From sizzle to fizzle: Is fine-dining unsustainable? – Hindustan Times

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On January 9, the critically acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant Noma announced that it is set to close its doors next year. Known for its whimsical, attention-grabbing dishes, the fine-dining establishment has topped the World’s Best Restaurants list not once, but five times, and earned its third Michelin Star in 2021. A meal at the restaurant that reinvented Nordic cuisine and focuses on ingredients from the Scandinavian region costs 3,500 Danish kroner ( 41,754 ) per person, and an additional 1,800 kroner ( 21,304) per person more for the wine pairing. It is typically booked three months in advance, and reservations are made on the sixth day of every month — when about 20,000 people try to snag a table and only 42 make it.
The news of Noma’s shutting down, therefore, came as a shock to the culinary world. Speaking to The New York Times, co-owner and chef René Redzepi called the model “unsustainable” and said, “This is simply too hard; we have to work in a different way… As an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.” Previously, in 2015, the restaurant went through a transformation, and reopened doors to the public in 2016.
This development comes as an alarm bell for the fine-dining model — considering the high-pressure operations, overworked staff and change in customer preferences post-pandemic. While chefs believe that the model may be here to stay, they caution that it does need to adapt and evolve.
‘Always been unsustainable’
Chef Ritu Dalmia, co-owner of Diva Restaurants, opened a fine-dining restaurant in London in 1996 which got shut soon, says, “The cost of maintaining fine-dining in terms of staff is more than double. The cost of best-quality ingredients, and sourcing them is not only difficult but most of the clients don’t understand, and are not willing to pay the price for it. Even if we have a full restaurant, it’s difficult to make money which is why Michelin star restaurants around the world also have their cafes and bistro. Michelin serves as a show window, and they can only make money from cafe or bistro models. So, it has been an unsustainable business for a long time.”
Pandemic to blame?
Two-time Michelin Star awardee, chef Atul Kochhar, has previously dined at Noma. Kochhar, who is the chef-partner at SAGA: Cuisines of India in Gurugram, recalls, “I remember my experience. A meal at Noma costs about £600 per person. How many times would you want to shell out this much money? Certainly the model is going to become unsustainable after a period of time. And the pandemic has made things absolutely unsustainable. People’s pockets are not great at the moment with the economic conditions, it’s squeezing out worldwide.”
Staffing conundrum; stressful environment
“Labour is not cheap in Copenhagen. Such restaurants shutting down is because of staffing,” says chef Manish Mehrotra, who owns Indian Accent in New Delhi and New York. He adds, “There’s a younger generation entering the industry and for some, a kitchen or restaurant is not the preferred option. Working in a kitchen is maddening – sometimes there’s no work life balance. More than that, most are not willing to work late hours, over the weekend or during holiday season – which is a peak time for restaurant’s business. One needs to have serious, dedicated professionals to work under such pressure.”
Unsustainable? Not in Asia!
Chef Gaggan Anand, who runs a restaurant named after himself in Bangkok, Thailand, interned at Noma in 2012. He says, “What applies to Noma doesn’t necessarily apply to restaurants in Asia… We don’t take our staff for granted. There are hardly any restaurants being shut in India because of the reasons Noma shut. There’s a high level of inequality abroad, despite it being a first-world country. But here in Asia, we value our employees. I understand there’s a shortage of staff in the industry, but one needs to retrospect the strategy and philosophy of running a restaurant.”
A shift is required
The high-pressure work environment, which is characteristic of this industry, significantly contributes to making the model unsustainable. “There’s a massive shift in the mindset among the top chefs, where they do not want to continue to slave for a long time. If you look at Noma’s case, or legendary chef Heston Blumenthal, who owns the three-Michelin-starred The Fat Duck in the UK, opening up about feeling depressed during the peak of his career, all these things come into play. I don’t want to work seven days, 15-16 hours a day, and I certainly don’t want my kitchen brigade to work like that,” adds chef Kochhar.
So, where to, next?
While Noma is shutting down its regular services, it will continue to operate as a pop-up restaurant and a food lab, which will be called Noma 3.0. This raises the question: Are pop-ups the future? “Pop-ups are already very big. They are quite successful and a little expensive, but they give a chance to the diner to experience what a fine-dining restaurant truly offers,” says Mehrotra. To this Kochhar adds, “Soon, there will be chefs opening restaurants every two or six months, working one month and taking an off the next. There are such examples in the south of France and Spain. Chefs may take those models, modulate them and make it an everyday life for themselves,” he says.
Fine-dining restaurants that closed their doors
The three-Michelin-starred Spanish restaurant El Bulli shut after 27 years of operations. It was regarded as one of the best in the world five times by British magazine The Restaurant.
Chef David Kinch announced last year that he would be shutting his three-Michelin-starred restaurant Manresa in California, after 20 years. He said, “This is back-breaking work that demands you show up at your fullest every day, no excuses.”
The Michelin-starred Peel’s restaurant at Hampton Manor in Solihull, United Kingdom, announced that it would be closing its doors after 14 years, with plans of switching to a casual dining model.
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