Visitors to Copenhagen, home of chef Rene Redzepi’s world’s best restaurant and culinary changemaker Noma, have until the end of 2024 to experience, once and for all, what the fuss has been about.
Let’s start with the approach: Noma 2.0—the restaurant has opened and closed enough times to warrant a 2.0—has multiple buildings, each constructed from a different material but integrated as a single entity under an overarching sheet of glass. This design decision, developed in collaboration with Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, seems to be an architectural attempt to signify transparency, suggesting that just as diners on the inside can look out, so might outsiders see in.
It’s an apt metaphor for the way this most protean of all restaurants conceives of itself: as a network of distinct but related operations, mysterious and yet open to all. While the magic of the place has always depended to some extent on shock and sensation—Redzepi’s first jaw-dropping stunt in 2012 was to serve yogurt swarming with live ants—the Noma brand strives to embody a certain keep-it-local simplicity despite its extraordinary price tag, a whopping $440 per person, not including wine.
That dual commitment to seemingly antipodal values, accessibility and obscurity, was illuminated by two announcements the Noma team made in the past year. The first, in early 2022, introduced a new initiative called Noma Projects, which debuted an online marketplace of pantry stables developed in the restaurant’s Fermentation Lab. Democratically described as an effort to bring a taste of “the Noma kitchen to yours” and priced between $25 and $35 before shipping, the initial product drop was a liquid umami condiment called Smoked Mushroom Garum, which was followed by a Wild Rose Vinegar, and then a Forager’s Vinaigrette made from hand-gathered blackcurrant wood and wild roses, as well as the promise of regular product launches into the future.
The second announcement, made in January in a series of exclusives with the New York Times, revealed in nebulous terms that Noma 2.0 will stop service at the end of 2024, emerging again at some point thereafter as Noma 3.0, a new, indeterminate incarnation of itself. The news of Noma Projects was received with excitement, but the impending closure of the cult restaurant generated big emotions in fans and critics, from grief and reverence to cynicism.
Noma opened in 2003 in an old waterfront warehouse in Copenhagen’s Christianshavn neighborhood, and this will not be the first time it has undergone a metamorphosis. In 2017, after pioneering “New Nordic” cooking via dishes made from underappreciated local ingredients and earning Noma several nominations as the world’s best restaurant, Redzepi decided to shutter it, citing “routine” as the “killer of creativity” onstage at NYC’s Global Skift Forum. It reopened in its current location as the new-and-improved Noma 2.0 in 2018 in the sleek, Bjarke Ingels–designed building with brand new decor and furnishings, an on-site garden, a greenhouse, and two research and development laboratories.
Despite its earlier evolution, this one has been understood to indicate more permanent change, not least because it seems to reflect the critical scrutiny Noma has endured over the past year. A suite of recent exposés has established fine dining’s “sustainability crisis,” detailing the abusive labor practices often required of workers to achieve the exquisite results expected from institutions like Noma. Redzepi himself has publicly admitted to an anger-management problem and revealed in the first New York Times story, published on January 9, that he doesn’t see how his business model can achieve a balance between the crushing pressure of soaring standards and a high-quality of life for his employees. “Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being,” he said, “it just doesn’t work.”
It’s hard to deny that Noma put Copenhagen on the map, and like many venerated restaurants before it, people have traveled to the Danish capital from all over the globe expressly to eat there. Featuring 20 courses and easily setting a pair of diners back over $1,000, the menu is determined by a three-season year, Redzepi’s conceit: Seafood season, Vegetable season, and Forest and Game season. Beyond an inclination to serve living creatures—a 2010 dish featured small live shrimps dipped in a brown butter emulsion, and swarming insects have been a recurring motif—Noma regularly serves food that’s been engineered to look like other food, such as duck-fat toffee in the form of duck feet, beetle-shaped fruit leathers, and an edible “soil” of hazelnut and malt flour. Diners are sent home with eccentric keepsakes that reinforce the singular nature of the experience, such as a crab-shaped ornament or a bird made out of string.
