Good food goes out of style. As a former chef, I was relieved

I left the world of good food at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic. A year ago I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a stress-induced pain disorder. As much as I tried desperately to continue cooking professionally, it became increasingly clear that it just wasn’t possible. Even for perfectly healthy people, restaurants of the highest caliber are incredibly tough places to work, and the long hours and high-pressure environment were too much for me. 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 tiny details—like topping the semifreddo with the perfect 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 business at the end of 2024 as it transforms into a full-time gastronomic laboratory and occasional pop-ups. Redzepi, who recently said New York Times That running a gourmet establishment at the highest level was financially and emotionally unsustainable seems to be realizing what most restaurant workers have known all along: The business model that allows the world’s most exclusive restaurants to thrive has never been viable.

It’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, racing to the finish line each day before service began. The stakes were high: every element had to be consistent and flawlessly executed in order to avoid serving a poorly filled macaron or cheesecake to a restaurant critic or the average person paying hundreds of dollars for a meal. It was exhilarating but brutally exhausting; every day i rode the service roller coaster hoping i wouldn’t be left behind when the tickets came. 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, drying purees, and cooking juices into reductions to make the magic happen. Every day was a new chance to learn something from 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 got paid $15 an hour for all of this.

It’s been a few years since I changed careers, and when I reflect on my time in the hospitality industry, I’m relieved to see that the most exclusive and often exploitative restaurants seem to be finally going out of fashion. It couldn’t come soon enough.

“I think we all know [these] restaurants can’t exist without a certain kind of work,” says Riley Redfern, former executive chef at Eleven Madison Park and Coi, a now-shuttered two-Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant in San Francisco. “It’s totally unethical. In 2021, New York Times released a damning report about sexual harassment and a toxic work environment at Noma alum Blaine Wetzel’s idyllic Willows Inn on Lummi Island. Last year, former employees described Eleven Madison Park as “farm-to-trash” and told Business Insider that the restaurant planned to pay their employees a living wage. A three-part investigation led by Eater uncovered questionable labor practices at Blue Hill in 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 close the restaurant to regular service. While the paid internship program will continue into the next iteration of Noma, some chefs and critics have reacted with disdain and skepticism to the idea that Noma cannot continue to operate without a freelance workforce. In July 2022, I wrote a story for Bon Appétit about a TV show Bear and how the toxic kitchen culture depicted in the show reflected the real-life experiences of restaurant workers. After Noma’s announcement, I spoke with current and former fine dining chefs again, and their reactions were strong: Some thought it was ridiculous that Noma would close rather than figure out how to pay its employees fairly, while others were convinced that Redzepi wanted out, before his reputation is tarnished by the “dirty little secret,” as one person put it, that his restaurant has been run on massive amounts of freelance labor for most of its life.

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