Ten years ago, I went to a therapist for the first time. I was writing a cookbook with a respected chef and I needed help figuring out how to work with him. The chef in question was an alumnus of the vaunted Copenhagen restaurant Noma, and I needed to make changes to a chapter that he didn’t like.
“Tell me what you need first and he will ignore it,” the therapist advised. “Second, say it again and he will ignore it again. The third time … “
BAM! The therapist slammed his hand on the table.
“The third time you slam the table between the two of you and then calmly repeat what you need.”
I have never negotiated with anyone like this, but we signed on to the project as partners and I struggled to keep the balance of power.
I’ve been thinking about this episode since I heard the surprise announcement in early January that Noma close your doors forever at the end of 2024. The chef I worked with was Blaine Wetzel, a direct descendant, in terms of restaurant genealogy, of Noma chef and co-owner René Redzepi. In 2015 Redzepi wrote an article, he admitted to being a “bully” and “terrible boss” to his employees at times, throwing himself into fits of rage in his kitchen. That was one of the reasons why when I heard the news that Noma was closing, I couldn’t help but think it was a good thing.
Back in 2006, when I was working as a food writer in Europe and before Noma became an intergalactic phenomenon, I was lucky enough to dine there. Looking at my photos, Redzepi still has baby fat on his face, but the trajectory of the restaurant was clear. He could use food to stir up your emotions, turning an onion dish into the most incredible onion you’ve ever tasted, or beetroot sauce that made you want to use it as body paint.
Noma has been the most influential restaurant in the world for almost 15 years. In that time, it’s ranked #1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list five times, and its flavors have expanded—jellyfish, moss, or ants, anyone? Noma has also pioneered the global fermentation movement and has inspired legions of chefs and imitators.
Despite wild success, he turns Noma off because, financially and emotionally, “it’s unstable,he said. For years, upscale cuisines like Noma have relied on unpaid or incredibly low-paid internships where trainees exhausting, life-sucking hours worked while they learned the trade. It is often illegal and is slowly drying up. However, for interns and employees who work in a place like Noma, this experience can be a decisive factor in their future careers.
In 2010, Wetzel did just that, moving from being chef at Noma to working in the kitchen at Willows Inn in the Pacific Northwest. In June 2013, my wife, Elizabeth, and I moved from New York to Lammy Island, Washington, with a population of 813, so that I could work with Wetzel. He soon won a couple of prestigious James Beard awards. However, in the nearly decade since Elizabeth and I left the island, layers of hotel management have been peeling off, finally revealing behavior that has looked more and more like Redzepi at his worst.