Renowned Copenhagen restaurant Noma is in the news this week, for chef-owner Rene Redzepi’s decision to cease full-time restaurant service at the end of 2024, with the intention of prioritizing Noma’s role as a food laboratory, supported by e-commerce and occasional pop-up events.
Redzepi has cast the move as a repudiation of fine dining itself. (“It’s unsustainable,” he says in the New York Times.) It is a noble message, slight undermined by the peculiarity of how it has been delivered: a chef shadowed by accusations of exploiting unpaid interns announces a not-quite-closure almost two years in advance- in effect, soliciting living eulogies from restaurant critics.
But Noma’s messages - of locavore cuisine, of natural wine - have always been in tension with its medium, fine dining. This is why, when in 2021 my publisher insisted I include text on Noma in The World of Natural Wine, I initially balked.
It is certainly true that Noma’s natural wine list, beginning under early wine director Pontus Eloffson and expanding under his successor Mads Kleppe (and now Kleppe’s own successor, Mees List), has, more than that of any other fine dining restaurant, helped validate natural wine for the international culinary media. For my book’s purposes, however, emphasizing natural wine’s place within the realm of fine dining felt like it countervailed the paysan spirit of natural wine.
More importantly, I’d never been to Noma, and I had neither the connections nor the disposable income to enjoy a meal there before my book’s deadline. (Or so I thought.) I protested, but my publisher stood firm, and I found myself facing the excruciating prospect of having to write about the world’s most celebrated restaurant without ever having dined there.
In November 2021, with extreme reluctance, I boarded a flight to Copenhagen with my girlfriend with no reservation at Noma.
I figured we could visit other natural wine spots around the city and perhaps infer something about the Noma experience therefrom. I’d met Noma’s longtime head sommelier (who has since left the restaurant) Mads Kleppe very briefly in the Republic of Georgia back in 2019, but we exchanged perhaps three words on that occasion, and he hadn’t responded to a message I sent in advance of my visit.
Imagine my surprise when, on our first night in the city, Kleppe entered the restaurant where my girlfriend and I were enjoying a stunning meal, Den Vandrette, where my friend Dave Harrison (now of Brasseries Prins) was then the chef. I stood to say hello and accidentally smashed a wine glass all over the floor.
Among the more overheated accusations leveled at Noma over the years is that Redzepi and his many friends and associates and ex-employees throughout the Copenhagen dining scene (and beyond) comprise a “Mafia” that enforces exploitative labor practices and stifles dissent. My limited experience in Copenhagen suggests that, if there is a grain of truth in the charge, it is simply that the city’s dining scene is exceptionally collegial and close-knit.This can probably cut both ways.
After our meeting at Den Vandrette, Kleppe took it upon himself to show us a scintillating, hard-drinking tour of Copenhagen that week, including the establishments of a dozen friends, ranging from the quirky, cinematic office-slash-hangout-space of foundational natural wine importers Rosforth & Rosforth under Knippels Bridge, to the flavor-packed post-punk Italian bistrot Barabba, to Thomas Spelling’s welcoming natural wine canteen Gaarden & Gaden.
To my great relief, Kleppe also kindly conjured us a lunch reservation at Noma, thereby saving me and my then-forthcoming book from certain critical annihilation. (Or something like that.)
JUST ENJOY IT
There is an instinct to resent any institution whose fame has placed it in a perceived role of cultural gatekeeper. To their credit, the Noma team are aware of this dynamic and work in various ways to counteract it. I have no doubt that the Mads Kleppe Magical Mystery Tour of Copenhagen was in essence a gonzo gesture of graciousness: a way to put Noma’s success in the context of a wider wine communityfor a visiting journalist. I enjoyed it immensely, anyway, and we became friends.
This dynamic - a friendship with a generous, cracked, autocratic sommelier in fluent command of seemingly infinite natural wine resources - made my meals at Noma wonderful, memorable experiences, but, paradoxically, ones I felt ambivalent about sharing in detail, since they depended so much upon that friendship.
“Stop taking so many photos,” Kleppe scolded us, during our meal that November. “Just enjoy it.”
A DEBT TO NOMA
Shortly before that first trip to Copenhagen, I learned why my publisher was so insistent that Noma be included in The World of Natural Wine. It was because she herself had first become enamored with natural wine at Noma - thanks to Kleppe. She left her meal with the intention of finding an author to produce a big book on natural wine.
In such a way, and despite my reflexive aversion to fine dining in general, I owe a debt to Kleppe and to Noma for my nascent career as an author. Noma validated natural wine for my publisher, as it has for so many diners who might otherwise have been skeptical, had their first encounter with natural wine occurred in perfect simplicity at the counter of a bistrot in Rennes or Troyes.
If the effect of popularizing natural wine is simply to make natural wine more expensive, it will be a mixed legacy. For Noma, and for those of us writing about natural wine.
If the effect of popularizing natural wine is to lead wine drinkers to question the wholesale elimination, in most “developed” nations, of the agricultural and social conditions necessary for the production of affordable natural wine, and to reorganize their lifestyle priorities and worldviews accordingly - well, perhaps we’re onto something.
For subscribers, here’s a report about a different kind of Copenhagen restaurant:
A visit to OMEGN & VENNER, a sterling EPICERIE and NATURAL WINE LUNCH COUNTER in TorvehallerneKBH that offers a range of vital HANGOVER CURES.
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I’m not sure how guests at the restaurant over the next two years are meant to feel about their fabulous, unsustainable dining experience. “It was hell for the staff, but we loved it!”
In a fine dining context, as part of a gesture reserved for birthdays and anniversaries, natural wine becomes unavoidably other-ized - and not, as it arguably should be, if we wish to change the way we value agriculture, and heal society, save the planet, and so forth, normalized.
Virtually all professional networks fall somewhere on the Mafia spectrum, which, at its most institutionalized, nepotistic, state-sanctioned extreme, culminates in royalty.
see a lot of whining on twitter about this , certain persons commenting that there shocked by the exploitation accusations.. WTF it’s always been like this .. the whole industry is built on exploitation and illegal and undeclared staff.. I worked in the industry for 20 plus years and it’s a total shit show .. unsustainable translates as .. noma and the rest have run out of mugs to work in them ..that whole industry is going down big time .. I won’t be sad to see it go.. thank god the gen z are switched on..if Noma and the rest don’t care about staff welfare you can be rest assured they don’t give a fuck about the environment .
I once had a rich client in verbier, Switzerland that asked me to source No5 oysters from the Pacific Northwest to have at a cocktail party in Verbier for new year .. after informing his assistant that I can’t source them in Switzerland , the assistant suggested that I fly over to Seattle and pick up a couple of dozen..
No shit!! The client was a large investor in green tech !!
Sustainable Restaurants don’t exist, people would be best to learn to cook at home and entertain there friends instead of aiding and abetting the exploitation of people
Very thoughtful and well said, as usual. 😉