It’s been a bad century for what we used to call high culture. Even before a dramatic pandemic-driven drop in attendance for live theater, opera, symphonies, dance, and art exhibitions, the percentage of Americans who were taking in live cultural events over the past two decades had been dwindling. Classical music sales have been in a long-term slide, orchestras have been closing around the country, masters of fine arts programs are declining, book review sections are shrinking, and poetry, according to the New York Times, has apparently been dead for 100 years.
But there’s one exception: high-end dining.
The past 20 years have witnessed a supernova of haute cuisine, an explosion of tasting menus and chef’s tables. The best restaurants have gone from the background to the foreground of the cosmopolitan experience, becoming travel destinations in their own right. Top chefs — and yes, I know the reference — are more than mere celebrities; they’re cultural figures. It’s as though we took all the energy we once devoted to the production and appreciation of art in all its forms, put it on a plate, and eagerly lapped it up.
No one place better symbolizes that new cultural order better than the internationally famous Copenhagen restaurant Noma. Noma’s accolades have no end — in August 2021 it earned its third Michelin star, and it has topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list five times. But if anything, those awards understate Noma’s influence on the food world. As the New York Times food critic Pete Wells wrote this past week, no other restaurant “came up with so many ideas that were shoplifted by so many other places in so many other cities quite so quickly.”
And that’s why it was so surprising, and so meaningful, when the news broke earlier this week that chef Rene Redzepi would close down Noma as a restaurant at the end of 2024. The pressure of producing innovative cuisine on a daily basis, of reinventing his menu again and again, and of doing all of that while fairly compensating a staff of nearly 100 people, was simply not possible.
“It is unsustainable,” he told Julia Moskin of the New York Times. “Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.”
It’s only apt that Redzepi, who oversaw plates at Noma as perfect as a painting, would have the perfect finishing touch to this golden era of fine dining: “It just doesn’t work.” Or, to put it in a way that Marxists would appreciate: It collapsed under its own contradictions.
The era of haute cuisine as high culture, explained
Looking back, the high point of high chef culture came in the mid-2010s, with the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table. Created by David Gelb in the mold of his 2011 hit documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, each episode focused on a single chef with the same monomaniacal obsession, the same faultless art direction, that those chefs brought to the art of their food.
Here was Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns running through the bucolic hills of Westchester County, dreaming of how to divide a menu by the seasons. Here was Magnus Nilsson of Sweden’s Fäviken hunting through the Nordic forest for the local ingredients that would furnish his menu. The filming was lavish, complete with slow-motion sequences of chefs sprinkling seasoning on a dish (or, in the case of Patagonia barbecue master Francis Mallmann, grilling a full carcass on an open flame) as if they were Jackson Pollock putting the last drips on No. 5. In the final shots, their signature dishes were presented to the viewer as literal works of art.
There were two takeaways from Chef’s Table. One, these guys — and, especially in the early seasons, it was mostly guys — take food really, really seriously. What you and I might think of as dinner is for them a way of life. And two, taking food this seriously requires untold sacrifice — of time, of money, of any vestige of a normal life. As Eater writer Joshua David Stein put it in an early review of Chef’s Table, it’s “Trauma X + Challenge Y = Triumph Z.” The diner may pay for the meal — quite a lot — but the chef, like a true artist, suffers for it.
My own culinary abilities max out at roast salmon, but I’ve been to enough Eleven Madisons and Blue Hills to know that food in its most rarefied form has every right to claim the mantle of art. But the question remains: Why this art form, at this moment?
Some of this stems from the simple fact that the 2000s and 2010s were a golden age for fine cuisine, a moment when food took a quantum leap in quality and creativity. This happens, from time to time, in every art form — the 1950s for painting, for instance, or the 1970s for cinema. A new approach emerges, a decisive break with the past, and a fresh group of practitioners arise to push the boundaries of their form — and each other. In food, that came from the discovery (or often rediscovery) of fresh, local ingredients; from the momentum of globalization that allowed chefs to mix and match culinary traditions from around the world; from the rise of food critics who could taste the shock of the new.
But there were other factors at play that intersected with larger cultural, economic, and political trends. As environmental concerns rose, food became a way to fight back, for chefs to signal that cooking and eating the right way — their way — could be part of the solution. The unequal economic growth of the past several decades created a large enough group of potential diners willing and eager to seek out and spend hundreds of dollars per person at the world’s top restaurants. And, most important of all, knowledge of fine food became a clear mark of cultural status, even down to carefully illustrated cookbooks adorning your shelves.
All of which gave chefs enormous cultural cachet, and put enormous weight on them and their profession — weight, as Redzepi’s experience shows, that was ultimately unbearable.
The end of fine dining?
What does it feel like to be at the center of a white-hot moment for your profession, to have surpassed all the wildest dreams you might have had as a 19-year-old toiling in a French kitchen in Montpellier? If you go by Redzepi’s own words: pretty bad, often!
“I had my own restaurant, with my own money invested, with the weight of all the expectation in the world,” Redzepi wrote in a 2015 essay for the food magazine Lucky Peach. “And within a few months I started to feel something rumbling inside of me. I could feel it bubbling, bubbling, bubbling. And then one day the lid came flying off. The smallest transgressions sent me into an absolute rage.” He realized that if the culture of the high-end kitchen didn’t change, “we’re on course to really mess things up.”
