So – the “world’s best restaurant”, Noma, has announced that it is closing (at the end of 2024) in 2 years time. Reni Redzepi has admitted that the expensive fine dining model no longer works. This is despite the fact, that the waiting list for tables is still very long. And there are of course other issues such as not paying his entire staff. Noma has been criticized for its unpaid internships where aspiring chefs hope to gain experience. In order to execute its highly ambitious food Noma, has relied on large numbers of unpaid workers, which is in itself unsustainable and untenable – and has since been stopped. Reni has acknowledged that this behaviour was not ideal in the pursuit of perfection but If a restaurant cannot pay it’s staff, it should not be open.
However, another key issue is that model has changed. Indeed, Noma will be moving to “a new financial foundation” based on Noma-branded retail products, from its e-commerce operation, Noma Projects, but will still include the occasional seasonal pop-up. (https://nomaprojects.com/en-au)
This is not unique. Over the past couple of pandemic affected years, many restaurants have closed or re-invented themselves. Many chefs have left the industry, preferring to hit the road with temporary “pop-ups”, or developing home delivery and making premium retail food products including meal kits and vegetarian burgers. It seems that the old fine dining model is flawed.
As Karen Stabiner from the Los Angeles Times said – “Fine dining needs a therapist. Restaurants at the high end of the spectrum — ambitious chefs, multiple courses, impeccable service, and prices that reflect all the effort — are having an understandable identity crisis. Getting to the top of the mountain takes a toll. Staying there can mean a world of pain.” This was very well highlighted in the recent satirical movie “The Menu” (Searchlight 2022). Indeed, it has been suggested that the movie, starring Ralph Fiennes, may have contributed to the closure of Noma.
“We have to completely rethink the industry,” Redzepi said. “This is simply too hard; we have to work in a different way … It’s unsustainable. As an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.”
The past three years or so have seen a huge change in the way we dine out. The COVID pandemic at first closed everything, bringing the industry to its knees. This was followed by uneconomic health and space restrictions. Last year (2022), as we all started to poke our noses out and venture out again, should have seen the rebirth of the restaurant – but something else has happened.
Whilst in lock down, the consumer has become used to premium take out and many learned that making sourdough, fermented vegetables and dumplings is not that hard. We all gained knowledge and some experience in cooking, even if only from meal kits. Now, rising interest rates, inflation, working from home and a new understanding of work-life-balance has seen a shift in behaviours. The long business lunch is an anathema. And clued-up diners are seeking quality and value. Whilst movies like The Menu and The Bear highlight the absurdity of competitive dining.
Restaurants are struggling to get and keep good staff. Supply shortages are still not uncommon due to lack of staff, floods, drought, and political factors. It is the perfect storm for the hospitality industry.
More and more, the premium restaurant sector will be taken over by corporate groups with deep pockets who can spread costs and afford to run them like premier football clubs. Promoted entertainment, where the headline chef is, well, just a headline. Fine dining is certainly not dead – but it has lost its independence and many of our best chefs, who are artists in their own right, do not flourish in this environment.
Independent restaurants will be smaller, leaner with smaller menus and the benefit of less staff and more direct communication between the chef and his clients. Guests are seeking genuine hospitality instead of the one-size-fits-all service or the over-the-top superficial attention. They still want fine food but they want to know where it comes from, how it was cooked and to talk to the culinary stars themselves.
The consumer is also seeking experiences highlighted by tourism and destination dining. Small regional and rural venues that specialise in certain ingredients and styles are becoming popular with chefs seeking a “tree or sea change” as well as with guests prepared to detour to experience the best. This is culinary storytelling with “real” food and “authentic” flavours linked to producers and terroir.
Fine dining is not dead, but it is changing. We all want to eat high quality food and experience warm conviviality – but at what expense? Like a lot of fashion and conspicuous consumption, the dining out industry is facing reality and a new way to sell its high-end wares.
“Do you know what I’m craving? A little perspective. That’s it. I’d like some fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective.”
Anton Ego. “Ratatouille”. 2007. Disney Pixar