Noma, Rene Redzepi’s Nordic temple of gastronomy, recently christened its “Summer Season” after months of mandated closure. As its staff scrambled to reopen, Chef Redzepi shared an Instagram video of an edible butterfly made of a colorful array of meticulously tweezered radishes enveloped in a glass display like a precious bauble. He proclaimed that “the creativity is slowly returning” even though some iteration of this strange butterfly thingy had already appeared on Noma’s menu before the pandemic hit. For the low, low price of $400 USD a head, diners could put their COVID cares away and gorge themselves silly on radish insects and other culinary gewgaws from the mind of one of the greatest chefs in the world.
When restrictions were eased in Copenhagen, Noma initially transformed itself into a burger joint and natural wine bar. Redzepi said publicly that returning to business as usual didn’t yet feel right. In case anyone dared worry that his ambitions as a chef were receding, he shared footage of a masked battalion of kitchen apprentices vigorously slapping and massaging ground beef patties to maximize their tenderness. Of course, the burger would also be seasoned with some fermented feral animal tinctures developed in Noma’s food lab. Service was moved outdoors to a smattering of picnic tables arranged at an appropriate social distance. Redzepi would donate a portion of the proceeds from burger sales to charitable causes.
As American cities began to emerge from quarantine, Alinea in Chicago—one of the world’s most decorated restaurants—launched an outdoor rooftop pop-up where guests could relish in one of their signature ticketed tasting menus al fresco. In the early days of lockdown, the restaurant had been successfully selling high-end comfort food for takeout designed by Alinea’s chef, Grant Achatz. The tasting menu at AIR—an acronym for Alinea in Residence—included a bite-sized canapé molded into the shape of a microscopic Coronavirus cell.
When one of AIR’s guests posted a giddy photo of the dish on social media, the post went viral (no pun intended). “Art is often meant to provoke discomfort, conversation, and awareness. This is no different,” Nick Kokonas, Achatz’s business partner, wrote on Instagram. “Everyone on here saying we are somehow oblivious need to think just a single level upwards.” But as cases surpassed 60,000 per day in the United States alone, the food media whipped itself into a frenzy.
Defenders of Achatz’s creation—including two white male food critics from both of Chicago’s major newspapers—have cited the public’s need for escape. His Coronavirus canapés, they argued, were intended to deliver a dose of desperately needed levity. But with the death toll continuing to rise, it seemed like an inappropriate time to be making light of the pandemic. It’s an especially bad look in Chicago—home to many of the nation’s poorest Black and Latinx neighborhoods—given how communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the spread of the virus while the city’s affluent communities where many of Alinea’s guests reside have largely been spared.
The hiatus caused by the pandemic has forced many chefs and owners to reconsider their businesses models. The COVID crisis presents logistical challenges that make high-end service impractical or outright impossible. Canlis, a James Beard Award-winning restaurant in Seattle, turned its fine dining operation into an outdoor crab shack. Saison, a two-star Michelin restaurant in San Francisco, started smoking meats in its sister restaurant Angler and became Saison Smokehouse, a takeout barbecue joint. At N/Naka in Los Angeles, where 13-course prix fixe menus averaged $250 per person, Chef Niki Nakayama started offering $38 bento boxes. Even the legendary master of haute cuisine Daniel Boulud retrofitted his flagship restaurant Daniel for outdoor dining with a new a la carte bistro menu.
Even before the onset of the pandemic, upscale restaurants had already become grotesque theaters for unapologetic capitalism. Menus at high-end restaurants are designed to empty wallets by making food and wine purchases status symbols. The most successful fine dining restaurants desensitize guests to prices. They surround you with accoutrements that are more luxurious than you’ll ever own and a charismatic cast of characters whose cheerful temperament is unflappable. It’s the same manufactured joy that entices people to fork over hundreds of dollars to see a mediocre Broadway musical. Even when the performance sucks, you still leave tapping your feet.
While the fate of the industry hangs in the balance, it feels beyond self-indulgent for chefs to be flexing their cooking muscles for the enjoyment of a privileged few. The moxie of chefs like Achatz and Redzepi to return to business as usual while the COVID threat remains alive is confounding. While no one is immune to the economic impact due to the shutdown, affluent people have been insulated from its worst effects. Alinea’s rooftop is already booked through August.
But the euphoria may be short-lived. California, which reopened restaurants for indoor dining in late May, has already had to shut down restaurants again when indoor dining caused a dangerous spike in cases. The pattern is doomed to repeat itself in other American cities like Chicago where income inequality and vibrant dining scenes coexist.
This has always been one of the moral dilemmas presented by fine dining in densely populated urban areas. Many of the world’s most exclusive restaurants are located in cities with the highest levels of poverty. As a server, I’ve cringed watching rich people struggle with the question of whether or not they’d like to have their leftovers wrapped. On too many occasions, guests who’ve just eaten enough to feed a small family congratulate themselves by announcing proudly that they plan to give their uneaten food to a homeless person. These same people cheer when local mayors and police announce initiatives to “clean up” the city by forcibly removing the homeless from the streets.
Let’s be honest—fine dining caters to a white audience. It’s always been a safe space for white people to celebrate their privilege. That’s probably why so many Karens are going apeshit when they’re asked to put on a mask in a restaurant. Karens are accustomed to sidestepping the rules because upscale restaurants can’t afford to lose their business.
The fact that Kokonas defended his actions by telling his detractors to start thinking “a single level upwards” reveals elitist underpinnings. There’s an implication in his response that those of us who aren’t fortunate enough to procure a seat at Alinea’s exclusive soirée have a comprehension level a notch below his clientele’s. Maybe Kokonas and Co. should start thinking a level down or at least get their heads out of the clouds long enough to see beyond the prosperity of their own business.
The most fervent defenders of fine dining will argue that we all have the right to spend our hard-earned money however we please. They’re not wrong. This is America. Land of the Free, Home of the Shellfish Tower. The problem is that quite often the money spent in fine dining restaurants isn’t hard-earned at all. It’s spent recklessly from corporate expense accounts or inherited wealth. In most cases, the beneficiaries are white. The person washing their dishes isn’t.
Capitalists will tell you not to worry because the money trickles down when people spend frivolously. But now we’re learning the hard way what happens when the faucet gets turned off or a water main bursts. Without enhanced unemployment benefits, many restaurant workers would already have fallen into poverty and some may be at risk of losing their homes. Wealthy people, on the other hand, are battening down the hatches in their vacation homes, watching their stocks go up, while the rest of us worry about getting sick because we don’t have health insurance.
A few days after Alinea’s Coronavirus canapé went viral, the restaurant temporarily shuttered when a staff member tested positive for COVID. Until medical treatment is readily available, it’s hard to imagine an outcome other than the fits and starts we’ve seen across the nation as cities rush to reopen. Not surprisingly, bars and restaurants have proven to be nexuses of transmission and community spread. Until political leaders are able to look beyond stimulating economic growth, the restaurant industry will have to rely on its own instincts to create a paradigm that allows it to serve food without killing people.
Let’s face it. The world doesn’t need fine dining right now. Maybe it never did. It needs community support and unity across racial, political and economic lines. Fine dining restaurants that cater only to the wealthy are a symptom of society’s underlying sickness which is how desensitized we’ve become to human suffering. Profiting from privilege during the worst public health crisis in a generation while putting workers and patrons at risk only further deepens the divide. Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for immorality.