And yet, while some have applauded Redzepi’s decision to stop enabling the toxic work environment his restaurant represents, dissenting voices decry his melodramatic condemnation of their field. “A lot of people never get to eat at a place like Noma, so the idea of selling bottles of Noma garum for people to use at home is smart,” says Nick Curtin, head chef of Copenhagen’s Michelin-starred newcomer Alouette, who has been vocal about his resistance to the entrenched perception that haute cuisine must entail exploitation. “What I take issue with is René side-stepping the problem that he’s a huge part of creating,” he added. “If any restaurant in the world could just say, we’re raising our prices so everybody gets a living wage, it’s Noma. I think his assertion that fine-dining can’t be done sustainably is a cop-out; instead of using his ingenuity to rethink the model, he throws his hands up and says, not only can we not do this, but nobody can.”
Despite Noma’s role in establishing Copenhagen’s culinary identity, it’s not the end of the story, and its closing may inspire travelers to explore the city’s abundance of great food. Beyond the countless Noma trainees and interns who went on to develop respected restaurants and cafés of their own—take Restaurant Barr, Sanchez, Radio, Baest, Brace, or bakeries like Hart, Benji, and Juno, to name a few—many independent chefs have taken advantage of the city’s status as a global magnet for talent and made the landscape their own.
At Alouette, Curtin has created an environment he hopes encourages diners to feel like welcome guests in his home. His playful, thoughtfully conceived cuisine favors seasonality and lacks pretension—a dish like Life of a Hegnsholt Chicken features savory egg custard, chicken skin, quinoa and ramson, roasted-chicken jus, and hay-aged cheese sauce—and has earned a Michelin star despite his humane insistence on strict 37-hour work weeks for his team. Like him, the chefs at Michelin-starred Kadeu and Jatak, or newcomers Juju and Goldfinch, both offering inspired, upscale translations of Asian cuisines, have managed to establish superb fine-dining experiences that embrace the culinary innovation Copenhagen is known for while keeping their feet on the ground.
Although there have been whispers of something like Noma Projects for some time, the COVID shutdown gave its creators the push they needed: the terrifying realization of how fragile the restaurant industry is. “I remember a conversation with Redzepi over staff lunch about how the nature of fine-dining makes it fundamentally unscalable in a way that nurtures the people working in it,” says David Zilber, the Canadian chef-cum-scientist who started at Noma as a cook and eventually coauthored The Noma Guide to Fermentation before quitting in 2020. “It’s something inherent to a high-end experience that is bound to a very physical, time-consuming construction. René wished he could do something different, and maybe Noma Projects is a manifestation of that.”
In addition to the release of its first three for-sale condiments and the assurance of forthcoming “educational and environmental programs,” Noma Projects also launched Tastebuds, a research and development club. At a going rate of 526 euros a year (about US$564) for an annual membership, Tastebuds customers have the privilege of paying more than the cost of a meal at the restaurant for four deliveries of unreleased product samples to taste and access to two “virtual events,” one with the Fermentation Lab and one with the Test Kitchen, in which they can listen to Noma team members talk about fermentation. Glorified market research at a cost, but people are literally eating it up: This year’s 1,000 memberships, which went live on December 1, sold out in a day, and another round will be offered next year.
“We know where we want to go, we’re just not sure how to get there yet,” admitted Thomas Frebel, Noma Projects’ creative director and a chef who has worked with Redzepi since 2008. “But I think in the long run, René hopes Noma Projects becomes bigger than the restaurant, and that service becomes just one of many projects we do here.”
For now, Noma Projects’ activity is anchored by the Fermentation Lab, an apt pivot considering its role in altering how some people eat. Noma’s embrace of humble ingredients and its use of traditional techniques like fermentation and pickling to create original, show-stopping flavors, have pushed into the mainstream, diversifying our palette on a global scale and transforming the landscape for good. Zilber, who claims general burnout as the reason he moved on, sees the launch of Noma Projects as a step in the right direction for the restaurant he says gave him “some of the best experiences in my life—and some of my worst.”
“If it turns out that Noma Projects subsidizes the restaurant, it will make everyone’s life there better,” he told me. “Ultimately, if people are becoming more aware of fermentation, integrating it in their homes, then they will be more invested in the food they make and the food they eat. It brings respect for the system of food production, an understanding of the time and care it takes to make food—and anything that pushes back against the fast-paced disposability of capitalism, that can be nothing but good.”
As for the elusive Noma 3.0 and what form it will eventually take, that is anybody’s guess. But given the democratic direction Noma Projects appears to be taking, it’s safe to say that Noma’s pivot is essentially a bid to rebrand as something less exotic, more down to earth, and accessible to a broader spectrum of diners.
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