So Fine Dining Is Dead? Okay, Bring on the Next Thing
In which we continue our conversation about light reds by stopping to consider Noma's impact on wine culture. Plus: Alpine red picks.
Get ready: You’re going to hear a lot about the “death of fine dining” over the coming weeks and month. Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Noma (often voted the “world’s best restaurant”) will close next year. A tsunami of think pieces and commentary will surely follow.
Whether or not Noma, the famed New Nordic restaurant in Copenhagen, is still the world’s “best” restaurant may be up for debate. But there’s no question that it’s the world’s most influential restaurant, and René Redzepi the most influential chef, of the past decade and a half. Now, in the Times, Redzepi is quoted as saying this about the modern fine-dining model that he helped create: “It’s unsustainable. Financially and emotionally, as an employer and as a human being, it just doesn’t work.”
It’s an idea that’s already been percolating for a while in food culture. In fact, cultural critic Alicia Kennedy tackled precisely this idea in her newsletter hours before the Times piece dropped. Referencing shows like The Bear and movies like The Menu and Pig, she notes the tiredness of the Chef-Hero archetype. “Is it Chef’s Table fatigue?” Kennedy asks. Now, she says, “a chef character is not a rock star but a broken man.”
In its article about Noma’s closing, the Times also talks to other fine-dining chefs who’ve called it quits. “Fine dining is at a crossroads, and there have to be huge changes,” said David Kinch, who closed his three-Michelin-starred restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos, California last week. “The whole industry realizes that, but they do not know how it’s going to come out.”
So what does a post-fine-dining restaurant culture look like? You often hear of high-profile chefs leaving the world of fine dining, and cashing in their name-brand on lighter-weight, mass-market projects such as fast-casual eateries or products sold via e-commerce. Even the co-founder of Noma opened a to-go food hall in Grand Central Station. The Times talked to a Finnish chef, Kim Mikkola, who spent four years working at Noma, and who is now “building a chain of sustainable, equitably run fried-chicken sandwich shops” that you can franchise.
I love a sustainable, equitably run fried-chicken sandwich shop as much as the next guy, but is this the future of dining? At a time when every giant fast-food chain in the world is fighting a death battle over cheap chicken sandwiches, I’m not so sure. Even Mikkola doesn’t seem convinced fast-casual is the answer to the death of fine dining. “Do we want to tell everyone not to have great experiences, to just eat potatoes?” he’s quoted as saying. “Absolutely not. That’s the dilemma.”
The idea that a generational shift is based on a binary choice—that people now prefer fast-casual to fine dining—is one of those cultural tropes that we fool ourselves into believing.
If we’re being honest—and not doing that media hand-wringing thing that people hate—it’s not in the least bit surprising that the current fine-dining model is dying, or at a “crossroads.” Noma has been selling its schtick of foraged greens, deep-fried moss, sea buckthorn, Douglas fir, aged carrots, natty wines, et al. for two decades now. Food writers like me have been writing think pieces about its impact on the culture for almost as long. As I wrote in the callow lead to my own 2012 feature about Noma and New Nordic cuisine for the Washington Post Magazine:
Few consider the faith of the food writer. And this is probably a good thing. I won’t say that to worship food and drink is to pray to a false god. But even with all the high-minded talk of farm-to-table or Slow Food movements, of molecular gastronomy or urban gardening, of locavorism or fruitarianism or whatever-the-latest-ism, in my experience it rarely leads one down the shining path of enlightenment.
The fact that Noma has been at the top, setting the trends, for this long is amazing. But it was never going to last forever. People are over it. More than anything, the culture has just grown bored with this style of fine dining. Many of us can barely stifle a yawn at the idea of what the Times calls the “global class of gastro tourists [who] schedules first-class flights and entire vacations around the privilege of paying at least $500 per person for its multicourse tasting menu.” There’s a sameness to the top restaurants that people are finally starting to admit.
But this hardly means that “fine dining” will go away. The pendulum will swing, the paradigm will shift. Something will soon take the current model’s place. The next visionary chef is anonymously working in some kitchen, bored with the food she’s forced to make. That new concept will seemingly come out of nowhere. In 2003, before the “New Nordic manifesto,” it would have been laughably absurd to imagine that a Danish restaurant based on Scandinavian ingredients would change the food world.
So what does the demise of Noma have to do with wine? First of all, let’s give Noma a good deal of credit for helping change the overall, worldwide wine conversation. For all its problems, the restaurant was a huge advocate for the types of wine that I love. It was among the first top-flight menus to actively promote natural wine. It prioritized Austrian, German, and Loire wines over the stuffy Bordeaux that had previously defined decades of fine dining. Its influence can be seen on wine menus across the world.
