Noma 2.0 and what it means to be “cutting edge”

I recently had a short exchange with whomever manages the Twitter account of the acclaimed Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark (city of my birth, incidentally and completely irrelevantly). It was based on an article I recently read in Eater, which I found to be refreshingly critical of the restaurant that’s been everyone’s darling in the food media world since it nabbed the title of the “World’s Best” in 2010 – and retained it for several years thereafter, unseating the likes of Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, but that’s cool, because the emperor does need a new set of clothes every once in a while.

I jest, and admit to facetiousness – I don’t really have any gripe with the philosophy behind any of these restaurants, except when they make little sense, which is the only reason I would say anything about them, and which is why I appreciated the critical (but still nuanced, I think) Eater piece which pointed out, inter alia, that:

Noma 2.0 is poised to retain its predecessor’s position at the forefront of global gastronomy [which] is concerning. Because for all the wide-eyed celebrations of its groundbreaking approach to food, Noma’s philosophy is not actually very progressive at all.

To start with, there’s the fact that Noma’s philosophy has its roots in culinary traditions that precede it by decades. As was generally unacknowledged until relatively recently, Japanese kaiseki has been showcasing its fealty to microseasonal, deeply locavore cooking for almost half a century; further west, Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse has offered daily-changing menus of intensely local bounty almost as long as Redzepi has been alive.

As the Noma Mexico/taco episode of Ugly Delicious made strikingly clear, outside of the bubble of fine dining, generations of rural communities around the world have not regarded eating local as a movement nor as a cool new thing to try out: It is simply a question of necessity. Far from offering a whole new outlook on cooking, Noma has spent the last 10 years repackaging pre-existing approaches, making them more comprehensible or fashionable (and therefore more palatable) to an urban Western audience drawn to third-wave coffee shop aesthetics and chef-bro tattoos.

I don’t have as much of a problem with this is the author of Eater article does, but the response from the restaurant to my tweet about this being an interesting critical take on the situation was more revealing in terms of signalling that perhaps their “philosophy” isn’t as tight as they imagine, or that noma 2.0 is something of a Ship of Theseus (thanks, Philosophe):

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t give a shit that their mussels are from Limfjorden (which is very Vikingish, and therefore in line with the original “local” philosophy, by the way, so not sure why that was offered as a point of disagreement or “confession”) – all I’m interested in here is the example of rapidly moving a goalpost to explain whatever you’re doing on the fly, rather than having a carefully thought-out goalpost that you exhibit sticking to through all iterations of your brand.

I’m not an expert in either advertising nor branding, so won’t bother with proclamations about possible market implications of this kind of to- and fro-ing about what the hell you’re actually about (and by the sounds of things it’s not like they’re failing to get bums on seats, so what do I know🤷). I will, however, say that while I was never really excited by the idea of ants on a shrimp, I also happen to believe that Redzepi is no doubt a remarkably talented chef with some very cool ideas, and I wish noma 2.0 nothing but success. Still, being open to considered criticism is a form of humility we could all be better at, and throwing your toys on Twitter is not a good example of that.

Noma won’t suffer from the publication of one (tempered) piece of criticism, and they certainly won’t suffer from my absence at one of their tables. But for a restaurant at the “cutting edge” of whatever requires cutting at the present moment, perhaps including a bit of the proverbial humble pie (locally sourced, of course – hyldebær, måske?) on the menu would be a good idea.