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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Is fine dining still feasible?

Noma, a three Michelin-star restaurant that many consider the best in the world, will end its dinner service after the winter of 2024. The restaurant plans to transform into a laboratory dedicated to food innovation and an online store, Noma Projects, opening only sporadically for dining.

In the 20 years since Noma opened, head chef René Redzepi reinvented Danish cuisine, and his influence touched all corners of the fine dining world.

Co-founders Redzepi and Claus Meyer pioneered New Nordic Cuisine, which emphasizes the need for purity, simplicity and freshness as well as the use of local, seasonal foods. Noma became known for this sustainable attitude, cooking with ingredients like reindeer and foraged bee pollen. 

Despite their philosophy, Redzepi told the New York Times that the fine dining model is unsustainable — “financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work,” he said.

As the restaurant prepares for its remaining seasons, many question the future of fine dining. If Noma cannot make it sustainable, then who can?

Noma's announcement highlights some of the problems in fine dining restaurants, but it does not signal their end. These restaurants have been unsustainable since long before Noma opened its doors. They survive on the extreme passion of their chefs — a passion that will remain long after Noma closes its doors.

I spent a week living with one of these impassioned individuals a few years ago. I visited a friend in Colorado and met his roommate Johnny who was preparing for a summer at Noma. 

Over the week I was there, Johnny and I only talked a handful of times; he was busy working long days at a nearby restaurant. When he did have free time, we would look at Michelin-starred meals, make tostadas or discuss fermentation techniques. Johnny’s life revolved around cooking, and he could not have been happier.

Johnny worked as a stagiaire, or stage, which is the fine dining equivalent of an intern. They work long hours, often doing menial work and making little money, if any. Working as a stage is a challenging but crucial step for many aspiring chefs. For them, the experience of working at a world-renowned restaurant is worth the commitment. 

Even with stage help, many restaurants close due to financial pressures. Before Noma, elBulli was the most influential restaurant in the world. Its co-owners were losing half a million Euros per year before it closed in 2010. Months before Noma announced its plans, Amass, another leader in sustainability, closed after filing for bankruptcy.

After Noma made its announcement, I called Johnny to ask him about his experience there (he had some time while his braised chicken was in the oven). He told me the job was demanding and fast-paced. When he showed drive, he was given more freedom in choosing his work. He learned what it looked like to run a kitchen of three Michelin-star caliber. 

Most young cooks have a similar experience working in high-end restaurants. Weeks are stressful, days are long and pay is low. Your fellow cooks and servers become your friends and family. Sacrifices come with working in the most prestigious kitchens; the world’s best restaurants need the world’s best cooks.

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For people like Johnny, this is the only life they can imagine. They will do whatever it takes to cook at the highest level. Creating and operating an acclaimed restaurant is worth much more than any money it loses.

Some are unwilling to make the sacrifices required to work in this class of restaurant. They will leave the fine dining industry to start an upscale casual restaurant that provides good food at a lower price and allows them more time outside the kitchen.

If the future Noma is successful, other restaurants will probably create their own food laboratories. These laboratories will be great opportunities for cooks who want to innovate without the sacrifices of working in fine dining. 

However, for people like Johnny, Noma’s reinvention only means finding a new restaurant for stage work. Their future stays with the unsustainable fine dining restaurants, cooking and serving the best food in the world. 

Alex Clark is a junior studying neurobiology and economics. Do you think fine dining has a future? Send all comments to opinion@dailycardinal.com

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