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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Times change, and restaurants should, too. So what does that mean for fine dining?

Mussels with saffron in squid ink pasta shells prepared by Alex Crabb at his home in Cambridge on June 21, 2012. The dish was inspired by his stage at Noma.Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe/file

When Noma — the 20-year-old Copenhagen restaurant that perennially tops “world’s best” lists — announced this month that it will close for service at the end of 2024, the food world drew a collective gasp. “Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work,” chef and cofounder Rene Redzepi said of the business model to The New York Times. The news came just after California’s Michelin-starred Manresa shuttered, also after two decades, with chef David Kinch declaring that fine dining is at a crossroads. Meanwhile, streaming in the background was “The Menu,” a movie about a celebrity chef and his very Noma-esque restaurant that skewers fine dining’s pretensions, making viewers crave nothing more than a simple, honest burger. For years, people have been predicting the demise of fine dining. Had the day finally come?

Don’t bet on it. Noma isn’t even dead: According to its website, the restaurant will become more of an R&D lab with pop-ups like the ones it previously hosted in Australia, Japan, and Mexico. “In this next phase, we will continue to travel and search for new ways to share our work. Is there somewhere we must go in the world to learn? Then we will do a Noma pop-up. And when we’ve gathered enough new ideas and flavors, we will do a season in Copenhagen. Serving guests will still be a part of who we are, but being a restaurant will no longer define us.” (How do you say “cultural appropriation” in Danish?)

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Fine dining is, however, changing. Shouldn’t it after 20 years? Food is fashion, mutable and cyclical. When you donated those ‘90s jeans and perfectly broken-in Doc Martens to Goodwill, you probably didn’t think your kids would one day want them. I can already hear the chefs of the future: “Hey, what if we did an old-school restaurant concept, with tablecloths and tweezer food and super-formal service?” “Yesss, that would be so much fun!”

Adobo Ng Pusit, with Loligo squid, hotaru-iko, Spanish octopus, poached heirloom tomato, squid ink adobo, and crispy shallots with white rice at Tanám in Union Square's Bow Market.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Noma opened in 2003, a very different time. Food blogs were just beginning to take off. Food television was shifting direction from “dump and stir” programs for cooks to reality shows designed to entertain general viewers. “Iron Chef America,” “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” and “Top Chef” would all appear on American televisions in the next few years. (Remember televisions?) There was a new audience and appetite for food. And there was a sense of relative economic stability: Middle-class people bought homes, got jobs, weren’t always drowning in student debt. Boston took its high-end restaurants for granted, with an embarrassment of riches — Aujourd’hui, Excelsior, Hamersley’s Bistro, Icarus, L’Espalier, Locke-Ober, Meritage, Olives, Radius, Rialto, UpStairs at the Square, all since closed. It was an era when a labor-intensive, experimental, expensive restaurant sharing wildly innovative ideas about food with stagiaires (unpaid kitchen interns) from all over the world seemed to many thrilling and appealing — as did the idea of traveling to Copenhagen to eat there.

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Noma received two Michelin stars in 2008, adding a third in 2021. It landed on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, climbing to the top spot in 2010. There it supplanted El Bulli, the Spanish restaurant that popularized avant-garde, science-based cooking replete with foams and spheres. And, like El Bulli before it, it changed what was in fashion for food. Noma advanced “New Nordic” cooking — hyperlocal, relentlessly seasonal, emphasizing traditional techniques. Yes, it served reindeer penis ragout and beef tartare with ants, but also more approachable dishes like “vintage carrot,” the hoary roots braised in goat butter, and eggs diners fried themselves at the table, garnished with wild plants from the forest. When you see a menu filled with local, seasonal, foraged, and fermented ingredients, that’s Noma whispering to you from afar.

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Two chefs cook in an open-air kitchen, decorated with leaves at Noma in Copenhagen on Dec. 2, 2022. DITTE ISAGER/NYT

Meanwhile, stuff happened. Millennials came of age, just in time for the Great Recession. Getting a job, buying a house, paying off student debt — these weren’t the attainable milestones they used to be. In the era of the side hustle, unpaid culinary internships with grueling hours looked less like education, more like exploitation. Noma took flak for its reliance on stagiaires, whom it began paying several months ago (like many top-tier restaurants, it opted into but didn’t invent this system; you can thank/blame the French for that). And just how many Uber rides would one need to give to cover the cost of dinner there? How many carbon offset credits would it take to feel better about flying to Denmark for dinner? The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements brought a reckoning in the restaurant industry, rife with inequity and abuse. Chefs were accused of sexual misconduct, with Mario Batali the highest-profile example. Restaurant staff spoke out about racist, sexist, homophobic kitchens; about the emotional and physical mistreatment they encountered at work. Redzepi wrote about his own problematic behavior in a 2015 Lucky Peach essay calling for the industry to change: “I’ve been a bully for a large part of my career. I’ve yelled and pushed people. I’ve been a terrible boss at times.” Instead of “Chef’s Table,” suddenly we were watching “The Bear.

