If Noma can’t afford fair pay, no-one can

In Business Resources, Featured Home Page News, Food, Government, Momentum

At $1000+ per head and 100% capacity for 20 years, even this Copenhagen staple can’t afford to keep up with regulated fair pay and conditions for workers.

‘World’s best restaurant’ Noma is closing for financial reasons

From SMH/ Good Food 10/1/2023

For the past two decades, foodies have flocked to Copenhagen to pay hundreds of dollars each to sample Noma’s 20-course tasting menu of dishes painstakingly constructed from the freshest foraged ingredients.

However, despite charging customers $1145 AUD for such dishes as grilled reindeer’s heart on a bed of fresh pine, the three Michelin-starred “world’s best restaurant” has now been forced to close saying it can no longer afford to pay its 100 staff a fair wage.

“Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work,” said chef Rene Redzepi, one of the masterminds behind specials such as live shrimps and ants and duck brain served in its own skull and eaten with a spoon made from its own tongue.

The move comes three months after the restaurant began to pay its interns for the first time.

The long, gruelling hours and uncompromising macho culture of the hotly competitive world of international fine dining were “unsustainable”, said Redzepi, the hugely influential pioneer of the New Nordic culinary style, amid reports that paying Noma’s trainees had added at least $70,000 to its monthly wage bill.

“We have to completely rethink the industry,” he told The New York Times. “This is simply too hard, and we have to work in a different way.”

Since opening in 2003 Noma has consistently topped world best restaurant lists. Photo: Dresling Jens

He said he had re-evaluated the fine dining business model after the pandemic and Noma would close for good at the end of 2024 and become a “full-time food laboratory” instead.

The shock news is certain to make tables at Noma even more sought after but it has also drawn attention to the seedy underbelly of fine dining, which is often built on unpaid or cheap labour.

Trainee chefs used to work for no wages during three-month stints at Noma, just for the experience of working in celebrated kitchens with famous chefs. The practice is widespread in elite kitchens where the stagiaires spend long hours toiling to realise the vision of their often mercurial masters.

At Noma the work can be particularly intense with ingredients having to be found, harvested or, in the case of ants that taste like lemon grass, captured alive. In its kitchen interns work on highly detailed dishes such as a beetle made of berry leathers and black garlic.

In Denmark, which Noma has transformed into a global food capital, workers in elite restaurants have increasingly been using social media to call out abusive working practices.

Noma has denied exploiting its stagiaires saying that its interns were given a great stepping stone in their careers.

Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.

Rene Redzepi

“While our industry has been characterised by long working hours, this is something we at Noma constantly work to improve,” a spokesman for the restaurant told The New York Times.

Redzepi has admitted to having fulfilled the stereotype of a tyrannical chef when he first opened Noma in 2003.

In a 2015 essay, he confessed to having both verbally and physically bullied his staff.

A side serving of sea snail roe with kelp butter from Noma in Copenhagen. Photo: Jason Loucas

Now 45, he has used therapy and walking meditation to control his temper and workaholic impulses, and has written books on leadership.

“In an ideal restaurant, employees could work four days a week, feel empowered and safe and creative,” he said. “The problem is how to pay them enough to afford children, a car and a house in the suburbs.”

He denied he was closing Noma because it had achieved its third Michelin star and topped the influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for a record-breaking fifth time, which means it can no longer be considered for the list.

The dining room in service at Noma. Photo: Jason Loucas

While Noma will be stopping its regular service next year, the premises will become a food laboratory to develop dishes and products for its e-commerce business, Noma Projects.

The dining rooms will be opened for only occasional pop-ups and Redzepi’s new role will be closer to chief creative officer rather than chef.

The Daily Telegraph UK

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