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What does tech have to do with Noma's end?
Nothing... and everything
SPOILER ALERT: This post contains references to the plot and ending of the recent film, The Menu.
The world’s greatest restaurant is closing, you say?
Talk about timing. Chef Rene Redzepi announced the closure of his restaurant, Noma, just days after foodie thriller The Menu debuted on HBO Max, streaming on home TVs two months after its theatrical release. The Copenhagen restaurant, once deemed the world’s best and later awarded three Michelin stars, became a bucket list checkmark, an international status symbol, a name dropped in conversation at expensive restaurant tables around the world. The movie, a dark, dark, satire of fine dining and so-called foodie culture, pokes fun at the extremes restaurants like Noma have wrought.
This is a real moment in restaurant culture.
News of the Copenhagen restaurant’s closure came first via Julia Moskin at the New York Times.
According to Redzepi, Moskin writes, the business model isn’t working. (The restaurant won’t shutter until the end of 2024.)
It’s impossible to untangle the circumstances leading up to Noma’s closure from what’s been happening in the world around it. After all, we’re talking about a restaurant’s pivot to something new after its current operations stopped making sense. We’ve heard this story all pandemic long — unsustainable conditions, staffing troubles, ingredient costs — no business is immune.
Noma isn’t closing because of technology. It’s not “over” because of third-party delivery or a virtual brand or online ordering or a focus on convenience or any other tech trend that’s threatened restaurants as we know them. Influencers’ posts on Instagram didn’t tank the business, but they did push it farther into reverence, which ironically, probably contributed to its eventual end.
Noma’s announced closure follows bigger, tech-fueled trends. To start, the days of glorified hustle culture are over. Honesty, transparency, reality are in vogue now. Like the reckoning that recently came for undervalued restaurant work, the veil was lifted on the power and promise of the tech industry — think: Facebook, elections, Elon, Twitter, misinformation — sometimes, we now know, the emperor wears no clothes. At the very least, the visionary must be challenged. And there’s always something newer and shinier.
The Times calls Noma’s move “likely to send shock waves through the culinary world.”
That’s a thing that definitely happened on Monday. Fine dining isn’t sustainable any longer, says the chef who propped up fine dining. (Cue a run on reservations!)
Like many chefs who shuttered restaurants over the last three years, Redzepi frames the closure as a financial reality; he can’t afford to pay Noma’s entire staff a living wage. Critics of both fine dining and of Redzepi immediately latched onto this detail. That’s because, until recently, Noma didn’t pay much of its staff anything. Instead, it relied on the free labor of interns, which are called stagiaires when they work in fancy restaurants.
Noma started paying its interns in October, the Times reports, likely in part due to increased scrutiny of working conditions at all restaurants, from fast food to fine dining. That additional labor cost, at $50,000 per month, was too much to sustain, Redzepi said.
Pandemic working conditions pulled back the curtain on the reality of restaurant work as employees across industries learned to recognize and share information about toxic power imbalances at work. As Moskin writes, restaurant workers around the globe used social media to spread these messages, removing some of the mystique from the reality of restaurant work as a dangerous pandemic raged in the background. Worker organization led to real change; in some places, restaurant workers unionized, in others, workers refused jobs that paid unlivable wages for untenable work, effectively raising wages and drawing previously unavailable benefits.
In lieu of a traditional restaurant, Noma will become a food lab of sorts, a test kitchen that develops dishes and also consumer packaged goods to sell directly to consumers on the internet — like the smoked mushroom garum ($24) it sells currently. In that way, the next iteration of Noma sounds like the start of a CPG company. What will follow? Deals with online grocery delivery services? A slot on the shelf at Amazon’s Whole Foods?
Noma’s own social media feeds say all of this is “exciting news.”
Its website skews even more optimistic, promising that the team “share our innovations and ideas more widely than ever before.”
It’s a model built for a Very Online generation. Right now, social media carries a ton of weight and influence in fine dining; I’d argue that it’s as responsible as traditional media for elevating a certain type of restaurant to monstrous heights. It feeds influencer culture, fear of missing out, best-of checklists, and near mythic reverence of certain chefs. It’s hard to imagine The Menu’s chef Slownik or his Hawthorn existing in a world without Instagram — even the fictional restaurant’s remote, wifi-free location plays a role; the disconnection only adds to its allure in an always-connected world.
But Instagram is old news now, even though it dominated pop culture for a decade. The concept of fine dining is simply following suit. Noma won’t go down in flames like Hawthorn, in some grand gesture marking its definitive end, just like Instagram won’t disappear and Twitter will never die. It’s changing, maybe settling into middle age, trying to re-insert itself into the world it disrupted before it’s too irrelevant to survive.
You were never going to go to Noma anyway — Eater
Noma spawned a world of imitators, but the restaurant remains an original — NYTimes
A former Noma intern was forbidden to laugh and paid nothing — Insider