Toward the beginning of the recently released horror-comedy film The Menu – about a dreamy fine-dining experience turned nightmare – chef Julian Slowik, played by Ralph Fiennes, announces to the 12 privileged diners his one directive for the four-hour meal to come.
“I have to beg you of one thing. It’s just one. Do not eat,” he says, pausing to observe the puzzled looks on some of the diners’ faces. “Taste. Savor. Relish. Consider every morsel you place inside your mouth. Be mindful. But do not eat. Our menu is too precious for that.”
Hawthorn, the remote restaurant in the film, is fictional – yet many restaurant observers have noted its similarity to one place of pilgrimage in particular for international food obsessives: noma. Chef René Redzepi set the dining world abuzz on Monday, January 9, when he announced he’d be permanently closing his Copenhagen gem at the end of 2024, shifting its focus toward becoming a full-time food laboratory.
Why is noma closing?
While there may be 142 Michelin three-star restaurants in the world, there’s a general consensus that noma has been the best on the planet for the last decade or so. Over the last two decades, Redzepi has been instrumental in pushing New Nordic cuisine to the forefront of fine dining.
As New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote on the day of the announcement, “Other restaurants – El Bulli, for example, and Chez Panisse – have been widely imitated. But I don’t think any restaurant came up with so many ideas that were shoplifted in so many other cities so quickly.”
The news of the noma closure comes on the heels of another esteemed culinary institution’s closure. Manresa in Los Gatos, California, announced it permanently extinguished its stove burners on January 1, 2023.
Star chefs like David Kinch of Manresa and noma’s Redzepi have recently said living up to the standard of serving elevated tasting menus is “backbreaking.” Redzepi pointed to a sustainability issue, telling the New York Times, “We have to completely rethink the industry. This is simply too hard.”
Does this signal the end of fine dining? Not really. Elite foodies with elite bank accounts are still going to be clamoring for reservations at French Laundry in Napa, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, the Fat Duck in Bray, England, and the large handful of other impossible-to-get-into restaurants around the world. But it does suggest a shift of some kind. To where? No one really knows.
But this much we do know: our post-pandemic desire to fork over $800 for a dinner with wine pairings that might include such delicacies as reindeer-brain custard (noma), a potted plant with edible soil (also noma) or a “breadless bread plate” with savory accompaniments (The Menu; that last one is too silly to be true – almost) seems preposterous to many people now. Especially when the entire average annual incomes of a person in Afghanistan and Sudan are respectively $500 and $670.
Why Midwestern food is connecting with diners
We just lived through one of those world-altering events with the pandemic. We’ve come out on the other end rethinking our place in the world, how we want to spend the rest of our time on earth and what our life choices add up to.
The other thing that we do know is that a current trend in eating leans toward the opposite of fine dining. In 2001, I was living in San Francisco and covering the dining scene there for a local publication. In the months after the 9/11 terrorist attack, I noticed new restaurants popping up serving such “comfort food” as meatloaf, fried chicken and meat pies. In the last year, I’ve noticed something similar happening – and even a step further, with new restaurants in every corner of the USA proudly serving extra-reassuring Midwestern cuisine like pot roast, baked potatoes and meatloaf (again).
The first record anyone can find of phrase “comfort food” was in the Palm Beach Post, in 1966, when Dr Joyce Brothers mentioned it in a column about growing obesity rates. It then appeared 11 years later in the Washington Post, when food critic Phyllis Richman used the term to describe a shrimp-and-grits dish she had tasted. In 1997, it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defined it as “food that comforts or affords solace.”
Comfort food is eating as nostalgia: more about pausing than looking forward, more familiar than innovative. It’s about feeding our collective grief, a temporary fix for our trauma. Which is what we’ve all been going through the last few years.
Lucy Long, a retired professor of popular culture at Bowling Green University who has written at length on the topic of comfort food, called the current turn away from fine dining “anti-elitist,” saying, “It doesn’t surprise me this is happening. The pandemic really made people think about life and food and what the potential is for food to carry emotion and to communicate and bring people together.”
When I talked to chef Greg Baxtrom, chef and co-owner of lauded New York City restaurants Olmsted and Five Acres, he took it a step further, saying that COVID-19 helped contribute to a “fine-dining fatigue,” but also that “...after a period of uncertainty, a lot of chefs, myself included, have the confidence and passion to open up a restaurant we’ve always wanted but were too timid to risk before.” No surprise, then, to learn the Illinois-born Baxtrom opened a Midwestern comfort-food restaurant in Brooklyn last year called Patti Ann’s.
At the end of the The Menu – warning: spoiler alert ahead – Chef Slowik puts a bundle of marshmallows around each guest and a chocolate hat on their heads to create human s’mores, and then lights the dining room on fire, as the entire restaurant, including the diners, kitchen staff and the chef himself go up in flames.
It’s unclear what fine dining will look like in a couple of years, as the scene evolves through from a post-pandemic, inflation-has-returned world, a place where noma and Manresa will only be memories. Hopefully, we will be told not only to be mindful of, savor and relish our food. But to enjoy actually eating it, too.