I left the world of fine restaurants at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic. A year before that, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a pain disorder caused by stress. Although I tried desperately to continue cooking professionally, it became more and more obvious that it just wasn’t feasible. Even for perfectly healthy people, restaurants of the highest caliber are incredibly difficult places to work, and the long hours and high-pressure environment were too much for my nerves. No medicine in the world, my doctor said, would relieve my pain if I continued to live such a stressful life. I read between the lines: My body was killing itself, all because of small details – like topping the semifreddo with the ideal amount of foam – that just didn’t matter.
You’ve probably heard by now that Noma, René Redzepi’s award-winning restaurant in Copenhagen, is closing its doors for regular service at the end of 2024 as it transitions into a full-time, pop-up food lab. Redzepi, who recently said The New York Times that running a fine dining restaurant at the highest level was financially and emotionally unsustainable, he seems to realize something that most restaurant staff have known all along: the business model that allows the world’s most exclusive restaurants to thrive has never been sustainable.
It’s a lesson I learned the hard way. As a chef, I was driven by a sense of urgency to complete the painstakingly detailed tasks on my prep list, sprinting to the finish line each day before service began. The stakes were high: every single element had to be consistent and impeccably executed, lest I serve a poorly filled macaron or cooked custard to a restaurant critic or regular guest paying hundreds of dollars for a meal. It was exhilarating but brutally exhausting; I rode the roller coaster of service every day, hoping I wouldn’t fall behind as the tickets arrived. As a young chef, I thought I was living my dream. For the clientele, the dinner cost $425, and chefs like me spent 70 hours a week plucking herbs, dehydrating purees and boiling juices into reductions to make the magic happen. Every day was a new opportunity to learn something from the chefs I had admired for so long, and every day I considered myself lucky to have the opportunity to work at such a prestigious establishment.
I was paid $15 an hour for all of this.
It’s been a few years since I changed careers, and as I reflect on my time in the hospitality industry, I’m relieved to see that the most exclusive, often exploitative, fine dining restaurants seem to be finally falling out of fashion. It couldn’t come soon enough.
“I think we all know [these] restaurants cannot exist without a certain type of workforce,” says Riley Redfern, former chef at Eleven Madison Park and Coio, the now-closed two-Michelin-star fine dining restaurant in San Francisco. “It’s completely unethical.” In 2021, The New York Times released a damning report on sexual harassment and a toxic work environment at Blaine Wetzel’s idyllic Willows Inn on Lummi Island. Last year, former employees described Eleven Madison Park as a “trash farm” and told Business Insider that the restaurant had abandoned plans to pay its staff a living wage. A three-part investigation by Eater uncovered questionable labor practices at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. For people in the restaurant industry, these stories were nothing new — but they shocked the general public.
Noma began paying its army of interns in October 2022, just months before Redzepi decided to shut down the restaurant for regular service. Although the paid internship program will continue in Noma’s next iteration, some chefs and critics have reacted with disdain and skepticism to the idea that Noma can’t continue to operate without free labor. Back in July 2022, I wrote a story for Bon Appétit about the TV show Bear and how the toxic kitchen depicted in the show reflected the real-life experiences of restaurant workers. After Noma’s announcement, I spoke again with current and former top chefs, and their reactions were strong: some found it funny that Noma would rather close than find a solution to pay its staff fairly, while others were convinced that Redzepi wanted out before that his reputation was tarnished by the “dirty little secret,” as one person put it, that his restaurant operated a vast amount of free labor for most of its life.