It’s Time for Change in the Culture of Fine Dining

nomaThe big news in the food world this week is that Noma is closing its doors—it is, according to many, the best restaurant in the world.

Since opening two decades ago, Noma — the Copenhagen restaurant currently serving grilled reindeer heart on a bed of fresh pine, and saffron ice cream in a beeswax bowl — has transformed fine dining. A new global class of gastro tourists schedules first-class flights and entire vacations around the privilege of paying at least $500 per person for its multicourse tasting menu.

This article in the NY Times (behind a paywall) digs into why such a successful restaurant is closing:

Mr. Redzepi, who has long acknowledged that grueling hours are required to produce the restaurant’s cuisine, said that the math of compensating nearly 100 employees fairly, while maintaining high standards, at prices that the market will bear, is not workable….As the human cost of the industry comes under scrutiny, Mr. Redzepi’s headaches have multiplied, with media reporting and online activism critical of Noma’s treatment of foreign workers and reliance on unpaid interns. In October, Noma began paying its interns, adding at least $50,000 to its monthly labor costs.

Trying to manage the costs of producing today’s hyper-creative cooking will be a challenge. I fervently hope the industry succeeds. Some of my most memorable experiences have been in Michelin 3-star restaurants. It would be a great cultural loss if that kind of cooking is unsustainable.

Yet there is a dark side to fine dining, one that seems to me more manageable. Apparently Redzepi has earned his reputation as a first rate asshole to work for.

For the last decade, Mr. Redzepi, 45, has been on a rather public spiritual journey, embracing therapy, coaching and walking meditation in order to exorcise the famously rageful, mercurial and workaholic young chef he was when he opened Noma in 2003. He said that process brought him to this breaking point.

In this regard he isn’t unique. The punishing hours and low pay also seem to come with abuse and harassment:

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.

It seems to me this is a matter of ingrained cultural habits that are perpetuated as each generation of chefs treat the younger generation with the same authoritarian animus and condescension with which they were treated. It’s been going on for decades if not centuries and it’s time to break that cycle. Yes, cooking in a restaurant is stressful. But there are many jobs that are stressful but few that manage the level of haughty contempt for employees exhibited by imperious chefs. It just isn’t that hard to show respect for people who make what you do possible.

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