Clocking into the new year: Noma's very long goodbye + other food x labor news

This is Time and a Half, a food and labor newsletter. Happy new year, and happy early Year of the Cat!

Restaurant that owes much of its success to unpaid labor is finally closing, sort of

I did not understand 99% of the references in Tár, but I got this one, when Tár looks at a composer's score notes: "Here the composer tells us to begin with 'back and forth tremolo strokes with wire brush & slowly sliding crotales over skin.' Sounds like René Redzepi’s recipe for reindeer."

I mean, that very well have been Redzepi's recipe for reindeer! Last year, Imogen West-Knights at Financial Times wrote a piece about working in fine-dining restaurants in and around Copenhagen. At Noma, one intern recalled watching other interns pluck duck feathers "outside in the freezing rain" for the duck course. None of these interns were paid: "Before the pandemic, it accepted about 30 [unpaid interns] at the beginning of each internship cycle. In 2019, Noma employed 34 paid chefs, meaning that the best restaurant in the world relied heavily on unpaid labour to produce its food."

I bring all this up because last Monday, Noma announced it will close its restaurant at the end of 2024 (it'll focus on Noma Projects, its food lab, which  sells a garum seasoning and, up until December, a $575 annual membership to its R&D club). The New York Times has the story and, despite the issues highlighted by Financial Times, the fact that it's not 2024, and no doubt every food gift guide from 2025 and on will include a Noma Projects product, gives Redzepi a hero’s sendoff? Followed by the paper's former and current restaurant critics musing about Noma's legacy? And then a bunch of other publications ran tributes to Noma? I dread the media day this restaurant closes for real.

A screenshot of a New York Times story online. On the left, in black lettering on a white background, is the headline and subheadline:  "Noma, Rated the World’s Best Restaurant, Is Closing Its Doors The Copenhagen chef René Redzepi says fine dining at the highest level, with its grueling hours and intense workplace culture, has hit a breaking point: “It’s unsustainable.” On the right of the headline is a photo of Rene Redzepi standing in front of a wooden door with antlers decorated around the door.

In the New York Times piece, it takes five paragraphs and a comparison of Noma  to Manchester United to get to

The decision comes as Noma and many other elite restaurants are facing scrutiny of their treatment of the workers, many of them paid poorly or not at all, who produce and serve these exquisite dishes. The style of fine dining that Noma helped create and promote around the globe — wildly innovative, labor-intensive and vastly expensive — may be undergoing a sustainability crisis.

Later, Redzepi confirms:

“It’s unsustainable,” [Redzepi] said of the modern fine-dining model that he helped create. “Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.”

I think what Redzepi really means is not that this model of exploiting workers is no longer sustainable, but that it’s no longer acceptable.

But I wanted to dwell on another part of the story, because the story dwells on it, and I think it illustrates a very specific way owners often are allowed to hide how much they benefit from no-wage and low-wage labor:

Creativity and Its Costs
As the human cost of the industry comes under scrutiny, Mr. Redzepi’s headaches have multiplied, with media reporting and online activism critical of Noma’s treatment of foreign workers and reliance on unpaid interns. In October, Noma began paying its interns, adding at least $50,000 to its monthly labor costs.

Part of the premise of this story is that running Noma is "unsustainable" financially, yet the only specific insight into the restaurant's operating expenses is here, about how much it costs to pay ... the interns? Which it just started doing in October? It'd help to have other pages from their books to give this number some context — how does this compare to what the restaurant spends on ingredients? R&D? Tweezers?— but we don't even know what those intern costs are adding to, as Noma's monthly labor costs before October aren't identified. Redzepi definitely is not saying how much he takes in from Noma and its empire — just that he could take in more if he wanted to, which he doesn't:

Mr. Redzepi said it has not made him wealthy, because his commitment to high-quality ingredients and flawless execution is so costly. He declined to provide specifics, but according to public records, he is a majority owner of Noma, and part owner of multiple popular ventures run by Noma alumni.
Opening satellite restaurants around the world, as many chefs have done to increase revenue, would not solve the problem, he said. “I have been offered countless blank checks in Qatar. It doesn’t entice me.”

