While the event may get some in the culinary world buzzing, Noma’s pop-up history has garnered mixed reviews from some high-profile chefs, who point out that the temporary restaurant can have an unintended impact on local culture. At Robb Report’s House of Robb at South by Southwest, chefs Fermin Nunez (Suerte, Este) and Claudette Zepeda (El Jardin, Vaga) shared their thoughts on Noma’s 2017 pop-up in Tulum, Mexico, during a panel discussion on modern Mexican food
The two chefs—based in Austin, Texas, and San Diego, California, respectively—have received numerous accolades for their ambitious exploration on Mexican cuisine, and have helped redefine how diners think of Mexican food. Nunez expressed some gratitude to Noma’s René Redzepi for using his platform to shine a light on Mexico, but he questioned Redzepi’s larger intentions in coming to the country.
“Who are you really cooking for?” Nunez asked. In comparison to the pop-up’s $600 tasting menu, “people don’t even make that money in Mexico.”
Zepeda agreed, and emphasized what a pop-up like that can do in a city or country that’s “economically fragile.” The disparity between the people who live in Tulum and Mexico and the travelers who come to drop hundreds and hundreds of dollars on one meal can be hurtful. “You feel alienated in your own world,” she said.
Beyond that, a pop-up of that magnitude might provide labor or money for the few weeks or months that it’s open, but the aftermath can be less than ideal, as there’s no long-term strategy or plan to sustain the economic benefits in the long term. For example, Zepeda noted that the restaurant structure in Tulum hasn’t been turned into anything since Noma abandoned it after the pop-up.
The locals “got a taste of something that then got ripped out of their hands,” Zepeda said. The pop-up was “not for us, and that I have a problem with.”
While the Tulum pop-up happened about six years ago, the chefs’ comments raise new questions about Noma’s Kyoto edition, which kicks off on March 15. About 70 employees have relocated to Japan for two months so they can prepare the restaurant’s $760 tasting menu. And while that may offer financial benefits to the Noma team, it’s worth wondering what it means for the people of Kyoto.