Gus Carlson is a U.S.-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.
Foodies around the globe are mourning the news from Copenhagen this week that Noma, consistently ranked the world’s best restaurant, is closing.
The death of this pioneer of New Nordic cuisine is more than a blow to lovers of signature dishes such as reindeer tongue tartare. It is yet another sign that, along with human customer service reps and common courtesy, traditional fine dining is rising up the list of endangered species in our culture.
The reason, according to Noma’s owner-chef René Redzepi, is that the high-end restaurant business model doesn’t work any more. Changing cultural habits, severe shortages of qualified labour and a tightening of consumers’ belts in an inflationary period are putting pressure on an industry that is notoriously difficult to succeed in even at the best of times. Margins are thin, maintaining the quality of fare and talent is challenging, and the price of everything keeps rising.
It’s a revelation that has killed iconic eateries around the world in recent years, such as California’s renowned Manresa and New York institutions such as La Petite Auberge and the legendary midtown 21 Club, a former speakeasy, with its US$25 hamburger that tourists loved to point to as an example of New York excess.
At the heart of the trend is the sweatpants-and-sandwich culture that emerged during the pandemic and has hung like a bad smell over a lot of things once considered to be special experiences. When it comes to dining, who wants to get dressed and go out, sit upright at a table, with an array of cutlery many may have forgotten how to use, and have meticulously prepared food and maybe a glass of wine delivered to the table by a knowledgeable server – and just maybe put down the iPhone and have a conversation? Sounds positively medieval.
In our increasingly transactional culture, where experiences such as savouring, relishing, appreciating and lingering are increasingly few and far between, convenience trumps everything. Dress up or DoorDash? More people are choosing the latter. Weaned on pandemic-era services such as curbside pickup and home delivery, we now expect to get anything – including the fanciest food – at all hours of the day or night. As for dress code, a bathrobe will do.
Labour shortages, too, have made high-end service difficult to sustain. Even if restaurants can find people who want to work, fewer are interested in learning the finer points of Downton Abbey-level service.
In the U.S., pandemic-era government giveaways have been disincentives for people to go back to work. Countering that message, the Biden administration recently suggested the labour issue is structural. With baby boomers retiring en masse, the labour pool behind them is too small to serve the enormous infrastructure boomers created, including conspicuously consumptive trademarks such as fancy restaurants that the generations behind them eschew for drive-thru windows and food trucks.
There’s another, more basic reason: People have less discretionary income than they did during the pandemic, when savings rates soared because there were fewer opportunities to spend.
While there was a post-pandemic spending boom – a sort of carpe diem spree that defied 40-year-high inflation – that party is over. That means baloney wins over beluga every time. A US$700 Noma lunch tasting menu definitely isn’t in the budget.
In the U.S., where personal savings rates traditionally lag those of other countries, including Canada, the situation is bleak. A recent J.P. Morgan report said U.S household savings at the end of 2022 had plummeted to less than half of what they were in the peak of the pandemic. Americans’ personal savings rates dipped to 2.4 per cent of income in November, 2022, down from a high of 33.6 per cent in March, 2020.
Despite the sadness among the world’s most sophisticated palates, there is some potentially positive news in the Noma announcement. The restaurant won’t close its doors until the end of 2024, so lovers of fine dining – both the food and the experience – have time for one last fling.
The restaurant then plans to remake itself into something called a food lab. Part of the plan for Noma’s new normal is to open pop-ups in high-end markets around the world.
Will we see Noma food trucks? Call me old-fashioned, but reindeer tongue tartare just won’t have the same appeal if it’s served on a stick.