Redzepi’s confessions came as the food world was just starting to come to grips with the toxic working conditions that went into the making of beautiful food. Me Too exposés on chefs and restaurateurs like Mario Batali and Ken Friedman opened up into a broader conversation about labor abuses in pressure-cooker kitchens — both the extreme versions and, more importantly, those that had long been considered standard operating practice. (Here’s the first line of Redzepi’s essay: “I started cooking in a time when it was common [emphasis mine] to see my fellow cooks get slapped across the face for making simple mistakes, to see plates fly across a room, crashing into someone who was doing his job too slowly.”) At Noma, as at many other world-class restaurants, much of the kitchen was staffed by what are called stagiaires — essentially, interns on short-term contracts, working back-breaking hours not for pay but for the experience of learning at the feet of the chef.
So that’s unbearable contradiction No. 1: Behind the image of the faultless food and the rhetoric about the staff as a “family” was a whole lot of ugliness and toxic power dynamics. (And that’s not even getting into the food world’s ongoing controversy over cultural appropriation.) We may not have wanted to see how the sausage was made, but once we had, it was impossible to look at our meals the same way again.
And when restaurants like Noma tried to rectify some of these problems — in October, Noma began paying its interns, adding some $50,000 a month to its labor costs — they ran into the very real fact that even the priciest and most exclusive spots in the world are not immune to a basic economic fact: Even in good times, restaurants are a really shitty business. That’s why the closure of Noma signified to so many “a flashing warning sign for the end of global fine dining,” Dana Cowin, a former editor-in-chief of Food & Wine, told Bon Appétit. “If Redzepi can’t make it sustainable, who can?”
And there’s contradiction No. 2: sustainability. Global fine dining over the past two decades was increasingly built on the idea of not just quality but sustainability — environmental sustainability, social sustainability. The revelations of precisely how these kitchens were run put the lie to the second part, but there’s still a lingering sense that, through the judicious use of organic and local ingredients, through a commitment to ethical sourcing, through exhaustively detailed tableside sermons by your server, high-end, highly expensive restaurants could somehow also be sustainable, in the other green sense.
Here’s the problem: This is totally ridiculous.
Let’s start with the bill. If you are eating a meal that costs you $500 or more per person — a little less than a fifth of the annual global median household income — then by definition you are not engaged in an activity that could be considered sustainable on a global level. Shocking, I know.
And then there’s the question of local — when it comes to measures like CO2 emissions, the distance your food travels is relatively minor compared to what you’re eating: chicken versus beef versus vegetables versus grains. Eating local feels good, and often tastes good, but we are not going to save the Earth that way, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves that we will. Attempts to actually live up to that creed end up flailing in futility, like when New York’s Eleven Madison Park went all vegan, only to dash itself against the rocks of bad reviews, labor issues, and accusations of hypocrisy when it turned out there was a secret menu of meat-based dishes for the elite.
Then there’s the fact that the global class of fine-dining restaurants can only exist because of, well, globalization. Four Copenhagen restaurants were on 2022’s World’s 50 Best Restaurant list — not even including Noma, which was ineligible because of its previous wins — and it hosts dozens of Michelin-starred restaurants. All of this in a city with a core population of fewer than 700,000 people. Just as there wouldn’t be enough people with incomes large enough to keep Noma and its Danish peers going without the effects of globalization and economic growth — with all the impact that has had on the environment — there wouldn’t be enough customers period without all those flights bringing culinary tourists to Copenhagen.
Really, what did we expect? As the Finnish chef Kim Mikkola, a Noma alumnus, told the Times, “Everything luxetarian is built on someone’s back; somebody has to pay.” The diner presented with the bill, the staff toiling in the back kitchen, the chef pressed on all corners, the Earth — at Noma or any restaurant of its ilk, there is no such thing as a free lunch, as Redzepi has surely discovered.
So what exactly do we want from haute cuisine? Is it to demonstrate that food can be not just good but better — better for us and the planet? Is it to show you can make perfect food with perfect service in the perfect environment, night after night, while treating each and every one of the many workers required to make that possible as fairly as possible? Or is to turn a restaurant into a canvas of creativity, a white space — or, in the case of Noma, cool Scandinavian gray and wood-tan — for an ambitious, driven chef to produce the best possible art they can?
Pick one, because you can’t have them all.
High-end, experimental cuisine like that found at Noma is unnecessary, in the same way every form of art is unnecessary — unnecessary for everything except what it means to be human. Food was our art of the moment because for a moment, it seemed in sync with everything we demanded: environmental sustainability, the old reclaimed and remade in the fashion of a superior new, and perhaps most of all, the ability through the multiplier of social media that you came, you saw, and you ate. At a time when digital media had made almost every other form of art instantly available and therefore instantly valueless, being at Noma meant you could pay for your ticket.
And so Noma the restaurant will become a lab for Noma Projects, which sounds like something that should be funded by the worst Silicon Valley VC you can imagine, and other fine-dining chefs, like Kim Mikkola, will go on to elevated fried chicken shops and the like.
Which is fine — the world could always use better fried chicken. But we’ll lose something along the way, that special thing that can only be the product of one ambitious person’s singular, uncompromising vision, something for which they’re willing to sacrifice everything and everyone in their way, including themselves. That thing is art, in all its glorious, bloody, brilliant, and awful contradictions.