Still, the acceptance of the wines Noma advocated for has been slow. During most of Noma’s run, big, showy red wines still sat atop the empire of wine. Those who saw themselves as serious wine drinkers demanded Bordeaux, Barolo, Brunello, Napa cabernet sauvignon, Super Tuscans, and their ilk. Oak, ripeness, extraction, tannins—all delivered at a high alcohol by volume—ruled the day. Even when looking for everyday bottles, consumers sought out the the heavy-duty red: California zinfandel, grenache-based Rhône blends, Australian shiraz, all pushing the needle upwards toward 15 percent alcohol and beyond.
When it comes to red wines, hedonism has ruled while other wine attributes, such as drinkability and food-friendliness, have been an afterthought. Suggesting the idea of a lighter red such as Beaujolais, Loire cabernet franc, or (god forbid) grignolino to a red-wine hedonist might even be construed as a personal affront, a provocation. A light red? Me? The drinker of Super Tuscan and Napa Cab? What, sir, do you think I am?
Back in 2012, Lettie Teague wrote in her Wall Street Journal column that it was nearly impossible for wine professionals to sell light reds. “To many wine drinkers, a light red is anathema, a wine defined by an absence,” she wrote. Teague quoted one friend, who told her, “A light red sounds downright un-American.” A decade after Teague’s piece, this attitude is finally evolving. Wine drinkers are starting to seek out lighter reds more than ever before.
It’s perhaps ironic that our Year of Light Reds happens as Noma finally closes.
The Platonic Ideal of an Alpine Red
Cold-climate Alpine wines always seem to be a good pairing with New Nordic cuisine. One of my favorite Alpine reds has always been from a grape that’s called schiava from Italy’s mountainous Alto Adige. Schiava is also locally called vernatsch in this German-speaking region, which used to be part of the Austrian Empire and is also known as Südtirol. Schiava/vernatsch is also popularly grown in the Württemberg region of Germany, where it is called trollinger (Yes! wine names and places can be very confusing!)
Schiava/vernatsch/trollinger is a particularly light red, low in alcohol and almost rosé in color, though with a little more tannic backbone than any rosé. Schiava, I can say with firsthand experience, is a dangerous wine if you are trying to stop at one glass. Crisp, edgy, full of savory and dark fruit flavors, austere but surprisingly pleasant, it’s the kind of wine that you makes throw away the cork, grab a plate of speck or prosciutto, and forget about work for the afternoon.
A winemaker once told me: “We have a golden rule here in Sudtïrol. From the morning til noon, we are drinking pinot bianco. But when the church bell strikes noon, we immediately switch to schiava.” As recently as 50 years ago in Alto Adige, the grape made up a majority of the region’s production. But now a lot of the schiava is being ripped out to grow more pinot noir. This is a shame. But the only way to save it is to drink more of it.
To read a little more about schiava/vernatsch/trollinger, I encourage you to check out a newsletter I recently started reading, Alpine Wine Society, which focuses on the sorts of wines that we love at Everyday Drinking.
Six Picks: A Light Red By Whatever Name You Call It
Andi Knauss ‘La Boutanche’ Trollinger 2021, $24 (Württemberg)
Sold by the liter, this a traditional style of joyful, easy-drinking, light German red. If you don’t like this, you might consider whether you like wine at all.
Baron Widmann Vernatsch 2019, $24 (Südtirol)
This is a favorite of mine, and a bit more of the serious side of schiava. Elegant and earthy full of juicy berry, wildflower, forest notes, with great acidity and structure.
Andi Knauss ‘Trollinger Pur' 2019, $34 (Württemberg)
Knauss’s slightly more elevated style of trollinger, with all the fresh, fruity fun of La Boutanche, but with more heft and backbone.
Castel Sallegg Schiava 2020, $18 (Südtirol)
Light ruby in color with aromas of berry and herbs, lots of red fruit on the palate, elegantly balanced by delicate tannins and juicy acidity.
Alois Lageder Schiava 2021, $20 (Südtirol)
Pale crimson in color, fruity and mineral red from one of Alto Adige’s legacy producers, with a balance of wild berry with a flinty, stony backgroun
Drautz-Able Trollinger 2016, $17 (Württemberg)
I love a light red like this. Berries and brightness and super drinkable, but there’s also underlying backbone and structure.
I love a light red. I’ll look for your suggestions.
I’m sad about the fine dining demise. I’m still holding on!
So very glad I subscribed to your newsletter. Having loved The Menu as much as I did, and then watching Boiling Point the evening before this newsletter dropped, it's great to have Pig and Toscana added to my watch list courtesy of your citing Alicia Kennedy's substack. As I type this, I've paused John Favreau's Chef, which somebody mentioned in an unrelated context just yesterday. That movie is from 2014, and absolutely pursues the "chef-as-broken-man" motif. Kinda cool how Favreau seems to have been ahead of that curve. And okay, I'm only 26 minutes into it, and it's certainly cuter than The Menu or Boiling point, but well worth checking out.