When Coffee Loved Noma
And what coffee can—and should—learn from the restaurant's closure
There was a time when coffee folks were infatuated with Noma.
On January 9, 2023, René Redzepi, the founder of the internationally acclaimed restaurant, announced via the New York Times that Noma would close in 2024. Noma is known for its ambitious tasting menus, for popularizing “New Nordic” cuisine, and as a pinnacle of the fine dining experience. But according to Redzepi, adhering to such high standards was no longer achievable. “It’s unsustainable,” he told the Times. “Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.”
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If you’re at least tangentially connected to the food world, this announcement probably sent shockwaves through your feeds and timelines. Some mourned the loss of the restaurant giant, while others rightly pointed to the restaurant’s many flaws—including its use of unpaid labor; its history of bullying and staff mistreatment; and a questionable sustainability “commitment” that also involves international tourism, global pop-ups, and $500+ checks.
These issues are specific to Noma and also apply to much of the fine-dining industry more broadly—but I’m not here to talk about these things. Instead, I want to talk about why coffee people have been enamored with both Noma and Redzepi for years.
No Milk, No Sugar
If coffee had mini-eras dispersed throughout its distinct “waves,” Noma’s ascension around the early 2010s coincided with coffee’s “less is more” era. Think barebones menus, no cup size options, and the virtual elimination of anything that could “ruin” your drink. Arguably the high-water mark of this era was the opening of Handsome Coffee Roasters (click this link for a ridiculous video that tells you a lot about the brand—and about this era in coffee) in 2012, which offered only whole milk, forbade the use of sweeteners, and proudly proclaimed it was “not for everybody,” as co-founder Tyler Wells told Grub Street. Within two years, Handsome Coffee was bought and renamed under the Blue Bottle umbrella.
I was a fangirl barista at this time. I admired “serious” coffee shops that were uncompromising in their standards, and I strived to work at one of the handful of New York cafés I considered “a real coffee shop.” At the time, caring deeply for your craft and accommodating customers felt like mutually exclusive goals. If there was any era when patrons could justifiably label baristas pretentious, it was this one.
I remember hearing many of my fellow baristas talk about Noma, and admire its uncompromising stance. (Where else would become known for serving reindeer penis?) There was an overlap between the restaurant’s ideals and this particular group of coffee disciples, who desperately wanted to serve coffee without blemish, to talk your ear off about how meticulously picked the beans were, to fuss over a pour-over for hours. It felt like Noma represented and unlocked something in coffee we could not yet do—to follow our interests to their logical conclusions, with no thought given to how those efforts would be received.
Many in the food world have pointed to Noma’s closure as a sign that fine dining—which, as it’s designed now, often depends on exploiting someone’s labor—does not work. Some outlets have rightly identified what many workers within the fine dining world have been saying for years. Coffee, too, stands to learn a lot from this moment. And oddly enough, some of those lessons come from Redzepi himself.
Redzepi gave two talks at the Nordic Barista Cup, a coffee organization that used to put together a yearly conference packed with speakers across industries. In his 2012 talk, he said that Noma would have “the best coffee of any restaurant in the world,” and his follow-up talk a year—“Milk and Sugar, Please!”—outlined how he went about this process, which was initially led by the restaurant’s sommelier, Mads Kleppe. Noma worked with Tim Wendelboe, who owns an eponymous coffee roasting company in Norway, and the process was grueling: It took eight months, four or five visits from Wendelboe (who flew from Oslo to Copenhagen to assist), and adding a new staff member to unveil this new coffee model.
But one hurdle Redzepi hadn’t foreseen was that people were very particular about their coffee. “Messing with people’s coffee is some of the most fucked-up crazy things we’ve ever done,” he said. Initially, the team didn’t serve milk or sugar with their coffee, which made diners irate. “Even when we serve live animals to people, we sprinkle them with live ants, and they have to eat them off each other—it doesn’t do this to people.” Noma discovered that while patrons were seemingly ready and willing to eat anything served on a plate (bring on the reindeer penis!), they were exacting in their coffee preferences. In his latter talk, Redzepi pointed to a review by a Danish food critic—whom he openly called a “douchebag” on stage—about the coffee service. The critic wrote that the coffee at Noma tasted like a “sloppy, thin cup of tea ... it was undrinkable. It was worse than the coffee they serve on a ferry.”
