If you secure a reservation at Noma in Copenhagen for the upcoming game season, you’ll be looking at a bill of 5500DKK (€739.55) a head. What’s more shocking than this eye-watering price is the fact that it may not reflect the true cost of the dining experience.
ome with an intimate understanding of the world of fine dining question whether the traditional model under which high-end restaurants operate is sustainable. And by sustainable, they are not talking only about sourcing ingredients responsibly, composting and eliminating cling film, but about people, too.
If everyone employed in fine-dining restaurants was paid for the actual number of hours they work rather than the number they are contracted for, and were entitled to the benefits such as maternity leave, pension contributions, and sick pay that those working in other sectors take for granted, labour costs would increase dramatically.
The restaurant industry operates on small margins and, with pressure coming from all sides in terms of energy and food costs, factoring in additional staffing costs is likely to be a bridge too far. If prices go up further, restaurant owners wonder, from where are the customers going to come?
Lisa Lind Dunbar spent 13 years working in a variety of roles in the hospitality industry in Denmark. In an essay published in Atlas Magazine earlier this year, she described some of her experiences of abuse and toxicity working in a dysfunctional industry, a culture in which people who are embedded develop a type of Stockholm syndrome.
“In my first waiter job as an adult … initially [I] found the looser social constellations to be liberating,” she wrote. “I found camaraderie with the people with whom I worked, because they were free-spirited and colourful, with social and outgoing personalities, like myself. The lines of what was privately social and professionally social were quickly blurred. The work made me feel that my personality was my most valued asset and, naively, I let myself [be] seduce[d] by the adrenaline, which a job in a turbulent, non-stop work environment offered.
“My work in the industry … became a lifestyle. The norm would be shifts of 12-13-14 hours, with only one brief break. After work, when we would finally punch out at one or two in the morning, no one would be able to come down from [the] tension of the day’s shift and the high levels of stress hormone, which had been what had carried us all through the strain of a whole day of highly charged work. We drank a lot. We barely slept… We often worked with a hangover. We rarely called in sick because it was frowned upon. We were always willing to work overtime and earn more points in a game of self-sacrifice. Gradually, the consequences of my new-found extreme lifestyle began to manifest as a constant and underlying anxiety. As social isolation from family and friends. As an overconsumption of alcohol. And even though I myself became aware of how the circumstances of my life slowly started to disintegrate and rot, it simultaneously felt, as with many a dysfunctional relationship, increasingly difficult to find a way out because my social life and dependence had become so anchored in my work. As if the trap had shut. As a type of Stockholm syndrome, I developed an emotional attachment to the restaurateurs and an industry which exploited and isolated me.”
Since the publication of Lind Dunbar’s essay, numerous workers in fine-dining restaurants have shared their experiences of violent and exploitative working conditions with her. After hearing so many of these accounts, she now regards fine dining and the pursuit of accolades incompatible with a sustainable working environment.
“It’s evident from the status quo and the way things have always been that they are not compatible,” says Lind Dunbar. “I see these as ‘upper-class’ elitist restaurants, and their problems are manyfold. From my own experience and what I know from the testimonies which have come out of places in Denmark at the forefront of New Nordic Cuisine — Noma and Geranium are dominant in this field — the type of ambition that seeks recognition from Michelin or the 50 Best is fostering a work culture that prioritises awards and accolades more so than the health of the people who are making that success possible.
“We see many restaurants — this is the norm rather than the exception — dependent on exploiting free labour, whether that is from unpaid stagiaires or unpaid hours for those on payroll, who are paid for 40 hours when they work 80/90 hours. CEO of Noma Peter Kreiner said Noma will never be a normal workplace, and when you have ambition, this is what it takes. There is no excuse for concealing the exploitation of people as ambition, saying that, if you want to be ambitious, you have to work for free. That’s deeply problematic and incompatible with preserving a socially sustainable work environment for people who are driven to exhaustion by the work culture.”
Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud currently offers Ireland’s most expensive tasting menu — eight courses for €235. A wine pairing, the price of which is not divulged on the restaurant’s website, is recommended. At Aimsir in Co Kildare, the 18-course menu costs €210, with matching wines a further €125. At Chapter One, the tasting menu is priced at €175, with matching wines another €105, unless you go for the fancier sommelier’s selection, priced at €280.
There is no suggestion that any of these excellent two-Michelin-star restaurants are engaged in the exploitation of staff, but at a time when the cost of living in Ireland is at an all-time high, their prices are lower than those at comparable restaurants internationally. One has to ask whether prices reflect the true cost of a fine-dining experience.
But whether the Irish customer is willing to cough up if prices increase is another matter. Many in the industry think they won’t.
“There will be no customers if prices go up,” says Paul Flynn of The Tannery in Dungarvan, which celebrated 25 years in business last year. “Staff costs are already 40pc of turnover, and you can only charge the customer so much. It’s a balancing act every day. You only realise all the issues when the buck stops with you.”
