Sorry For Your Loss
The closing of the world’s beloved Noma has signified the beginning of the end for many. There’s a widespread outcry mourning the death of fine dining. The pain is real and the grief is complicated. Hot takes are popping up from industry titans as well as culinary world expatriates, and the feelings range from bittersweet despair to vindicated celebration. But no matter where you stand on this cultural shift, we need to understand how to grieve this loss healthfully.
Stage 1: Denial
There is a consensus among (mostly) straight white cis men that the past three decades have been a modern renaissance for the service industry. Bohemian artists worked their way up in kitchens from the 70s through the 90s. Pirate crews of irreverent hippies brandished their knives, challenging the conventions of fine dining, and trails were blazed. Then, once at the top, they built their empires, landing book deals, cooking shows, restaurant expansions, and Michelin Stars. Their stories are harrowing. They’re exciting and edgy, and they fully embrace the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality of the American Dream.
And we ate it up. I have an extensive collection of glossy coffee table cookbooks that defy any home cook practicality. In the pages, one can read about the misunderstood brilliance of underdogs. To add to the lore, the past decade of reality TV and social media have exponentially amplified these larger-than-life personas onto mainstream platforms. I have loved it all, from the documentaries and competition shows to the memoirs and podcasts. I have taken part in putting these people up on their shiny pedestals. And for a time, whispered rumors of bad behavior were easily forgotten when there was a “greater good” to behold. But times have changed, details have come into focus, and a number of unspoken questions haunt the kitchens. Why do so many of these restaurants face class-action lawsuits? Who was stepped over or left behind on a climb to the top? Do you really need to break someone down to build them up? If this restaurant model is truly unsustainable, we need to be able to say why. We need to ask uncomfortable questions and brace ourselves for some brutal answers.
Stage 2: Anger
“It seems like nobody wants to work anymore!,” prompts an eye roll from me, whether you’re Kim Kardashian or a restaurant owner. Business heads relentlessly mock millennials as entitled egomaniacs and see Gen Z as overly-soft. In the kitchen, this hostility means that when integral overworked, underpaid team members refuse to be undervalued, the condescending conclusion is that they are simply lazy. Work ethic and personal sacrifice get conflated with abuse and exploitation in the promise of career advancement. These promises are inconsistently kept and not worth enduring an environment rife with racism, sexism, homophobia, intimidation, and abuse. We must let go of the paranoid insistence that fair treatment of staff is a long con, and then get to the business of fixing this broken business model.
Stage 3: Bargaining
We need to let our heroes fall. We need to overcome our misunderstanding of accountability and stop weaponizing inaccurate buzzwords like “cancel culture.” Cancel culture in its truest form is thinking critically about powerful people and holding them accountable for their harmful actions. Sure, we can have discussions on the evolving definition of accountability. Public shaming without recourse is performative and dehumanizing. It’s not necessarily the best way to elicit true remorse or systemic change. But if we continue to allow those in power to define what constitutes mistreatment, and furthermore, what constitutes redemption, we are only furthering the systems of oppression. Pressuring peers to stay silent on labor exploitation or downplay the severity of a negative workplace culture is short-sighted. Harassment and abuse are not remedied by hollow platitudes of “growing and changing” accompanied by a muffin recipe. Needing to close shop when fair wages and benefits to staff cause severe profit loss is not business savvy. Leaders shouldn’t try to negotiate their way out of being responsible. Listen to the critiques, admit to wrong-doing, and take actionable steps to demonstrate the change you talk of in the notes app apologies and editorial puff pieces.
Stage 4: Depression
I’m not saying this moment isn’t sad. The inspiration found in someone’s fearlessness, creativity, or dedication to craft is beautiful. It’s what pulled me into this field. And now, many of our impressions of once-admired chefs are marred with the ugly truths of their success - the employees they’ve hurt, the families they’ve neglected, and the culture of fear and shame they’ve created in order to achieve fame. But this sadness over their spotted legacies should be educational. We can learn from their mistakes. They can learn from their mistakes. We can hold multiple truths at once.
Stage 5: Acceptance
Finally, we must find acceptance. It is the end of an era but it is also a new beginning. I'm taking this opportunity to recommit myself to a perspective on this blog. I’m only a couple years into my culinary career, but I am fully intent on making a space for myself in this industry. And if I’m being honest, this iteration of fine dining was not intended for people like me. But if we’re rebuilding the dinner table so that everyone has a seat, I will gladly aid in that construction. In my work, I will be striving to ask hard questions, uplift people who are fighting for change, and celebrate a resilient industry that has so much untapped potential. If fine dining is dead, the obituary should read that it is survived by its parent concepts of hospitality and innovation. Let’s see what else survives.