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food doesn't get more yummy than a carby dish loaded with umami and fat but let's not conflate what forms the base of our hierarchy of needs with the expressions that emerge from its top
Noma is closing in two years. I shouldn’t have read the comments and opinion pieces. Now I have opinions about the opinions (and like most people with opinions, I have not been).
Fine dining and fashion opinions tend to suffer a similar affliction from the misleading familiarity we have with our day to day experiences of food and clothing — it’s easy to conflate the purposes that form the base of our hierarchy of needs with the expressions that emerge from its top (aesthetics, self-actualization). They also suffer from similarly shaped ethical conundrums around labour, production, consumption. Then the illusive dollar value of aesthetics, the subjectivity of taste.
My least favourite takes are the ones that dismiss Noma as a preciosity or tries to make its closing some sort of Icarian lesson about having strayed too far beyond what dinner or restaurants “should be”.
I don’t think food gets more satisfying and yummy than a carby dish loaded with umami and fat — think of the best pizza, burger, bowl of noodles you’ve ever had. My tummy and tongue couldn’t ask for more. A Detroit style pizza with PERFECTLY crispy crust, pepperoni, cheese, truffle sauce, crispy mushrooms, hot honey, hot damn. A Shake Shack cheeseburger and a milkshake. Poutine at 3am. Soft scrambled eggs on toast. Some comforting family recipe for special occasions. Does it get more delicious than chips engineered in a lab for optimal snackability? Is scallop foam ever more enjoyable than whipped cream topped on a hot chocolate after hours of shovelling snow?
and yet !
that’s not the point !!
Most of what we eat sits somewhere between purely utilitarian and purely aesthetic — somewhere between subsisting on Soylent and flavoured air. Food at its most utilitarian is just about you. Dining is a relationship and an expression and about how someone else makes you feel, whether it’s someone making and serving you a meal at home or at a restaurant. It’s as much about their creation and expression as it is about your consumption and enjoyment.
[I invite you to think about all the discourse about art and the ways in which it’s ‘about’ the artist or the viewer or the relationship between.]
“Fine dining” evokes white table cloths, french words, obscure ingredients, tiny portions, pinkies out — stuffy and comical with its own self importance. Who has appetite for that? But maybe it’s those caricatures that make the delight all the more unexpected. I think at its best (like most things), it’s a lot of fun if you’ll graciously allow someone to do what they do best and let yourself enjoy it for what it is. Be fooled by the molecular gastronomy, see the tabletop painting as art, notice the painstaking details, marvel at the processes invented here. Let your crumbs be brushed away. Let the wine be poured. Let your bouche be amused. There is delight and awe!
I think this review from Kirsty Bosley on her first fine dining experience captures that potential at its best. Or Samin Nosrat as a Berkeley undergrad having a special dinner at Chez Panisse that ended up changing the course of her life - “What I really remember was the feeling — it was amazing, I had never felt so cared for.” Or Anthony Bourdain eating at Momofuku Ko and rediscovering what food could be after burning out on tasting menus.
Like every other art and industry, it has its own world with its inside jokes, references, histories, mythologies, secrets. There are artists, tastemakers, critics who define culture and set trends that trickle through local neighbourhood restaurants into the mouths of those of us who wear cerulean sweaters mistaken for blue.
Some scattered thoughts on the ethics
I don’t know how to wrangle with the complexities! I can’t do The Good Place -esque tallying up of every decision I’ve ever made and their infinite ripples through the rest of time. The climate apocalypse is upon us. There is no ethical consumption. The way to make flying across the world for dinner even less ethical is to not appreciate it.
How much should art cost? How much should experience cost? How much should ingredients cost? Where do they come from, how are they grown, processed, shipped? How much should labour cost? Who’s working? What’s the value of a dollar?
The technologies and consequences of mass production. Emissions of the cattle industry. Pesticides. The cruelty of factory farming.
Who’s picking the strawberries I got at the grocery store? Who’s living for months on end on fishing boats? The Secret Life of Groceries is on my to-read list and I’m afraid to find out.
What’s harm reduction here? Growing your own food. Eating local. “Slow living” lifestyles. “Farm to table” restaurants. CSA programs. Whatever ‘organic’ means. ??
The current state is unsustainable. That’s why Noma is closing!
There was this one TikTok I saw last week from which I learned that an egg amuse bouche I’d been stunned by at Lazy Bear (fr it blew my mind that they put whipped scrambled eggs back inside the egg shell) was actually a play on the signature egg dish invented 20 years ago at Arpège in Paris.