Flynn worked at the highest level of fine dining in London and was head chef at Chez Nico when the restaurant earned its third Michelin star. But when he opened his own restaurant, he eschewed the fine-dining model.
“At The Tannery, I knew from the outset if we didn’t have the locals on board, we wouldn’t survive. It had to be a destination, too. I wanted a more rustic style of food to what I cooked in London. I have always been aspirational, but not always in terms of Michelin recognition. With my own place, there are my own pressures, but they are different to the ones I had with Nico. Here it is not about the elegance of the food. Pleasing people day in, day out, creating something on the spot is pressure enough. I am unwilling to pile on more pressure [by seeking Michelin recognition]. It’s getting harder; the outside pressure is increasing. You can have a star, but if no one wants what you have, that’s no good.”
Flynn says there’s no getting away from the fact that cooking to a high standard requires hard work and dedication.
“I don’t want to sound like an old fart, but hard work is not a bad thing. Stages are an essential part of the industry. They are like going to night class — you educate yourself, you go to absorb, to work, it’s like studying morning, noon and night. It’s not about restaurants taking advantage of people. And then it’s up to you how far you advance. Everyone is different, and the lovely thing about food is that, once you learn how to cook, there’s a place for you in the industry. It doesn’t have to be high-end; you need to find whatever niche makes you happy — it could be a good cafe.”
Cúán Greene, who worked at Noma and headed up the kitchen at Bastible in Dublin, produces a weekly newsletter, The Ómós Digest, in which he has addressed issues of toxicity and working culture affecting the industry.
While there have been none of the high-profile exposés of toxic restaurant kitchens in Ireland that have made the headlines in other countries, the names of the worst offenders are common knowledge among those in the industry and the journalists focused on the sector. Many — including Greene — decline to support those restaurants by eating in or writing about them.
Greene’s ambition is to open his own fine-dining restaurant in Ireland, but he’s struggling to figure out how it can be done ethically.
“It’s something I think about all the time,” he says. “How can a sustainable model of fine dining be created? Fine dining has moved on; it’s not just about white tablecloths any more. I’m passionate about food and the art form, the creativity and exploration behind it. But I want to do it right, not in the way I was brought up. It’s exceedingly difficult; restrictions of price and perceptions of value hinder the progression of restaurants. It’s all down to that.”
Lind Dunbar agrees that what’s needed is a change of attitude in terms of how consumers view the luxury of fine dining.
“The food at, for instance, Noma is developed through thousands of hours of work, but that work is not represented in the price the diner pays. Certainly there is a financial solution — by paying people for the hours they work — but also we need to respect the value of the work the industry is based on. To me, it is straightforward: What would the calculation of the cost of the meal be if we put down every hour that goes into making that meal at Noma? I would like to see that number; I think we all would. That might be a way for people to recognise how much labour that meal took. When that number is not acknowledged or represented in the price, that labour is made invisible.”
Greene wants the hospitality industry to treat the people who work in it fairly, but acknowledges that, as wages and working conditions improve, the cost to the diner has to increase.
“I think about inclusivity,” he says. “Has fine dining ever been inclusive from a price point of view? Who can afford to eat that way? As a chef, I want to cook for lovely people, not just rich people, but by charging the actual cost of the meal, you limit customers to the rich. But on the other hand, is it inclusive to drop prices? What sacrifices are made in terms of people, the workforce, the ingredients, the meals? Four years ago, a tasting menu costing €60-€80 was expensive, now it’s cheap. And a price point that seems affordable to diners isn’t affordable in terms of the workforce. It begs the question: How moral is fine dining?”
It’s a question for which he’s still struggling to come up with an answer. “It’s a difficult topic to talk about,” he says. “Is it an eating experience or another experience altogether? At an art exhibition, some people see colours on the walls, others see narrative, beauty, mission, movement. For me, food represents that. I think there needs to be a reassessment of the value we place on food. You have to look beyond the plate and ask: What is it taking to do this? Does it make sense financially?”
Lind Dunbar says she can’t think of a fine-dining restaurant anywhere in the world that is doing things properly.
“The top chefs who are championed as geniuses and tormented artists are benefiting from the perspective that what they do is art. Yes, the type of meal they create is a sensory experience that is pleasing, but the price should reflect the amount of work that has gone into it. These experiences are already for the extremely wealthy, but now New Nordic is disguised as somehow morally superior, invested in the social economy of Denmark. But there is no excuse for not compensating with money the people who make that product. I don’t care how these top chefs see themselves, it doesn’t excuse what it means for the people who create it. It is a very harmful and socially damaging way of creating anything, and it has to stop.
“People work in these restaurants where there are no union agreements, no pensions, and all they get is that they can put it on their CV,” she continues. “There has been almost no response from the industry to the criticism of the work culture I have put forward because there is nothing to contest. They know they don’t have another story, so they are trying to silence it away. There are not a lot of people in my choir speaking up about this.”
