stahjes”) are rarely paid and subjected to grueling conditions in exchange for the precious experience of working in a top kitchen under a celebrated chef. Rene Redzepi was no exception. One stagiaire reported that she was required to make dozens of intricate FRUIT-LEATHER BEETLES every day…and that was all she did during her tour of duty. So much for her unpaid culinary education at Noma. According to news outlets during the last year, a few unpaid disgruntled workers, fed up with working 16-hour days in Redzepi’s kitchen, began to grumble about working conditions. At about the same time, the New York Times published a damning report on sexual harassment and a toxic work environment at Noma. Some cite verbal abuse by Redzepi. Oh, and no one was ever permitted to laugh in the kitchen.
So, here’s the math:
Noma seats approximately 40 people and has one lunch seating and one dinner seating. Recent accounts put the number of workers at the restaurant at around 65…of which 34 are stages (paid or unpaid? I don’t know).
FULL DISCLOSURE: Lift the curtain behind Noma, as well as other ultra-fine dining, labor-intensive, restaurants, and you’ll find that they cannot exist without a certain amount of skilled culinary workers. Thus, as the French culinary brigade dictates, they rely on a steady supply of unpaid stages (maybe we should call them stooges). Feeling the pressure, Redzepi agreed last October to start paying his tweezer-wielding minions. That added an additional $50,000 to his payroll each month. Even charging $500 a person, without wine, he discovered that he couldn’t keep the doors open.
He found himself cracking under the financial and emotional strain and taking it out on his staff. Among the things he said, “I was a bully for a large part of my career”…”I was the person I said I would never become and I hated myself for it.”…“And then one day, the lid came off and the smallest of transgressions sent me into an absolute rage.”
To his credit, Redzepi did something about it. He went into therapy to deal with his anger management and bullying behavior. Afterward, he concluded, “Ultra-fine dining…It’s unsustainable. As an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.” So Noma will be shutting its doors for good in 2024.
However, Redzepi has plans in the works for Noma to transition into a FOOD LABORATORY…Noma 3.0…a test kitchen for food innovation and development of flavors. HMMMM ?
I wondered, Is the closing of Noma, the best restaurant in the world, the “canary in the coal mine” for fine dining?
It seems to me that well-heeled foodies with bulging bank accounts are still going to be hard-driving and assertive for reservations at the-impossible-to-get-into, ultra-high-end restaurants around the globe. But at what price? If the work-life balance in restaurants continues to gain traction and the interns start getting paid and the $300 dinner becomes a $500 dinner and the $500-per-person becomes $700, what will happen???? Will the dining audience start accepting the true cost of dining at that level? Will folks that can well afford expensive fine dining feel guilty? (I doubt it.) Or could it be after three years of a Spartan existence cocooning at home due to COVID that “revenge spending” sets in and folks make up for lost pleasures with first class leisure travel and lots of expensive nights on the town?
Or will the kitchen brigade and the exploitation of stages contine?
Chefs and owners know it still exists…but will they continue the practice?
Food critics know what’s going on…but will they continue to celebrate it?
Diners may know it…but will they continue to book tables at these fine dining restaurants?
Don’t blame Redzepi…..he himself STAGED at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. And Thomas Keller was an unpaid apprentice at GUY SAVOY, TAILLEVENT and LE PRÉ CATELAN in Paris.
How about Alain Soliveres at TAILLEVENT? I imagine he runs a brigade kichen, complete with stages. Are they paid? Dunno.
HELENE DARROZ at the Connaught in London?
Michel Roux and, before him, his father Albert Roux, at London’s LE GAVROCHE since 1957? Stages or no stages? Bet they have ‘em.
And in New York, at LE BERNARDIN with Eric Ripert at the helm?
GUY SAVOY in Paris, the quintessential French restaurant. I can’t imagine him abandoning Escoffier’s and Bocuse’s brigade kitchen with stagiaires.
So what do you think that the folks who run these ultra-fine dining iconic restaurants will do? Stay as they are and preserve the “dirty little secret” that their restaurants run on free labor? Or raise prices to reflect their true costs and cross their fingers that customer counts don’t tank? Cut portions? NAW!
Will anyone mourn Noma, a restaurant that most all of us will never visit?
And of those of you who have had the pleasure of dining at Noma: Will you miss the sly smirk of the waiter as he sets the plate of REINDEER PENIS RAGOUT down in front of you?
DAMNED IF I KNOW….