It’s interesting to me that Redzepi seems so blinkered to the working dynamics of his restaurant—“that the math of compensating nearly 100 employees fairly, while maintaining high standards, at prices that the market will bear, is not workable,” as he shared with the Times. He frames such questions as a zero-sum game that is highly unethical: High standards seem unable to coexist with fair labor practices, and there’s no middle ground.
But he did make one incredibly salient point in his 2013 talk, one that offers a compromise, something he perhaps wasn’t willing to give to his restaurant workers. “I’ve stood in many lines at coffee shops … when I hear the humiliation of the people in front of me when they ask for some sugar, or some milk, or for their espresso to go, and the coffee person in front of them slaughters them,” he said. “Stand in a line, and at one point, someone is going to get fucking humiliated.”
Initially, Noma declined to offer milk and sugar for its coffee, but noticed that by not offering it—by insisting that the coffee was “perfect” as is—“it creates this void between you and the person.” Your server becomes your adversary, explaining that the way you want your coffee is somehow wrong or flawed. Eventually, the restaurant decided to put out milk and sugar, which completely flipped the relationship between servers and patrons. Instead of lectures, servers’ suggestions to omit milk and sugar felt like insider tips, but patrons were still free to doctor their coffee as they saw fit. Redzepi ended the talk by saying, to a room full of coffee professionals: “Please do not be angry when guests ask for milk and sugar.”
Not Worth It
This is a lesson spoken directly to our face, one coffee is learning slowly but surely. Perhaps the lesson feels ironic because of who’s delivering it, especially considering how uncompromising the choices for Noma’s future seem.
But there are more takeaways from Noma’s closure we would be right to heed sooner rather than later. Perhaps the biggest is that we can’t expect people to care about things they do not have access to. In Jaya Saxena’s article for Eater, “You Were Never Going to Go to Noma Anyway,” she writes: “I cannot bring myself to mourn Noma’s closure, because there is no part of me that feels something is being taken away from me.”
So much of what we deem “exciting” in coffee is entirely out of reach for most. In barista competitions, where competitors are bringing out some of the most prized coffees in the world (and creating unique drinks with them), only a few judges get to try the results. Many of the most exceptional offerings within a coffee shop are never available to most, lingering on a pour-over menu many will never order from.
Furthermore, excitement and novelty are often falsely conflated with quality. In an Esquire article about Noma’s closure, Jeff Gordinier writes, “The menu was constantly evolving, and each time I went I encountered absurdly delicious food that resembled no other food I had ever seen, or have seen since, even though plenty of impersonators have tried. Because of the unusual foundations of the cooking and the rigors that Frank Bruni refers to — experimental ferments that had never been attempted, foraged flora that most of us have never tasted — Noma reminded me again and again that eating food can be a way to open your mind.” (Chef and writer Jenny Dorsey dissects this article through a series of Instagram Stories saved on her page.)
His quote begs the question: What should open our minds—and at what cost? What is the value of innovations that are available to almost nobody? And just how innovative are these practices—especially if they come at the cost of others’ well-being?
This is where coffee can stand to learn from Noma’s closure. When something is sold to us as new and exciting, are we instantly assuming it is something of quality? And who are we hurting to make this reality a possibility? In coffee, this could mean farmers being asked to do “experimental processing” methods from which they derive no benefit—or even worse, undertaking a risky new processing method only to have their buyer back out. This could also play out on the retail level: I’m thinking of baristas working at prestigious coffee shops with exacting protocols but being paid minimum wage, or owners expanding their shops without regard for employees.
Essentially, this comes down to a few simple questions: If we can do something, does that mean we should? Are our goals worth it? Is innovation enough of a reason to pursue something new?
Genevieve Yam wrote a piece for Bon Appétit about her own experiences in fine dining and how the constant stress of the kitchen led to debilitating stress and pain. One line in the piece stuck with me: “My body was killing itself, all for minuscule details—like topping semifreddos with the ideal amount of foam—that simply did not matter.”
In the end, does any of this matter? The prestige, the innovative dishes, the new ideas—if they result in people feeling harmed and being harmed? The big, grandiose “innovations” that have come out of fine dining seem incredibly silly and callous when we think about it this way. With the impending threat of climate change and price volatility—problems we’ve known about in coffee for years, but seem only to get worse over time—I hope that’s a lesson we can learn before it’s too late.
Photo by Barthelemy de Mazenod
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