One chef who has turned the traditional model of a fine-dining restaurant on its head is Philip Mahon. Earlier this year, he and his wife, Kathy, opened a restaurant in their home near Rathangan, Co Kildare. Alumni Kitchen Table serves dinner just two nights a week to eight people, with overnight accommodation provided. With wine pairings, the cost starts at €700 per couple.
For Mahon, who worked with Dylan McGrath at Mint, and under Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing at Pétrus in London, with stints at Per Se and Alinea in the US along the way, the motivation for opening Alumni was wanting to cook at a high level yet have ownership and control.
“It was always my dream to have my own place, to have free rein. I never wanted a brasserie, or to be cooking burgers and wings. This is experimental fine dining but fun, using the best of what is available locally, supplemented with some fine-dining luxuries such as caviar and lobster.”
At Alumni, Mahon is the only one in the kitchen, while his wife looks after front of house. Aside from a kitchen porter, and a cleaner to help with bedroom turnaround, the couple do everything themselves.
“There’s always a fear with restaurants that they will close,” explains Mahon. “I wanted something with longevity. I feel very privileged to be able to do this in the middle of nowhere, offering the promise of a pilgrimage.”
Danni Barry held a Michelin star at Eipic in Belfast, one of only three women in Ireland ever to earn that recognition. After stepping back from the front line of fine dining for a few years, she is set to return in the near future and, while she says the establishment in question hasn’t hired her with the intention of getting a star, it’s obviously somewhere serious about food.
“It’s a huge topic,” she says. “I do still follow Michelin and I believe it’s important that there is that kind of guide at that high-end level. I have a huge amount of respect for those who commit to excellence in their work every day, and if Michelin awarded me a star again, I would obviously be delighted. But if you have a dozen chefs working for nothing to ensure the pictures we see on Instagram, is that right?
“Having had some time away, I am very aware of the need to treat staff well and make it sustainable. I ran a Michelin-starred kitchen and I believe I ran it fairly, but I placed a lot of demands on myself and always wanted to do more, and there was an expectation on the team they would always be there. I look at it more holistically now — my needs as a person and those of my team need to be met. I want it to be possible. It shouldn’t be either/or. You shouldn’t have to put up with being treated like rubbish just to work in a brilliant restaurant.”
Like Greene, Barry says it comes down to how we value food and our food experiences. “How do we make people understand the value of fine dining, when the lowest common denominator is the €9.95 carvery? People spend money on trainers and watches, yet they are reluctant to spend on food. But when you eat in a fine-dining restaurant, you are paying for someone’s craft, for 20 years of training, for the storytelling behind the dishes. Until our perception changes, it’s unsustainable.”
Kevin Thornton is one of Ireland’s best-known chefs. He and his wife Muriel ran Thornton’s — which, at one time, held two Michelin stars — for almost 30 years. Though he says the experience was deeply fulfilling and creatively rewarding, and he regards it as a privilege to have been involved in the business of helping people celebrate life’s events, he and Muriel made the decision to close the restaurant in 2016.
“The hours were long and the overheads were high,” he says, “but the creativity and passion for the raw ingredients and their transformation to exciting menus made it all worthwhile. We closed the restaurant to concentrate on having more of a work/life balance and allow our creativity to expand beyond the confines of the restaurant walls.”
They have no regrets about their decision, he adds. “We started Kevin Thornton’s Kooks in 2017, having enjoyed a year travelling, and we now bring the Thornton’s dinner party experience to our clients’ homes and businesses. We also host masterclasses once a month. The days of working 70-80 hour weeks are behind us, and we still get to help our long-standing loyal Thornton’s customers to celebrate happy times.”
While older chefs such as Flynn and Thornton, who have turned their backs on accolades, seem happy with their decisions, what about the next generation? How are they to reconcile their ambition to produce high-level food with their desire for sustainability?
“I have always stood up for my values,” says Greene. “I was taught to respect others. I’m ambitious and I wanted to learn from the best. Looking back, I sacrificed some things, I stayed in some places too long, and mentally that had a huge effect on me. Now I have a duty to make things better. I’m not cooking for accolades, I want to create an atmosphere of respect while maintaining creativity.
“It’s not fair to blame Michelin or anyone [for the culture that exists]. I have always admired Michelin and would like to get there myself. Like everyone, Michelin is evolving and moving with the times. I think a lot of toxicity comes down to ambition and pressure and fear. Perhaps if we change the ambition from being accolade-based to being business-based, focused on people, we will get there.”
For now though, he has more questions than answers. “I’m still formulating my thoughts, trying to learn from other industries,” he says. “But I am part of a cohort that wants a better future, and among us, there is a real feeling of progression, not in terms of skills, but mentality. I want to be at the centre of a positive future for the industry, and I am very hopeful.”
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