When Michelin-starred chef Stéphanie Le Quellec opened her Paris restaurant three years ago she used her home to secure financing, in a bold bet that she could make the fine dining business viable.
That has so far held true, she said — defying pronouncements this week that the notoriously cost- and labour-intensive sector might be reaching breaking point after one of the world’s most acclaimed establishments, Copenhagen’s Noma, announced it would end regular service.
Yet even as chefs from Paris to Tokyo lined up to defend their high-end models, with some calling Noma’s retreat a one-off, many also recognised that pressures were building.
Food and energy prices have soared, recruitment has become a minefield after workers deserted the sector during the Covid-19 pandemic, and restaurants are testing the limits of what they can charge — meaning that something has to give.
“I have to rein myself in sometimes in what I want to do, in some creations that would require not a dozen people in the kitchen but 20, because it’s just not possible,” said Le Quellec. Her La Scène restaurant in Paris’s well-heeled 8th arrondissement serves modern twists on classic French duck or scallop dishes, with the lunch menu starting at €135.
Noma, launched in 2003 by head chef René Redzepi who said it will become an experimental food laboratory from 2025, has been a trailblazer for a very particular type of fine dining. Visually spectacular, with dishes featuring lifelike birds’ nests, it has attracted visitors with its provocative creations, from oyster caramel to reindeer brain custard.
But the restaurant, like some of its rivals, had come under fire for relying on poorly or unpaid interns. It had begun to pay these stagiaires wages but the issue had already raised questions about the sustainability of the industry before Redzepi’s warning this week that fine dining no longer worked “financially and emotionally”.
Noma’s shift might signal a reckoning for some of the formulas it relied on, chefs and critics said. It was a poster child for the set piece tasting menu — starting price $500 — which might not be as en vogue as it once was as diners shy away from imposed dishes, said Peter Harden, the founder of Harden’s guide to London restaurants.
And its model of some 100 employees catering to around 40 diners set it apart from rivals.
“It’s a business choice to have 140 people to lay out petals on a plate,” said Yannick Alléno, a French chef with a plethora of starred restaurants to his name, from Paris to Seoul. He called Redzepi’s cooking spectacular, but requiring an “enormous amount of details, of precision”.
While there is little data on high-end restaurant bankruptcies, Noma is far from the industry’s first high-profile closure. The one-time darling of molecular cuisine, Spain’s El Bulli, shut in 2011. Tiring of the pressures, grandees of French gastronomy like the late chef Alain Senderens, or Olivier Roellinger, have given up their three Michelin stars, the highest possible culinary accolade.
Nick Kokonas, the owner of three Michelin-starred Alinea in Chicago, said establishments in the world’s top rankings had more than enough demand to be “perfectly sustainable” and “pay wages to everyone”, with several sittings per night. During Alinea’s peak season from April to December, he said the restaurant relied heavily on first time visitors from around the world, who came for a “bucket list experience”.
Using Noma as an example of cost pressures experienced by most other restaurants is like “comparing Lewis Hamilton’s Formula 1 car with . . . a go-kart,” added Niklas Ekstedt, a Swedish Michelin-starred chef who met Redzepi when they were teenagers.
As restaurants struggle to recruit employees, from young chefs to front-of-house staff, however, labour practices are changing.
“The days of someone spending eight minutes tweezing calendula flowers on to a plate and not getting paid are over. That baroque approach to fine dining is dead,” said David Kinch, the chef who closed his multi-starred Manresa restaurant in California last year, saying he wanted to switch to more casual dining.
Le Quellec said her restaurant no longer took late reservations in a bid to improve conditions for staff — so they could leave well before 2am.
Other forms of inflation are also biting. Energy prices in Europe have jumped due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and prices of ingredients such as butter and flour have soared. For some outside big hotel chains or without wealthy backers, this has proved unsustainable.
Adrien Soro, a 31-year-old French chef, closed his one-star restaurant in France’s rural Dordogne region at the end of last year when his bank halved his overdraft and his power bills rose. Surviving would have meant more than doubling the price of his menu from €120 to €300 — an impossible ask for a restaurant of his calibre outside Paris, he said.
“You’re sure to kill the business then anyway,” Soro said. After amassing €150,000 in debt, he is set to take up a salaried chef’s job overseas.
From the two-star Clove Club in London, which said it had hiked the price of its tasting menu for the first time in four years, to Sézanne, a two-star eatery in Tokyo, others are now passing on some costs to diners — even if it risks alienating people.
“Exclusivity is the way it will go, and restaurants will get smaller,” said Sézanne’s head chef, Daniel Calvert.
But middle class diners remained the backbone of the industry, meaning eateries could not lift prices endlessly, said Joerg Zipprick, co-founder of La Liste group, which ranks the world’s best restaurants. “People who are Elon Musk-type rich have their own chefs,” he added.
Some chefs said the demise of Noma indicated a wider change in what customers want from fine dining, even if they may still be ready to spend a month’s salary on the experience.
“I’ve long thought the traditional, archetypal fine dining kitchen is a dinosaur waiting to become extinct,” said Ollie Dabbous, chef-patron at London’s Hide restaurant. “Fewer people want the very complicated, fussy food . . . you can do delicious food and you don’t need all the pomp and ceremony.”
Additional reporting by Niki Blasina