Student chefs kneed in the crotch. Kitchen staff sexually assaulted. Cooks put in trash cans as punishment. To quote famed 19th-century French chef Marie-Antoine Carême on the working conditions of fine dining establishments, “It is the burning charcoal that kills us. Does it matter? The shorter the life, the greater the glory.”
This is the picture of the great chef that’s endured in the popular imagination: actively destroying himself in pursuit of the best possible food. If he’s cruel to his staff, it’s only because he cares—and in any event, they probably care just as much, absorbing his cruelty with gusto. For those of us who want to eat at extraordinary restaurants without feeling guilty, it’s crucial to believe that this brutality is an unfortunate but unavoidable byproduct of the search for culinary perfection.
On Monday, Noma, a Copenhagen restaurant with three Michelin stars and five Best Restaurant designations from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, announced that it was closing for good. The restaurant’s creator, chef René Redzepi, cited the financially and emotionally unsustainable nature of cooking at such a high level. He’d been reckoning with that unsustainability since at least 2015, when an essay for Lucky Peach saw him publicly exorcising his own kitchen demons. “Maybe the old way has worked so far,” he wrote, attempting to redeem his past as a kitchen screamer. “But in the long run, it burns people out.”
That theory has borne out even more now that the pandemic has worsened the existing pains of cooking professionally and chefs have begun ditching fine dining for more casual, lower-stakes ventures. Noma alum Kim Mikkola now runs a Helsinki chain of fried-chicken shops called KotKot.* D.C.’s Michelin-starred Komi ditched its tasting menu and converted its operations to a takeout joint called Happy Gyro. As fine dining restaurant 63 Clinton’s chef-owner Sam Clonts tells me, “The level of intensity is lower in casual places. Chefs heading for more casual spots is a response to the market, but also to what’s needed in dining right now.”
Happy Gyro chef-creator Johnny Monis feels the same. “We haven’t connected with fine dining for a long while,” he says. “It’s not where our hearts are, or how we enjoy eating. Over the past few years, we’ve tried to create a place where we can pursue whatever stokes our passion and gets us and our team excited. A place that energizes us instead of depletes us.”
That’s not to say that a great cheeseburger or gyro is artless or financially painless to produce. But imagine a pizza joint forcing an employee to spend three straight months tweezing dried jam into the shape of a beetle the way Noma did to intern Namrata Hegde. That whole time, Hegde told New York Times reporter Julia Moskin, she was forbidden from either speaking or (especially) laughing in the kitchen. Would a sandwich shop forbid its staff from laughing in its pursuit of greatness? Maybe, but the fact that it probably isn’t striving for a spot on the 50 Best Restaurants list makes the possibility seem remote.
There’s another side to the fine dining burnout that we’ve seen recently in movies like The Menu and TV shows like The Bear, both of which show classically trained, high-end chefs at their breaking points. While very different, both stories share one important thesis: These stressed-out protagonists would be better off making “simple” food in the back-to-basics arc also seen in films like Chef and Pig. We audiences are invited to chuckle at the tweezer-and-foam pretentiousness of the restaurants on our screens, even as we sympathize with the harried chefs who staff them. The fanciful, beautiful little plates they produce are perfect visual cues for audiences to see wealthy diners as fundamentally different from them. The effect would be similar if all the exquisitely constructed dishes from The Menu took the form of MealSquares or nutrient capsules instead—we see these diners as less human because their food doesn’t look like our food. We like when the on-screen chefs “return” to us by cooking something that we recognize, whether it’s The Menu’s Really Good Cheeseburger or The Bear’s Italian beef sandwiches.
Per Monis, a “return” like that is enjoyable from the chefs’ side, too. “We’re part of people’s lives in a more relaxed way. Nothing freighted with expectations,” he says of his restaurant’s shift from tasting menu to casual neighborhood joint. “That’s how we like to eat and drink. Does that mean we compromise the quality of ingredients or pay any less attention to detail? Not at all.” (Truth be told, the eponymous Gyro at Monis’ restaurant does indeed make me as Happy as Komi’s roast goat shoulder once did.)