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Perhaps it’s unsurprising that restaurant workers who left or lost their jobs during the pandemic didn’t always come back. A 2021 survey by job-search site Joblist found that 38 percent of those who had left the industry wouldn’t consider returning. Some of the things they hoped to find elsewhere: higher pay (45 percent), better benefits (29 percent), and more flexible schedules (19 percent). More than half of those who left said no pay increase or incentive could get them to return to their former position. Although the leisure and hospitality industry added 67,000 jobs in December 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the industry is still 5.5 percent below its pre-pandemic level.

Potato curry cake with tomato jam at Comfort Kitchen.Comfort Kitchen

Restaurant owners are in a tough spot. Hiring and retaining workers remains a constant challenge. The costs of food and labor have surged, and diners balk when menu prices rise. If you’ve ever wondered why sharing a few small plates and a glass of wine at a casual spot now comes with a haute cuisine bill, consider how much more it would need to be to comfortably support a business and its staff. “The public hasn’t paid the actual cost of food in decades,” says Rachel Miller, chef-owner of Nightshade Noodle Bar. “If I actually charged what it was worth, it would be a lot different. In the shutdown especially, I would have been selling $48 egg noodle dishes with no protein if I calculated things responsibly.”

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Fine dining doesn’t look like it used to. No one is rushing to open formal dining rooms with service to match. After chef Frank McClelland closed Back Bay special-occasion restaurant L’Espalier in 2018 (RIP cheese cart), he opened FRANK, a classy-casual market, cafe, and restaurant in Beverly. When chef Barbara Lynch thinks about opening a restaurant now, she doesn’t dream up a new Menton, the ambitious prix fixe restaurant she debuted in 2010 in Fort Point. She looks to The Rudder, on the water in Gloucester: “Just a cheerful place. Luxury is not going to go away, but in my dream world I want it to be community-driven and accessible and delicious,” she said in a previous story.

But I’m not worried about fine dining’s mortality. A Noma residency scheduled for Kyoto this spring, priced at more than $800 per person plus a 10 percent service charge, sold out almost instantly. The 1 percent — who accumulated almost twice as much wealth as the entire rest of the world over the past two years, according to Oxfam’s annual inequality report — will continue to pay for luxury experiences, which will continue to exist, although they may be fewer in number.

Instead, I’d like to request a wellness check for the middle class of restaurants, wrestling with a business model that increasingly fails to add up. “If you have a restaurant, you have to have cheap labor, cheap food, or cheap rent. In a bigger city, nothing is cheap anymore,” says Alexander Crabb, a longtime executive sous chef at L’Espalier who did a five-month stage at Noma in 2011, then returned to Boston to open his own restaurant, Asta in Back Bay. “I think the middle of the industry is really going to fall out.”

In the meantime, restaurant owners continue to adjust and innovate. Asta serves tasting menus that, like those at Noma, upend expectations around ingredients and flavors. The restaurant is small, personal, and scaled down. It used to feature multiple menu options; now it offers one six-course menu each night, which minimizes waste and cuts down on labor. Crabb runs the kitchen with two other cooks; business and life partner Shish Parsigian tends to more front-of-house duties; and everyone takes turns serving the food and chatting with guests. Tanám, a Filipinx restaurant that closed this month, was cooperatively owned by workers and served communal feasts that brought strangers together. Mei Mei chef Irene Li ran her restaurant with radical transparency, opening the books to staff; after shuttering the business in 2020, this week she opens Mei Mei Dumplings, a South Boston dumpling factory with a cafe and classroom. Also opening this week: Comfort Kitchen, in Dorchester, which got a head start with an extended pop-up at former JP restaurant Little Dipper. Celebrating the flavors and ingredients of the African diaspora, the Uphams Corner restaurant emphasizes community engagement as well as food.

Sea urchin at Nightshade Noodle Bar in Lynn.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

At Nightshade Noodle Bar in Lynn, Miller serves what she calls “modern, sustainable fine dining” — sustainable as a business, sustainable for the people who work there. Like Asta, it only offers tasting menus, a format adopted during the pandemic that ensures the restaurant hits its needed check average per customer. Its location means rent is lower than it would be somewhere like Boston or Cambridge. And in lieu of tipping, Nightshade includes a 20 percent admin fee with the bill. This is distributed between front and back of house, so there is pay equity among employees. In Massachusetts, only servers are eligible for tips. They can’t be shared with workers in the kitchen. “I think there is a movement now for people like me who have a drive and built their premises from the ground up on paying everyone fairly,” Miller says.

People keep asking if fine dining is dead, but it’s the wrong question. Here’s a better one for these times: What do we mean by “fine dining”? That F-word is a slippery homonym. It means “superior,” but also “well or healthy.” The second definition needs a seat at the head of the table in order for dining of any kind to move forward.



Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.