"Wealthy" is left undefined; just whatever you think it is, I guess, he's not it.

This framing and selective disclosure remind me an awful lot of stories that discuss how much the lowest-paid worker will earn when the minimum wage goes up while also reminding us how tight restaurant margins are — which effectively deflect attention away from the owner's station, financial and otherwise.

What also was interesting was the lack of tension about any of this! Noma, like many fine-dining restaurants, relied on unpaid workers, yes, and yes, Redzepi challenged fine-dining conventions, but not paying workers was one convention he couldn't challenge, because, well, the system. Namrata Hegde, a former Noma intern interviewed in this story, and other former interns interviewed in other publications have wrenching stories about what it was like to be unpaid to work at Noma, but, as the paper says, "being able to say, 'I staged at Noma' is a priceless culinary credential. For that reason alone, most of the alumni interviewed said that an internship at Noma is worth the expense, the exhaustion and the stress.”

After I read this article, I reflected back to a sort of a thought exercise I wrote a bit ago about how food writing can shift away from centering chefs and restaurants. I was hopeful when I wrote it; I'm less so now. I think I profoundly underestimated how much class informs food coverage, and, more generally, how coverage of chefs and restaurants as sites of consumption are fundamental to the business of many media institutions. So, though we do have more worker-centered stories now (which is great!), we are still in a media environment where a story can both acknowledge that a restaurant relied on unpaid workers for its success and end with its owner looking like a rebel — an underdog, even — for rejecting a financial model that he never truly challenged and from which he entirely benefited:

“I hope we can prove to the world that you can grow old and be creative and have fun in the industry,” he said. “Instead of hard, grueling, low-paid work under poor management conditions that wears people out.”

I'm going to end this part of the newsletter with a recommendation that you follow Lisa Lind Dunbar on Instagram, who has done quite a lot to highlight the issues at Noma and other Copenhagen fine-dining restaurants. Dunbar was quoted in the New York Times story and has a response to the overall piece that's well worth a read.

Wage Theft Watch

  • Bookmark this: "A Workers’ Guide to Wage Theft: What to do if your boss steals your wages" from the team at CalMatters, part of a larger package of pieces about wage theft.
  • Two big wage theft citations: First, $2.2 million to 230 workers at six Burger King locations in San Francisco. Notably, the owners "are being held personally responsible for the payments" (as opposed to just their corporate entity; in the past, many owners would simply shut down their business entity to escape liability). This decision, though, is being appealed, so things aren't totally settled yet. — per Elena Kadvany, San Francisco Chronicle / see also Joe Kukura at SFist

    Second, $1.6 million to 83 workers is how much the Department of Labor recovered from an owner of seven Los Angeles-area restaurants.

Union Strong

Screenshot of a tweet from NLRB General Counsel: The diminished staff can’t keep up with the increased workload. In FY22, 2,510 union representation petitions were filed with the NLRB—a 53% increase from last year. This is the highest number of union representation petitions filed since FY16.

Four more things

  • Initiative 82: In November, D.C. voters voted to phase out the tipped minimum wage. It's not yet implemented — the fiasco over the House speakership has a bit to do with it — but as Jessica Sidman reports for the Washingtonian, some restaurants are already predicting end times, others are seeing it as an opportunity to move towards more livable wages. Everyone is adding a service charge.
  • Speaking of: In the San Francisco/Bay Area, service charges are also all the rage, as more restaurants are implementing them and eliminating tips as a way to achieve more pay equity between cooks and servers. (I actually had to double check the date of this piece, because I confused it with this one, from 2015, when Los Angeles's move towards the $15/hour minimum wage motivated restaurants to do the same thing for, they said, the same reasons. I guess we can expect this to cycle in and out of the news every few years ...)
Some cities regulate service charges (Santa Monica!) and there's a bunch of caselaw about when or whether a service charge actually functions as a tip (ugh, Salt Bae), but by and large, service charges aren't regulated the same way tips are. Sidman notes this in the Washingtonian piece, too; for more, see this Vox piece by Rani Molla.

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