Meanwhile, classically trained ex-chef and current bartender Jake Vorono left fine dining because he “completely lost touch with the people I was cooking for and that killed the passion for me. My friends couldn’t eat the food I was cooking, my family couldn’t, I had nothing in common with the clientele, and that made cooking feel like a sham.” But while it was hard on his humanity, it wasn’t the technique-heavy cuisine that weighed on him. “Working in fine dining was a massive creative outlet,” he continues. “I truly loved the learning experience of advanced culinary techniques [like] modernist techniques, ‘molecular gastronomy,’ and sous vide.” Vorono now works at the Seattle bar Bait Shop and says he’s much happier.
Food aside, fine dining restaurants also burn their workers out in more straightforward ways. I spoke about that with Annabel Sharahy, a fine dining alum who’s currently the executive chef of Brooklyn’s soon-to-open Dromedary Doughnuts. “Fine dining places tend to exploit their employees by making them work longer hours and paying them low wages because just having their name on your résumé will get you super far,” she tells me. “Casual spots typically can’t rely on that, so they offer their employees better working conditions and better pay instead.”
Vorono agrees. “Young cooks have a hard time these days realizing that a casual kitchen is a really superior place to learn some solid technique,” he says. “There’s a lot of free time to dive into research [and] study, and a less rigorous workload that gives you some freedom to play around with the menu a little more.” Monis also notes what a relief that freedom is after years in the high-stakes world of ultra-fine dining—now he and his staff are cooking whatever they feel like cooking, without the pressure to check off certain upscale-experience boxes.
All that said, is it true that all a burned-out super-chef needs is to get back into cheeseburgers, Cubanos, or whatever the popular food movie of the week says is most healing for her spirit? Probably not—even after describing working with a 103-degree fever and through loved ones’ weddings, Sharahy still misses the all-consuming world of fine dining. “I’ve met so many interesting, inspiring, talented people from all over the world,” she says. “The ingredients you get to work with are also insane. And the cool things you get to try. I never thought I’d be able to try a $100,000 bottle of wine.” Still, leaving fine dining is a way for chefs to achieve the best of both worlds: the acclaim and the honor of creating an experience that’s rewarding for more diners. Both Vorono and Sharahy say they’re happy to see their old fine dining friends open casual eateries where they can play with the techniques they’ve learned, but with less pain and more creative control.
That juxtaposition is another key element to the back-to-basics arc. It explicates every diner’s hope: to eat food that tastes just as good as what the super-rich get to eat, but with a lower price tag and less heartbreak involved in its execution. Enter the fine dining chef whose dream has always been to cook lasagna just like his mother used to make. His résumé is impressive, but what’s even more impressive is that he wants to leave résumé cooking behind in favor of making real food. He spent most of his professional life catering to the unseemly whims of rich diners, but in opening Mom’s Lasagna Shack, he’s coming back to the people. That interpretation isn’t just a reflection on the unsustainability of fine dining, but also one on how much more pleasant we plebeians are as patrons. (Having spent much of my life working in food service, I can say that the only people who are reliably pleasant patrons are other food service workers. Absolutely everyone else is hit-or-miss.)
As the pandemic drags on and the cost of living climbs ever higher, fine dining will have to keep reckoning with its place in a society that’s more immiserated by the day. “At 63 Clinton, we’re still [serving] a tasting menu but we try to keep it to under $100,” Clonts says. That puts his menu in contrast with one like Noma’s, which runs at least $500 per person. While the back-to-basics arc works best in the collective imagination when it leads to truly downmarket ventures, other chefs still hope to redeem fine dining itself with compromises (albeit expensive ones) like these. Some serve more affordable tasting menus in less uptight settings, others offer employees the health benefits and paid time off that chefs and cooks haven’t historically gotten.
It’s striking, though, how many chefs leave high-end environments without leaving the industry altogether. The abuse and work-life balance in upscale kitchens can be disillusioning, but never the experience of feeding people. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether you’re tweezing, foaming, frying, shaping meatballs, or playing with your food in one of infinitely many other ways. What matters is that you still feel gratified when you feed someone a plate of your food, whatever it looks like.
Correction, Jan. 18, 2023: This article originally misspelled Kim Mikkola’s name as Kim Vikkola.