If you’ve put off making that post-lockdown reservation at Noma — the foraging-happy Danish tasting den that has won every fine-dining award imaginable and, in the process, transformed Copenhagen into the world’s premiere culinary destination — you might want to get moving. René Redzepi, the restaurant’s chef and owner, says that he plans to close Noma at the end of 2024. The reason, as he sees it: Restaurants, at least the restaurants that operate with the ambition and expense of Noma, are fundamentally broken.
Noma, as an enterprise, will live on as a food lab and series of pop-ups, but the dining room will close for regular service. In explaining his decision to the New York Times, Redzepi offers a critique of fine dining that has become increasingly common: The hours are brutal, the nature of the work itself is grueling, and the pay, when it exists at all, is almost comically low.
At the same time, the barrier to entry to these elite dining ateliers has grown exponentially. The restaurants were never meant to be accessible to the masses, but — during the Chef’s Table heyday of the past decade — they were never so out of reach that they became impossible to afford for all but the wealthiest diners. Eleven Madison Park was charging $200 for dinner in 2013; as Ryan Sytton explains on Eater NY, in New York alone, the starting price for any of these experiences now is often about $400 per person. At the moment, dinner at Noma, before one even accounts for the potential price of hotel and airfare, runs around $750 per person if you spring for a beverage pairing. (And you’ve come all this way for dinner — you may as well!) The prices are especially eye-opening in light of a number of recent reports that have made the dining public increasingly aware of the turmoil and abuse that frequently occurs within these restaurants. Anyone who has watched The Bear knows that the behind-the-scenes intensity does not match up with the coddling nature of the dining-room experience, nor do those hundreds upon hundreds of dollars necessarily go toward ensuring the well-being of the people who prepare these meals.
Of course, this is hardly the end of fine dining. Thomas Keller’s French Laundry — for years viewed as the pinnacle of dining in the United States — remains so popular that a thriving black market exists for reservations and, despite complaints over its prices and inherent elitism, the seats remain full. (By the way: Keller seems to have lost his golf bag recently, so if anyone has any info, can you please let him know? He might be able to hook you up with a table if you help track it down.) But the French Laundry will always be, at its core, a truffles-and-caviar kind of joint. Noma’s arrival on the dining scene felt so momentous because it was designed to be a specific rejection of extant luxury values, favoring local and underutilized ingredients over traditional fine-dining tropes: Every earthenware plate that you encounter or lacto-fermented pickle you nibble owes some debt of gratitude to Redzepi’s work. Noma’s ascent, in many ways, mirrored Spain’s El Bulli, which exploded the then-staid idea of a Michelin-style meal with modernist techniques and gonzo tasting menus that ran dozens of bites long. Noma’s closing might be similar to El Bulli’s, too. In 2011, Ferran Adrià closed his own restaurant and turned it into a facility “in which research is carried out on the theme of gastronomy and innovation.”
If you cruise over to Noma’s reservation page, you’ll find there’s an early four-top available this Thursday. It will likely be gone by the time you read this, but on the off chance it isn’t, it might be your last chance to taste Redzepi’s particular approach to the theme of gastronomy and innovation.