This being January with pretty lousy, cloudy, I don’t go out much weather, I’ve had a lot of time to read the early obituaries of Noma, which is closing late next year. In case you don’t follow “fine dining,” Noma is a restaurant in Copenhagen that appears on every best-restaurants-of-the-world list. The place and its owner/genius chef René Redzepi have inspired a whole bunch of creative chefs who go out and pick odd plants in the forest or in tide pools, do something transformative with the stuff, and then charge scenester diners a few hundred bucks for the privilege of ingesting what they foraged and tortured. A night at Noma, for example, costs around $500 a person.
Noma will follow El Bulli and Del Posto to the big food court in the sky. To which I say: no great loss. It’s not jealousy—I was a part-time restaurant critic back in the 1990s, when the big deal restaurant scene hadn’t yet metastasized into the monster it has become. Still, there were previews of what was to come in multi-course tasting menus in a breed of French restaurants that, looking back, served as a bridge between the snooty old French establishments and brave rich-hippie vibe of Noma. Not to put too fine a point on it, you can think of a Noma fan as the foodie equivalent of an investment banker who collects Grateful Dead concert tapes.
I’m not going to lie. I thoroughly enjoyed my decade of dining at my newspaper’s expense. It made me really popular, because The Spartan Woman and I usually invited a couple of friends to come along so that we could sample enough dishes. We ate at the new wave of Spanish/Catalan restaurants, fancy French eateries, aristocratic Italian establishments, as well as the occasional Hong Kong style of Chinatown palaces that were just beginning to establish a beachhead in New York. The review pace was gentle—I was on the hook every four weeks for a review, so it was just enough to be fun and not enough to be routine and boring. And when our girls were old enough, we often took them along. (They were tougher critics than our friends, who were just thrilled to have a free meal at a hot restaurant.)
After 10 years, though, we’d had enough. By then we just wanted to hang out with friends and family, either at home or in a local ethnic restaurant where we’d like the food but wouldn’t have to pay homage to it. I remember a colleague once went to El Bulli, the restaurant in the Catalan region of Spain, which had pioneered “molecular” cuisine. I asked him how it was. “Tiring,” he said. I’m paraphrase, but he said something like, “It was so exhausting. Open this lid, inhale the fumes three times, then pour the contents onto this plate and stir counterclockwise 4.5 times, then eat using these tweezers.” Sorry, that ain’t food, that’s entertainment for a very small cult audience.
And then there was Del Posto in New York. Its owner sought to elevate (so they thought) Italian food to the same rarified altitude of classic French cuisine. Talk about flawed concepts from the get-go—”Italian” food (a term I have trouble with because this country’s eating habits are hyper-regional) isn’t supposed to be the snobby refuge of the wealthy. My neighbors on our hill, who tend sheep and have an organic farm, make ricotta that would make you cry it’s so good. But there are a lot of people like them here and they’ll insist that good food is their birthright, not just a boasting point for the bourgeoisie.
EATING IN ITALY ENCOURAGED my move away from culinary preciousness. For one thing, the dominant characteristic of food here is to find really good ingredients and prepare them in a way that lets them shine. There’s little torturing of plants or animal bits to make them something else. And with the exception of a few Michelin-starred places, there are fewer celebrity chefs lording over everyone. Hey, this is Italy, where everybody is a star, and no one cooks better than Nonna (grandma) or your mother.
I know I’m lucky; as a teenager I stayed with relatives my first times in this country. I had a front-row seat to the food culture, which basically was just as my mom cooked back in New York, although mom, being a native New Yorker, pretended to be a normal American every so often and would give us steak and potatoes or peanut butter sandwiches in our lunchboxes.
But it’s interesting to see the differences between the cultures of my two countries when it comes to eating out. In cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, it’s become a high-stakes scene (and is bouncing back post-pandemic). Rents are high, food and liquor and wine prices are through the roof, so in an attempt to squeeze some profit restaurateurs pay their staff peanuts. Noma’s Redzepi himself said that fine dining has become economically unfeasible, and his complaints mirror what thoughtful American restaurant chefs and owners have been saying. In the U.S., the handful of successful celebrity chefs expand their operations into empires. The Bastianich group, headed by matriarch Lidia Bastianich and run by her son, has 30 eateries spread across the world. Thirty!
This craziness is fueled by a media and PR machine that glorifies celebrity cooks and runs competitions on TV instead of showing people how to cook. And there’s a definite high/low culture thing going on. The well-heeled eat at one of the Bastianich or Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurants; normal people eat at the Olive Garden, which cuts corners by not salting pasta water in an attempt to cut down on spending for pots. The well-heeled use their experiences as conversations starters, and they love to spend big.
It’s different here. Sure there are TV competitions; in fact Joe Bastianich is one of the stars of MasterChef Italia. But beyond that things tend to be more democratic. One of the biggest complements Italians give to a restaurant is “si mangia bene e si spende poco” (you eat well but spend a little). Restaurants are basically extensions of the small kitchens that many Italians have (most of the country lives in apartments; think of New York but better designed). Often, clans or groups of friends will go out because they can’t fit everyone into the kitchen or day room, but they know that their outing will lead to a great meal that won’t wreck their bank account.
It’ll be interesting to see what Redzepi comes up with next. He says he’s turn Noma into a “food lab” and try to figure out new models for feeding people creatively. El Bullï’s Ferran Adria said the same thing when he closed his legendary restaurant more than a decade ago. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I haven’t heard much of what his lab has done. I’ve subscribed to his newsletter to see what’s up there. In the meantime, buon appetito, enjoy what you eat, and don’t think about it too much.
Illustration at top of page courtesy WikiCommons