Noma's Closure In 2024 Heralds The End Of An Era
Fine dining as we know it may be ending, so what comes next?
I am among the likely 99.99% of Filipinos who have never dined at Noma. Since it opened in Copenhagen in 2003, only a rarefied few have had the opportunity to sample the pioneering “New Nordic” menu of its star chef and owner René Redzepi. Noma has been crowned the Best Restaurant in the World for a record five years by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and earned its third Michelin star in 2021. It has also influenced a generation of chefs around the world with its focus on hyperlocal seasonal produce and age-old techniques like smoking and fermenting applied in novel ways.
On January 9th, René Redzepi announced that he was transforming Noma into “a pioneering test kitchen dedicated to the work of food innovation and the development of new flavors.” While he adds that this new “Noma 3.0” will still serve guests for pop-ups, the restaurant as it operates today will close by the end of 2024. Redzepi shared with The New York Times, “This is simply too hard, and we have to work in a different way.” In the same article, the writer Julia Moskin explains, “The style of fine dining that Noma helped create and promote around the globe—wildly innovative, labor-intensive and vastly expensive—may be undergoing a sustainability crisis.”
Upon hearing the news, I felt a tinge of sadness at the likelihood that I will never taste the reindeer penis ragout (seriously!) and duck brain currently offered on Noma’s Game & Forest menu. Strange food yes, but I admit that I do love these kinds of dining experiences, no matter how weird the dish and avant-garde the setting. I did try to book a table back in 2016, using my mobile phone to surreptitiously reserve on the Noma website smack in the middle of an office meeting—but to no avail. My husband and I flew to Copenhagen, had a host of wonderful meals there, with only a fleeting glimpse of Noma at its original waterfront location in the Christianshavn district.
In the week since the news of Noma’s closing, think pieces have come out about the demise of fine dining, with The New York Times chief restaurant critic Pete Wells declaring, “I can’t quite say I’ll be sorry when it’s gone, either. In many ways, its excellence had become inseparable from the culture of overkill that now defines the windswept high peaks of fine dining.” The Noma example is just the latest and most high profile sign that the finest of fine dining as we know it really is “overkill,” not just for its chefs and staff, but for diners like myself as well.
As a former food editor, I’ve certainly engaged in the high-flying restaurant game, checking off my bucket list the latest restaurants ranked among The World’s 50 Best Restaurants or those racking up the Michelin stars. I would trade notes with friends and colleagues: How did you snag a seat in that New York spot? If you’re going to Tokyo, have you tried this restaurant? How was your meal at so-and-so in Paris? As we traveled the world to dine at the most buzzed-about restaurants, we would look for and expect gustatory experiences nothing short of awe-inspiring, out-of-this-world, “I have no words,” or whatever combo of Instagram-catchy superlatives would justify the cost and effort.
The hours spent trying to get a reservation, the long flight to the destination, not to mention the hundreds and hundreds of dollars that the actual meal costs—can our lofty expectations ever be met? To look at it from another angle, expecting the “best meal of my life” from the chosen restaurant puts an enormous, even impossible amount of pressure on the chef and their team to deliver “the best ever” for every diner, every meal, every day. For Noma, that means hiring a battalion of interns (unpaid until just recently) to do the backbreaking mise en place for a multi-course tasting menu costing up to US$500 per person, wine not included.
So like Pete Wells and other restaurant critics, perhaps it’s high time for us diners to reassess what we should look for in a fine dining restaurant. What level of “amazing” should we expect? Does it really require 20-plus courses, über-complex techniques, rare ingredients, museum-quality table settings, an encyclopedic wine list, and choreographed-to-a-tee service, not to mention a small fortune? Already, many classically-trained chefs are eschewing this restaurant rat race, and choosing to work for or open smaller establishments, where they prepare still-amazing food but without the pressure to strive for Michelin stars or high rankings.
Just as René Redzepi has realized, when the game becomes unsustainable, it’s time to change the criteria. And here’s the silver lining: when the criteria changes, new players are bound to emerge. And I’m hoping these new players won’t come from recognized culinary capitals—Paris, San Sebastian, New York, London, Tokyo, Singapore—but from less visible and less Eurocentric parts of the food world. The Philippines, perhaps?
It may be wishful thinking but I believe Philippine-based chefs and restaurateurs can contribute to the global discussion of how “fine dining” and culinary excellence can be redefined, especially in light of real world problems like economic inequality, labor issues, food safety, food security, climate change that can no longer be ignored inside the dining room.
Will the new fine dining kitchen continue to be organized as a chef-centered hierarchy or can it possibly work as a collective? Will a meal follow the classic appetizer-to-dessert plated approach, or can the food be presented and served in a radically different manner? Can there be a new kind of table service rooted in our local customs and cultural practices, rather than the standard textbook method learned in every hospitality school around the world? I certainly don’t have the answers, but there may be a few Filipinos out there—with the requisite culinary skills, deep knowledge of local ingredients and traditions, refined sensibilities and maverick streak—who may surprise and delight the culinary world, and why not, even inspire René Redzepi himself.
I admit I’m still a little sad about Noma closing, but I’m also excited at the prospect of what comes next, whatever that may be. And let’s pray it won’t cost an arm and a leg, and a long plane ride to dine there.