"In order to continue being Noma we have to change" these are the first words of the press release with which Noma, ranked for twenty years among the best restaurants in the world, announced the new chapter in its history, Noma 3.0. Opened in 2003 in Copenhagen by Danish chef of Albanian origins René Redzepi, Noma – which comes from the union of the words "nordisk" (Nordic) and "mad" (food) – closed for the first time at the end of 2016 to return at the beginning of 2018 in a new form, from 2025, shortly after its twentieth anniversary, will close definitively as a restaurant to transform into a culinary experimentation laboratory: "Serving guests will continue to be part of who we are, but being a restaurant will no longer be our definition." Although the news is not entirely unexpected, it is interesting to try to understand how one of the best restaurants in the world arrived at such a clear-cut decision.
The issues of fine dining
Already some time ago René Redzepi hinted that Noma would undergo major changes. Already in the summer the first rumors had started to spread, then last October, during the presentation of the Noma pop-up in Kyoto this coming May, the chef said that the experience would be used to build "a clearer vision of being Noma and face the new chapter." This intention is also confirmed in the press release published on January 9th on the restaurant's website: "In the next phase we will continue to travel and seek new ways to share our work. Is there some place we should go in the world to learn? There we will create a Noma pop-up."
The announcement was accompanied by an interview with the New York Times in which Redzepi said that haute cuisine is no longer economically and emotionally viable: "Haute cuisine has to rethink its entire industry, so it's just too hard. Financially and emotionally it doesn't work: as an entrepreneur and as a human being I feel the need to change." It is not unusual discourse for René, who has often been at the centre of attention due to his irascible nature and his difficulty in managing stress, a topic that has become prevalent in almost all of his presence at conventions over the years. After following a leadership course, the chef made the creation of a healthier work environment one of the priorities of Noma 2.0, complete with spaces dedicated to the well-being of employees.
The direction taken by Redzepi is the search for a different model of fine dining, a sector which in recent years has become increasingly less sustainable, especially from an economic point of view. Noma – which in 2021 finally obtained the three Michelin stars and was named best restaurant for the fifth time according to World's 50 Best Restaurants – recorded a loss of 230,000 euros in its latest balance. If a reality that has managed to reap so much success over the years closes its balance sheet in the red, perhaps it's time to rethink possible alternative long-term models, as in fact Redzepi is doing.
The case of unpaid interns
In 2021 Noma had also taken a hit due to controversy regarding the working conditions of the restaurant's interns, the second major stumble after the poisoning of sixty-three guests in 2013, told by Redzepi in Pierre Deschamps' documentary "Noma. My Perfect Storm." A series of articles in the New York Times and the Financial Times had brought to light the massive use of unpaid interns who, during their experience, were not adequately trained but employed in repetitive tasks and forced to remain silent and sometimes subjected to work shifts of sixteen hours. In response to the controversy that arose after the articles were published, Noma in October 2021 began to pay its interns, a decision which added a monthly cost of around 50,000 euros. The issue of payment and working conditions, does not concern only Redzepi but all the great restaurants, which abroad are not obliged to respect a limit on the number of interns. In Italy, on the other hand, it exists and is linked to the total number of employees, but is often circumvented with work-arounds.
The future of Noma: experimentation laboratory and pop-up
In the coming months, the journey of Redzepi and his team of around one hundred people – the chef has announced that there will be no layoffs and that the Noma headquarters will remain the same – will however take two directions. On the one hand, the road that seems to provide more stimulus to René will continue: pop-ups around the world, which after points in New York, Tokyo, Sidney and Tulum will reach Kyoto. On the other hand, the transformation of the restaurant into a creative laboratory for experimenting with new products and dishes that will be sold through an e-commerce site.
It will be interesting to see what development this product line will have from an entrepreneurial point of view, an area in which Redzepi has already shown great versatility: in 2020, following the pandemic, he had opened Popl burger bar, which had taken the place of the urban restaurant 108, while in 2021 he launched the first line of Noma Projects products, a hub "for sharing our knowledge and experience gained over the years in relation to food transformation and consumption habits with the outside world, with the hope to start a positive change." The first to be marketed was a line of bottled garum, the product of experiments on the fermentation of raw ingredients – thousand-year-old transformation technique on which Noma's research focussed over the last twenty years – offered in two vegetarian variants. "In 2025, our restaurant will transform into a large laboratory dedicated to the work of innovation and the development of new flavours and we will share the fruit of our efforts even more extensively" reads the press release. Perhaps the new shape of Noma 3.0 will set the direction for the future of fine dining around the world. Already in the past (thanks to its reopening in 2018) the restaurant was put back into play in the 50 Best ranking, in which it could no longer participate given that a Hall of Fame was created in 2019 of winners, who are automatically excluded from the competition. Who knows if thanks to this new version Noma will be able to enter the race again.
Noma – Copenhagen – Refshalevej 96 – noma.dk/
by Maurizio Gaddi