Fine dining is going out of fashion.  As an ex-chef, I’m relieved

Fine dining is going out of fashion. As an ex-chef, I’m relieved

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  • January 14, 2023
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I left the fine dining world at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic. A year earlier I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a stress-related pain disorder. Despite trying desperately to continue cooking professionally, it became increasingly clear to me that it just wasn’t feasible. Even for perfectly healthy people, top-notch restaurants are incredibly tough jobs, and the long hours and high-pressure environment were too much for my nerves. No drug 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 over tiny details — like topping semifrozen 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 to regular operations in late 2024 as it transforms into a full-time food lab and occasional pop-up. Redzepi, who recently told the New York Times that running an upscale restaurant at the highest level is financially and emotionally unsustainable, seems to realize something most restaurant workers have always known: the business model that gives the most exclusive restaurants Enabling the world to thrive was never viable.

That’s a lesson I learned the hard way. As a chef, I was driven by a sense of urgency to complete the meticulously detailed tasks on my prep list and race to the finish line each day before duty began. The stakes were high: every single element had to be executed consistently and flawlessly lest I serve a poorly filled macaron or curdled pudding to a restaurant critic or a regular customer paying hundreds of dollars for the meal. It was exciting but brutally exhausting; Every day I rode the service roller coaster, hoping not to fall behind when tickets rolled in. As a young chef, I thought I was living my dream. For the clientele, dinner cost $425, and chefs like me spent 70 hours a week picking herbs, dehydrating purees, and simmering juices into reductions to work magic. Every day was a new chance to learn from chefs I had admired for so long and every day I feel lucky to have the opportunity to work in such a prestigious establishment.

I was getting paid $15 an hour for all of this.

It’s been a few years since I changed careers and when I think back to my time in the hospitality industry I’m relieved to see how the most exclusive and often exploitative fine dining restaurants finally seem to be going out of style. It couldn’t come soon enough.

“I think we all know that [these] Restaurants cannot exist without a certain type of workforce,” says Riley Redfern, a former chef at Eleven Madison Park and Coi, a now-defunct, two-Michelin-star gourmet restaurant in San Francisco. “It’s completely unethical.” In 2021, The New York Times ran a scathing report on the sexual harassment and toxic work environment at Noma graduate Blaine Wetzel’s idyllic Willows Inn on Lummi Island. Last year, former employees described Eleven Madison Park as a “farm to trash” and told Business Insider that the restaurant abandoned plans to pay its employees a living wage. A three-part investigation conducted by Eater uncovered questionable labor practices at Blue Hill in Stone Barns. These stories were nothing new to people in the hospitality industry – but they shocked the general public.

My body was killing itself, all for tiny details — like basting semifrozen with the ideal amount of foam — that just didn’t matter.

Noma began paying its army of interns in October 2022, just months before Redzepi decided to shut down the restaurant for regular operations. While the paid internship program will continue in the next iteration of Noma, some chefs and critics have met with disdain and skepticism at the idea that Noma cannot continue without free labor. Back in July 2022, I wrote a story for Bon Appétit about the TV show The Bear and how a toxic cuisine culture portrayed on the show reflects the real-life experiences of restaurant workers. After Noma’s announcement, I spoke again to current and former top chefs, and their reactions were strong: some found it ridiculous that Noma would rather close than find a solution to pay their employees fairly, while others were convinced that Redzepi wanted out before his reputation was tarnished by the “dirty little secret,” as one person put it, that his restaurant had been run with a massive amount of free labor for most of his life.

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