Fame does come but with a price. After wowing and confusing the world for nearly 20 years (Noma turns 20 in 2023) and winning three Michelin stars, Rene Redzepi, a pioneer in his own right and the chef of Copenhagen-based culinary mecca, Noma, decided to close the restaurant in its current avatar.
Over a heartfelt post on Instagram, the announcement was made in true Nordic fashion—calm and collected. “To continue being Noma, we must change,” is what the message read. As news spread, Redzepi explained how the world-famous Nordic restaurant would become a giant food lab, focusing on more R&D. Perhaps the most pertinent comment to Noma’s post came from Piet Oudolf, one of the best-known landscape designers in the world. He wrote, “Great decision. The future is key.”
Closer to home, chefs agree that this is perhaps the best decision Redzepi could have taken.
The cost of being different
One can’t really call Noma progressive. It was much more than that; it was inventive and experimental. There cannot be too many Nomas in the world, let alone a second one. It threw the spotlight on neo-Nordic cuisine by means of foraging, pickling and curing, and, of course, it's plating. People from all over the world would trek to Noma, Copenhagen to eat that one meal, describing it as ‘an experience’. But how far can an experiment run?
Celebrity chef Vicky Ratnani says, “What Noma does is complex and Nordic food in itself is not vastly known. Most big restaurants in Cophenhagen, even today, serve European food. But this is Redzepi’s journey and it’s the best decision he could have taken. To transform the restaurant into a food lab is in no way reflective of the future of progressive cuisines across the world. To do what he has done, one also needs to reach a certain level in the industry. Not everyone can do this. They will continue to focus on research as they always have and focus on pop-ups around the world.”
Ratnani makes a valid point when he says that to be commercially viable with a menu such as Noma’s, pop-ups make the most sense. “Running a high-end specialty restaurant is taxing. It has limited reservations and mostly won’t meet the numbers. With pop-ups, they get to do the same thing, get breaks in the middle, not incur massive overheads and can keep costs in control,” he adds.
Commercial viability vis-a-vis creativity
The pandemic raised an important question as far as Noma went. The global lockdown put a pause on international tourism, which formed a large percentage of Noma’s clientele. Delhi-based chef Vikramjit Roy, who’s currently working on his Indian restaurant, Ahara, in Singapore, says that at the end of the day, it is crucial to keep your target audience in mind. “The way Noma was conceptualised and the way it evolved, the restaurant never really depended on the local population, which is what at the end of the day will prove how successful you are. You need a sustainable consumer base. Yes,they did popups and printed books and are now going to expand their existing R&D lab, but back home, they had to depend on tourism a lot. Even El Bulli never really made money, if you think about it. But look at Alinea in Chicago. It is the sixth best in the world, does tasting menus only, and is fairly innovative. But it always has diners because the restaurant knows where the continuous business will come from. Or even Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry where local traction is high.”
This also brings in the point of creativity. Does the food and beverage industry across the world not care for creativity? Chef Anumitra Ghosh, whose Bento Bento in Bengaluru can also be called an experiment, says that the main problem with selling any kind of innovation in food is as tedious as an artist trying to sell a painting. “What Noma does is not a permanent installation, it changes, and the menu is fluid. And it relies heavily on resources, foraging is complex.” She also highlights the high-stress environment and ruthless working hours restaurant professionals have to deal with. “When Noma announced its plans, they also talked about the kind of stress they felt in the kitchen, to be productive. A good restaurant is about consistency, not just creativity. But how do you achieve that? I think what is more important to focus on over here is that Noma existed for 20 years and that is no mean task, given the kind of food it was serving. It’s important to remember the inspiration it fed into the world, the kind of imagination it must be encouraged in those who aspire to be a chef like Rene Redzepi. And that his next step is a step into a new direction.”