Skip to content

Food Fights

Osita Nwanevu
8 min read
Photo by Francisco Suarez on Unsplash

Hey all. Let's hop to it.


I’ve been following the discourse about the closure of Copenhagen’s Noma in between stretches of writing. Here’s Bon Appétit with the basic rundown:

In a statement to Bon Appétit, a Noma spokesperson said that they do not consider this a closing of the brand. “To continue being noma, we must change,” reads a statement on the restaurant’s website. “Winter 2024 will be the last season of noma as we know it.” The restaurant is known for fantastical and sometimes eye roll–worthy dishes like Moldy Egg Tart and Reindeer Heart Tartare and garnered three Michelin stars in 2021, as well as several first-place rankings on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Opened in 2003 by Claus Meyer and René Redzepi, Noma and its culinary team pioneered a style of cooking that came to be known as New Nordic, relying on local ingredients that often have to be painstakingly foraged and prepared. These labor-intensive processes and the punishing schedules needed to execute them simply cannot coexist with fair, equitable, and humane work practices, Redzepi told The New York Times. “It’s unsustainable,” he said. “Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.”

Notably, as The New York Times reported, Noma’s closure comes just a few months after the restaurant ⁠— which was charging about $800 a person for a wine-paired dinner as of this past week ⁠— announced that it would begin paying its interns. “In interviews,” the Times’ Julia Moskin wrote, “dozens of people who worked at Noma between 2008 and 2021 said that 16-hour workdays have long been routine, even for unpaid workers.” By Redzepi’s own admission, those workdays used to include physical and verbal abuse on his part. The post-MeToo revelations of the past few years have clued many outside the food world into just how common those conditions are in restaurants. But Noma and Redzepi haven’t been canceled here ⁠— evidently, the math just isn’t working anymore. And as Vox’s Bryan Walsh explained, the end of the restaurant is being read as the end of an era for high cuisine:

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.

As the Times’ great Pete Wells wrote in his eulogy for Noma, Redzepi’s cachet has been evidenced on New York City menus for over a decade now:

It was here in the one-bite appetizers of reindeer lichen and puffed fish skin, although they weren’t called appetizers, or amuses, either — suddenly they were “snacks.”
Noma was here in the signal-orange berries of wild sea buckthorn that had begun turning up in cocktails, jams, sauces and cheese courses. It was here in the sour, heart-shaped leaves of wood sorrel and other plants that Mr. Redzepi and his cooks picked, snipped and dug up in their search for the building blocks of a strictly regional cuisine following the principles of the New Nordic manifesto.
It was here in the burning hay that perfumed individual ingredients and at times entire dining rooms. It was here in the keening acidity of pickled and fermented ingredients served in the early part of the meal, and in the gentle sweetness of parsnips and other vegetables that took the place of fruit in desserts.
It was here in the slates, rocks, seashells, logs and rustic pieces of hand-thrown pottery that had started to replace delicate French porcelain as the preferred objects for transporting food from the kitchen to the table.
It was here in the bony, opaque, angular, off-center, unpredictable, odd-smelling wines made in the Jura and the Loire and elsewhere by natural and biodynamic methods — bottles that had been cult items in France for years but had rocketed to global prominence when Pontus Elofsson, Noma’s first wine director, made them the near-exclusive focus of his list.
These and other Noma-isms began washing up on New York City’s shores not long after 2010, when the restaurant was voted best in the world by a British magazine using a methodology that was itself fairly opaque, off-center and odd-smelling.

All this has long since rippled outward into food scenes across the country. “At this point, you also don’t really have to go to Noma to experience Noma,” Eater’s Jaya Saxena writes. “There are enough Noma alums — and alums of restaurants opened by Noma alums — that Noma is all around us. It’s in every instance a fine dining restaurant cites locally foraged ingredients as the inspiration for a dish, in every goth bird we’re still seeing on tables today, and every high-end restaurant’s experiments with DTC fermented sauces.”

Here in Baltimore, there’s a place literally called foraged. I’ve been meaning to revisit. The chef there goes stalking through the woods for hyperlocal mushrooms and such; everything’s beautifully plated with microgreens carefully tweezed onto plates and so on. It’s pretty good. But what’s even more interesting to me is that it’s not especially expensive. The priciest dish on the dinner menu is a $27 plate of braised beef belly, which is cheaper than a Surf N’ Turf at a local Red Lobster ⁠— the fanciest place my folks were ever willing to take us to for special occasions growing up. I don’t know anything about the business end of this particular spot, but it seems like a better proof-of-concept for the argument Redzepi made for Noma’s existence than Noma was. It’s not especially surprising that you can fashion unassuming local ingredients into food with all the trappings of contemporary high cuisine. What places like foraged. also suggest is that you can do this at a price point accessible to ordinary people who might not have $800 to burn on a night out.

