In 2007, for a book on the world’s luxury restaurant economy, I undertook what I called the high-end great size me. In the 2004 documentary, Morgan Spurlock ate McDonald’s every day for a month to see how it would affect his body. The high-end version involved me eating in a Parisian Michelin three-star restaurant every day for a week. Back then, talking about this stunt felt like a boast; now, it feels like a confession.
I won’t pretend it was all terrible. There was an extraordinary pea dish at Restaurant Guy Savoy, which elevated the humble legume to god-tier status; at the tiny L’Astrance, there was the most spectacularly chilled tomato soup. But for all these bright spots there were also disasters: langoustines on sticks wrapped in brackish sea-water foam at Ledoyen, an appalling artichoke creme brulee at Le Grand Véfour that was split. But what really stayed with me from my grotesque endurance feat was the unreality of this kind of high-end restaurant: it’s grim, preening, massively unenjoyable artifice. And if a meal out isn’t enjoyable, what’s the point of it? My love affair with the finest of fine dining began to crumble.
Last week, René Redzepi, the much-lauded chef of the three-star Noma in Copenhagen, where dinner costs more than £400 before wine, announced his restaurant would close at the end of 2024. “It’s unsustainable,” he told the New York Times. “Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.” I ate at Noma in 2009 and had a lovely time. Its commitment to Nordic regionalism was intriguing, its rejection of ingredients such as olive oil and lemons because they came from far away cheering. Even so, I can’t mourn because Redzepi is right. A certain type of luxury dining experience really ought to be put out of our misery.
First, as Redzepi admits, the financial model no longer works. Dinner in these places may easily cost £500 or more a head, but too often that’s not enough to pay for the ludicrous amount of work that goes into preparing them. Too many have long survived on battalions of unpaid interns, or stagiaires, who are expected to be grateful for the opportunity to do menial tasks for free so they can list it on their CV. After the Financial Times wrote about Noma’s unpaid stagiaire system last year, they announced they would now be paid. Perhaps that’s simply added to the lack of financial sustainability.
Then there’s what may best be described as the “vision” problem. Redzepi and Noma were celebrated for their apparent commitment to sustainability because they refused to fly in their ingredients. Ethical values became a watchword among high-end chefs wanting some of Redzepi’s seeming moral credibility. They would turn up at international symposiums to deliver papers on regenerative farming or foraging and the like. Released in 2011, in a breathtaking display of self-importance, a bunch of them, including Redzepi, Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in New York state, and Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, in Roses, north-eastern Spain the “G9 chiefs declaration” at a conference in Lima, Peru. “We dream of a future in which the chef is socially engaged, conscious of and responsible for his or her contribution to a just, sustainable society,” it began, somehow failing to acknowledge that their job was making dinner for rich people. In truth, however hard you attend to your restaurant’s sustainability, it’s pointless if most of your customers are flying business class to get there or traveling in chauffeured limos from Manhattan because those are the only ones who can afford it. The carbon footprint of the people you attract becomes part of the carbon footprint of your business.
Then there’s the experience itself. The sort of people who can afford £500 a head or more for lunch tend to be so grossly entitled that the service becomes extremely mannered to suit their perceived expectations. At Le Cinq in Paris, that includes menus without prices for women, regardless of whether they booked the table or not. At Manresa, a Californian three-star that has also recently closed, I was treated to the bizarre spectacle of waiters drilled to march to our table in a column, one arm pinned behind their backs, to serve us. As if that ludicrous display really improved dinner.
Finally, there’s the food itself or, to be more precise, the volume of it. Restaurants such as Noma long ago abandoned à la carte choice. Servicing such unpredictability at such a high level is impossible. So it’s tasting menus all the way: nine courses, or 12 courses, or even more. A chef once served me 26 courses, then came out and barked: “Did I win?” I most suspect of the chefs who serve these meals have never sat through them. They have no idea what it’s like being pelted with tweezered morsels of varying quality for hour after hour.
I’ve long argued that there’s nothing wrong with spending chunky sums on eating experiences if it’s something to which you attach value. It’s no different to paying for tickets to the opera or Formula One. We each make our memories in different ways. But it has to be worth it. Obviously, whining about the torture of a 26-course luxury tasting menu in the depths of a cost of living crisis is hardly reading the room. Then again, isn’t that just another reason for welcoming the demise of these places? They once made a bonkers kind of sense. They functioned economically. They were enjoyable. But along the way much of that seems to have become lost. So farewell, Noma and friends. It was fun for a while. But it really isn’t any more.