Eating is a necessity and can be a great pleasure. It also has a symbolic dimension in every culture. In the long history of European civilization, going back at least to the Romans, it has been a form of status distinction, allowing the elites at the top to display their separation from the masses below.
For many centuries elite food was set apart by its ingredients, like caviar, choice cuts of meat, difficult to procure spices and rich dairy products. Restaurants in times past would announce their status appeal not only through their prices, but also menus that advertised rarity and bounty.
Today this emphasis on ingredients is not enough. A general increase in prosperity and the rise of a large middle-to-upper class that can afford them means that status distinction must now rest on much greater inputs of human labor, both the highly skilled labor of innovator-chefs and the line labor of dozens of underlings who precisely execute each minute twist of preparation or presentation. Add to this the aura of world-transforming inventiveness claimed by the tech industry, and you have Noma and restaurants like it.
There has always been a tension between elite appeal and nourishment in cuisine. The excessively rich foods of the uppermost stratum are unhealthy, which may be one reason the humbler fare of the peasantry was sometimes gussied up and given a place on the menus of the rich, like gustatory Eliza Doolittle’s. We will see whether the chem lab restaurant ethos can find a middle ground by absorbing some of the foods people used to eat before eating was “disrupted”.