ten years ago, I saw a therapist for the first time. I’m working on a cookbook with a respected chef and need help figuring out how to work with him. The chef in question is an alumnus of the famous Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, and I need to push for chapter revisions he doesn’t like.
“First, say what you need, and he’ll ignore it,” advises the therapist. “Secondly, if you say it again, he will ignore it again. The third time…”
Wow! The therapist slapped his desk hard with the palm of his hand.
“The third time, you bump into the table between the two of you and calmly repeat your request.”
I’ve never negotiated with someone like that, but we’re signed on as partners and I’m trying to maintain the balance of power.
I’ve been thinking about this episode since early January when I heard the unexpected news that Noma would close its doors for good at the end of 2024. The chef I worked with was Blaine Wetzel, a direct descendant of Noma’s chef and co-owner Rene Redzepi, in terms of restaurant genealogy. In a 2015 essay written by Redzepi, he admitted to being a “bully” and “terrible boss” to his employees at times, throwing fits in his kitchen. That’s part of the reason why when I heard the news that Noma was shutting down, I couldn’t help but think it was a good thing.
Back in 2006, when I was a food writer in Europe, I was lucky enough to have a dinner there at Noma before it became an interstellar thing. Looking at my photos, Redzepi seems to have baby fat on his face, but the trajectory of the restaurant is clear at a glance. He can use food to boost your mood, turn an onion dish into the most incredible onion you’ve ever eaten, or a beet sauce that makes you want to use it for body paint.
For nearly 15 years, Noma has been the most influential restaurant in the world. In that time, it’s topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list five times and expanded the taste buds — jellyfish, moss or ants, anyone? Noma was also a pioneer in the global fermentation movement, inspiring legions of chefs and imitators.
Despite its huge success, he is terminating Noma because, financially and emotionally, “it’s not sustainable,” he said.For years, high-end kitchens like Noma have relied on unpaid or very low-paid internships intern They work very hard and cost their lives in the process of learning the trade. This is generally illegal and is slowly disappearing. However, for interns and employees honed at a place like Noma, the experience can write the ticket for the rest of their careers.
In 2010, Wetzel did just that, taking over the kitchen of the Willows Inn in the Pacific Northwest directly from his position as head chef at Noma. In June 2013, my wife, Elisabeth, and I moved from New York City to Lummi Island, Washington State, population 813, so that I could work with Wetzel. Soon he was receiving two prestigious James Beard Awards. Yet in the nearly ten years since Elizabeth and I left the island, layers of management have peeled away at the inn, eventually revealing behavior that sounds more and more like Redzepi at its worst.
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