Noma Is Closing. Welcome to the End of Fine Dining

Ten years ago, It was my first time seeing a therapist. I was writing a cookbook with a respected chef and needed help figuring out how to work with him. The chef in question was a graduate of the renowned Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, and I had to force a chapter change that he didn’t like.

“Say what you need first and he will ignore it,” the therapist advised. “Second, say it again and he’ll ignore it again. The third time … “

WAMM! The therapist slapped his desk with the palm of his hand.

“The third time, hit the table between the two of you, and then calmly repeat what you need.”

I had never negotiated with anyone like that, but we had signed up as partners on the project and I was struggling to maintain the balance of power.

I’ve been thinking about this episode since hearing the surprise announcement in early January that Noma would be closing its doors forever at the end of 2024. The chef I worked with was Blaine Wetzel, the direct descendant, in terms of restaurant genealogy, of Noma’s Executive Chef and co-owner Rene Redzepi. In a 2015 article Redzepi wrote, he confessed to sometimes being a “bully” and a “terrible boss” to his employees, throwing tantrums in his kitchen. This was one of the reasons why when I heard the news of Noma closing, I couldn’t help but think it was a good thing.

Way back in 2006 when I was a food writer in Europe and before Noma was an intergalactic thing I got lucky with a dinner there. Looking at my photos, Redzepi still seems to have baby fat on his face, but the restaurant’s trajectory was clear. He could use food to evoke your emotions, turn an onion dish into the most incredible onions you’ve ever eaten, or a beetroot sauce that made you want to use it as body paint.

Noma has been the most influential restaurant in the world for almost 15 years. In that time, it has won the top 50 list of the world’s top 50 restaurants five times and has expanded its palate – jellyfish, moss or ants, anyone? Noma was also a pioneer in the global fermentation movement, inspiring legions of chefs and imitators.

Despite the wild success, he’s pulling the plug on Noma because it’s “unviable” financially and emotionally, he said. High-end kitchens like Noma have relied on unpaid or incredibly underpaid internships for years interns worked grueling, life-sapping hours while learning the trade. This is often illegal and is slowly being phased out. But for interns and employees who burn themselves out at a place like Noma, the experience can be a ticket to the rest of their careers.

In 2010, Wetzel did just that, going straight from his role as chef de partie at Noma to taking over the kitchen at Willows Inn in the Pacific Northwest. In June 2013, my wife Elisabeth and I moved from New York City to Lummi Island, Washington state of 813, so I could work with Wetzel. He soon received a pair of prestigious James Beard Awards. But in the nearly ten years since Elisabeth and I left the island, layers of management at the inn have unraveled, eventually revealing behavior that sounded more and more like Redzepi at its worst. Noma Is Closing. Welcome to the End of Fine Dining

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