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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

World-renowned restaurant Noma to close, citing ‘unsustainable’ model

(Jens Dresling/Polfoto/AP)

When chef René Redzepi opened Noma restaurant in Copenhagen in 2003, some critics jeered at his ambitious plan. How could one possibly offer a menu of only hyperlocal Nordic ingredients and innovate the region’s cuisine, they wondered? The idea was dismissed as a “blubber restaurant” and snickered about in the food world in far more tasteless terms.

Redzepi soon changed minds across the globe with wildly inventive dishes of foraged, fermented and painstakingly crafted foods, eventually earning three Michelin stars and multiple years of holding the mantle of “world’s best restaurant.” On Monday though, Redzepi said the intensive amount of labor required to produce the restaurant’s signature food — much of which fell to interns and lower-paid workers — was no longer sustainable.

“Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work,” he told the New York Times, which first reported the planned closure. The restaurant in 2025 will morph into a “giant lab” that will host pop-ups and/or temporarily open for a season, as well as develop products for the company’s e-commerce arm. “Serving guests will still be a part of who we are, but being a restaurant will no longer define us,” read a note to customers on the restaurant’s website hailing the new incarnation as Noma 3.0. “Instead, much of our time will be spent on exploring new projects and developing many more ideas and products.”

Sea snail broth and kelp ice cream: The new Noma tastes like the future

Whatever shape it takes, the legacy of Noma, where diners quick-fingered enough to score a reservation pay $500 and upward for multicourse meals set among wild gardens and greenhouses, will long be felt. Redzepi ignited a renewed interest by young chefs in ancient arts of fermenting and foraging. His creation of what came to be known as the “New Nordic” cuisine prompted imitators around the globe.

Finnish food writer Kenneth Nars, who serves as the chair for Scandinavia and the Baltics for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy — the organization that put Noma at the top of its list — said the grandness of Redzepi’s vision was what ultimately made it impossible to continue.

“The constant talk about the decline of fine dining is slightly exaggerated. We must remember that during its 20-year history and many phases, Noma never was a typical fine dining restaurant,” Nars said. “Just like René describes it, his restaurant became totally unsustainable. At the end, the astronomical ambitions in the kitchen resulted in Noma growing into a monster that was impossible to master, even by its own creator.”

Paul Freedman, a history professor at Yale and the author of “Why Food Matters,” said that the labor issue was just one challenge to Redzepi’s model. “What’s not sustainable is the idea of the chef as creative genius,” he said.

Check, please. Please! This diner got so tired of waiting, she left.

For decades, chefs — even the celebrities considered to be at the height of their profession — weren’t expected to constantly and totally reinvent the culinary wheel. “Now, diners are not going to restaurants to get the best Veal Orloff or caviar, but to get something they had never seen before,” he said. Noma, he noted, has a multilingual staff that spends much of the meal explaining what dishes are and even how to consume them.

“I don’t think it means the death of haute cuisine or the casualization of dining, because there is still a global demand for formality and exclusivity,” he said. “This is a crisis of the chef as artist.”

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and a devoted restaurant-goer, says that people are misinterpreting Redzepi’s intentions with the closure. Cowen doesn’t think the chef is arguing that he can’t make money with Noma and its grand artistic ambitions. It’s just that he can make more money doing other, perhaps less stressful, things.

“He’s so well-known now, he can just do private events, cook for billionaires, special weddings and work two months a year or whatever and make more than he’s making in the restaurant,” Cowen says. “He’s the one who’s going to earn from here on out. Why slave every night till like 2 a.m. in a restaurant when you can set your own schedule and price discriminate, charging the super wealthy?”

Noma was named the world’s best restaurant five times in the past 11 years and was awarded a third Michelin star — the province of only a handful of restaurants across the globe — in 2021. Dining there was as much about the experience as the food, which included reindeer and foraged greens. The 40-seat dining room might be decorated with fish skeletons or dried seaweed; multicourse meals end with the presentation of a menu.

Tom Sietsema's fall dining guide

Over the years, it morphed several times. It went dark in 2015 for a five-week pop-up in Tokyo, and again a year later for stints in Sydney and Tulum, Mexico. It reopened in 2018 in Copenhagen, with The Washington Post’s restaurant critic Tom Sietsema declaring the new iteration “a rare chance to hang with a true visionary.” “It soon becomes apparent that we’re eating the future, so influential is Redzepi’s thought process that his dishes are copied at the speed of the internet by chefs around the world,” Sietsema wrote.

During the pandemic, Noma shuttered and temporarily reopened as a spot for burgers and wine served at picnic tables. In recent years, Redzepi and his operation have come under scrutiny, including for their reliance on unpaid “stagiaires” (Noma reportedly began paying them in October). The chef himself admitted in a 2015 essay that he had been a bully of a boss who had yelled and “pushed people,” and since then has said that he has done therapy to deal with his anger.

Jeremiah Langhorne, chef-owner at the Dabney in Washington, D.C., staged at Noma for three months in 2009. Though he was unpaid, he said, he “would do it again. I think it was well worth it.” Langhorne, who had been working at McGrady’s in Charleston at the time, compared it to a culinary education, as valuable as anything he could have learned at cooking school.

“I wasn’t, you know, enthralled and excited by Scandinavian food, so to speak, as much as I was by Rene’s approach to cooking,” Langhorne said. “So I brought that back and applied it to my own environment, to Charleston.”

Post food critic Tom Sietsema contributed to this report.