December 6, 2023

Food City

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Noma is closing its world famous restaurant. Is this the future of fine dining?

As It Happens8:43World famous Noma is closing its restaurant. Is this the future of fine dining?

As one of the most celebrated restaurants in the world closes its doors, a Canadian chef who worked there is wondering whether there’s a future for fine dining as we know it. 

Noma — a Copenhagen restaurant known for its lavish and inventive 20-course meals — announced that it’s transforming into “a pioneering test kitchen” in 2024.

That means the fine dining establishment — which has three Michelin stars and been named the world’s best restaurant by several publications — won’t be open to the public for the foreseeable future.

Its founder, chef René Redzepi, says there may be Noma pop-ups at some point, and that he’ll eventually return home to “do a season in Copenhagen.” But overall, he told the New York Times, the modern fine-dining model he helped to create is “unsustainable.”

David Zilber agrees. Originally from Toronto, he was the director of Noma’s fermentation lab from 2016 to 2020. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

What do you think is behind the decision to move the focus from running a restaurant to Noma existing as a food lab?

I worked at Noma for over six years and it felt like 18. René’s been doing it for 20, so that must feel like 60. So I get it. 

How difficult is it to pull off what you guys [pulled] off? 

It was akin to maybe training for the Marines.

It felt like that level of not just dedication, but like physical endurance was required to actually do the job to the standard that was needed to be the world’s best restaurant. Getting up at five in the morning to be at the door at 5:50, leaving later that day at 1:30 in the morning after re-scrubbing the kitchen because something wasn’t clean enough.

It was a demanding six years — but also extremely rewarding. 

Portrait of a man with a bright red outfit, curly blue hair and tinted glasses.
David Zilber is a chef, fermenter, author and food science consultant from Toronto. (Petra Kleis)

Give us a snapshot of what the experience would be like for [Noma diners]. 

As a diner, it’s a bit like opening a closet door and finding Narnia on the other side. Beyond whatever baggage and preconceptions might come with arriving at the gates of something that is considered the best in the world … when you actually kind of step foot in the building, you’re immediately transported onto a roller coaster through the biomes and flavours and stories and landscapes. 

It sounds pretentious and it sounds trite, but when you’re actually there and it’s happening, you’re also greeted with the most disarming service you’ve ever experienced. As if your buddy from your college dorm down the hall was bringing you a plate of something that took 36 hours to make. 

You had to love what you did to work there, and to give these guests experiences that they would never forget. Which is why ultimately, by the time you finish your 18-, 20-course meal and you’ve tasted thousands of different flavours that you never even imagined were possible and you leave, you feel high.

But when the staff leaves, they’re depleted. 

Yeah. And there’s also an emotional tax to giving that much of yourself to strangers every day, you know, on top of the physical burden and the mental burden of putting the restaurant together. It does kind of make for a perfect storm of burnout, I would say.

Three men in aprons work at a counter.
Cooks prepare some dishes at Noma in 2012. (Fabian Bimmer/Reuters)

Is there a dish, though, that you helped create or contributed to that that will always stay with you? 

One winter, René’s like, “For the next season, I want mould all over the menu.”

We had to figure out how to grow a very delicious mould on asparagus. And it was plated with a kind of multicoloured white and green sauce. It looked like an impressionist painting, almost surrealist, with a landscape of forged herbs that was arranged almost like a diorama. And you’re looking at like, these fat stalks of asparagus covered under snow, and you bite into it and you’re like: This tastes like the best cheese I didn’t know France never produced. 

I think a lot about those times where we were trying to basically push nature to its limits to create this experience and to create something that never existed on Earth before. 

Chef Redzepi — or René, as you’ve said — also told The New York Times that Noma, in its current form, was “unsustainable.” [He said]: “Financially and emotionally as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.” So what do you think that says about the future of restaurants like Noma? 

I think that statement kind of serves as a canary in the coal mine for a certain type of restaurant. I think that maybe there’s a sea change. Maybe the time has come for restaurants like this that go to the ends of the Earth to one-up each other. Because I don’t think that a restaurant that serves food as delicious as Noma or as creatively as Noma needs to be run in the same way. And I thought that even when I was there. 

A bearded man in an apron gestures with his hands at a table covered in empty wine glasses.
René Redzepi, the head chef of Noma in Copenhagen, says the fine dining model he helped establish is unsustainable, both financially and from a labour perspective. (Yuya Shino/Reuters)

How should it be run? 

Creative and delicious doesn’t equate a 20-course tasting menu. Neither do I think it equates a $1,000 [US] cheque for a single hit. 

The style of service that was born out of the French establishment, that then kind of went through period permutations in the ’90s and the 2000s through gastronomical movements, you kind of keep beating this horse that should have died with monarchies, and trying to contort it and turn it into bigger and better and more impressive and entertaining versions of itself without ever stopping to think: Is this the be all and end all of food and cooking?

I think there’s lots of other alternatives. Ones that foster community involvement and feed lots of people equitably and are equitable for the staff that work in them. I think soup kitchens and long houses are great examples of that. 

So do you think that fine dining is inherently exploitative? 

I think it’s a bit of an inverted pyramid. I’ll say that. I think that it’s very top-heavy in what it portends to deliver to the guests that eat within its walls. And what’s squeezed at the bottom is often human labour, ingredients, [and] rejections to farmers for products that aren’t good enough. And then, well, what do they do with it?

Can I just ask you, what do you just love to eat when you’re not working? 

I just like cooking tasty, tasty food from all over the world. I’m Torontonian, you know. So it’s Taiwanese one night and Caribbean the next night and mac and cheese the night after that. 

There’s nowhere like Toronto in terms of access to all different kinds of food. 

Here’s a funny thing. Growing up and trying to learn to cook in Toronto, I always thought that Toronto was so shafted in terms of fine dining on the global scale. Like, there were no Michelin star restaurants back then in the early 2000s. There were no restaurants that got, like, global accolades. And that’s why I left Canada. 

And 10 years later, after jumping ship, I realize now that we’re seeing fine dining sputter … Toronto had it so figured out. 

It’s a food city, beyond the multiculturalism of it all, that shines without being overwrought and overthought and showy and glittery for the wrong reasons.

With files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge. Q&A edited for length and clarity.