But extravagantly high prices and surreally intolerable work conditions ⁠— demanding interns do nothing but craft beetles out of fruit leather without laughing all day ⁠— have been part of the mystique of high cuisine forever. Perversely, they were among the things that separated the best restaurants from the rest in the public mind. That’s changing though, and the diffident responses to Noma’s closure in many corners reflects that. I noticed an interesting contrast, by the way, between the reactions to Noma’s closure and the reactions to word from The Hollywood Reporter that there’s been turmoil on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s long-awaited film Megalopolis. The VFX team was fired and the art department resigned ⁠— hints, to a lot of posters on film Twitter at least, that Coppola might have another masterpiece like the infamously troubled Apocalypse Now on his hands. We’ll see ⁠— Coppola hasn’t had a critical hit in decades now ⁠— but it was striking to me how incurious people seemed about the labor situation.

The imperious, impulsive, and neurotic chef is on his way out. The same may not be so with the film auteur ⁠— even today and even given increasing post-pandemic attention to the long hours and difficult conditions faced by crew in the industry. I suppose that’s partially because film is seen as a creative medium for the masses ⁠— at the end of the day, whatever happens behind the scenes, a movie is a work of art that enriches us all, supposedly. By contrast, and as Saxena wrote, almost none of us were ever going to eat at Noma in the first place; the abuses and exploitation that made that food possible were being done for the benefit of a jet-setting elite. But I don’t think that’s the right way to think about the creative industries. For starters, seeing a non-franchise film with novel creative ambitions or pretensions in a theater on a big screen as intended by an auteur director might become an outing as rarified as eating from a tasting menu before long. But even beyond that, underpaying and mistreating people isn’t worth it even when the cultural products they make wind up good ⁠— dignity comes first and I think it’s reasonable to suspect more money and less stress for workers would produce better, more innovative food, films, and whatever else anyway.

We’re not especially fond of engaging with food politics on a hard material level in America. Granted, we’ve talked and thought a lot about environmental sustainability and food deserts over the last 20 years and there’s been a concerted and broadly successful campaign to raise the minimum wage ⁠— at least at the state and local levels ⁠— that began with fast food strikes about a decade ago. But we tend to prefer talking about aesthetics and lifestyle choices; even leftists tend to talk themselves in circles about whether dining out or cooking for yourself is more evil. (Both are fine.)

That brings us, as you might have expected, to the Stove Wars. As best as I can tell, we have the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Richard Trumka Jr. to blame for all this. Last week, he suggested to Bloomberg that the body would consider a ban on new gas stoves, an idea CPSC chair Alex Hoehn-Saric later disavowed. Farhad Manjoo summed up the problem with gas stoves for the Times:

Gas-fired water heaters — even the more efficient, tankless kind — regularly puff out clouds of methane, a greenhouse gas that, in the short term, traps at least 100 times more atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide (per unit). Every minute that it’s in your house, even when it’s turned off, your gas stove may be flatulating dangerous pollutants and climate-warming gases into your kitchen.
About 13 percent of cases of childhood asthma in the United States may be attributable to gas cooktops, a recent study found — a population-level effect similar to that of exposure to secondhand smoke.
So what’s a homeowner to do? If you spend time around environmentalists or energy experts, you’ll hear a simple answer: Electrify!

The right is responding to that suggestion predictably:

But as Matt Bruenig ⁠— who’s been soapboxing on gas stoves for years now—recently pointed out, electric stoves are already in use in about 60 percent of American homes and especially common in the most conservative parts of the country. “In the South, only 24 percent of housing units use gas cooking,” he writes. “In the Northeast, the same number is 55 percent.” In fact, as The Atlantic’s Jacob Stern recently noted, the five states where most households use gas cooktops all went blue in 2020. None of this should be a surprise to home cooks ⁠— the foodies conservatives love to deride vastly prefer gas stoves for the responsiveness of their heating elements among other reasons, although prominent chefs and personalities have been pushing induction cooktops more and more in recent years.

Politically, none of this matters, obviously; you can invent cultural signifiers out of whole cloth. I don’t know that this one is going to have legs beyond the next few weeks, but it might. We’re weird about food.

A Song

Everybody Eats When They Come to My House ⁠— Cab Calloway (1948)