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Noma, Harry, OTK ... what do they have in common?

"Exposure and attention make a work famous - the more you talk about it, the more attention it gets, the more validity it achieves." Andy Warhol

I spent the first part of the morning skim reading The Weekend AFR. I did read some of the serious stuff about the economy and the disastrous state the world is in in all manner of ways, but my eye, like many, was caught by two more trivial items of news. Well define news I guess. The two were the upcoming closure of Noma - the world famous Danish restaurant and the publication of Prince Harry's memoir - or rather the subject of ghostwriters. This being an economics focussed newspaper the hook for both were the economic aspects. But it got me to thinking about a few other things, and how different parts of our society actually work in very similar ways.

To summarise the two. Noma is closing but will reopen as a laboratory looking at food innovation - a bit like Ferran Adrià in Spain back in 2011(and I will come back to that). Why? After all it is seemingly hugely successful, voted best restaurant in the world more than any other, including El Bulli, has been. The price is high $733.00 a meal apparently but it is always booked out, and indeed, you won't be able to get a booking before it closes. So you would think it was doing OK and indeed the AFR says of the decision to close:

"Whether that was on a human or financial level - or just time to try something new - is unclear"

Other commenters, however, bring up money issues which the AFR does refer to in its article:

"Noma required extravagant levels of staffing not just in the kitchen and on the restaurant floor but in the test kitchen, the fermentation lab, the garden and administration. It also required a constant supply of 50 or so stagiaire - or interns who were willing to forego a pay packet in exchange for Noma on their CV. But a recent decision to pay the stagiaire a basic wage might have been the straw that broke the camel's back."

I have no idea what the reasons were for the closure, and frankly I don't care, but it did highlight for me the fact that Noma, and all of the large restaurant operations around the world are completely dependent on a large number of people - not just the celebrity chef who gives the place its glamour. Indeed most of them - Neil Perry for example, probably don't ever cook anything anymore. They are figureheads. That's probably not fair - they are now businessmen, not chefs.

Rene Redzepi has plans to set up a lab with a focus on fermentation and indigenous food sources which sounds a lot like what Ferran Adrià of the now long gone El Bulli in Spain, was planning to do. It seems he has been doing a lot of things - mostly exhibitions, although he also says a lot of stuff that is somewhat pretentious - e.g.:

"Sapiens is the methodology we have used to develop not just the Bullipedia, but all our projects. It is the conductive thread of DNA for all our projects." Ferran Adria

You can read all about his plans in an Interview with Ferran Adria on the website If you want! The other thing I noted which is of relevance is that in the Wikipedia article on El Bulli it says the it was run by Ferran Adrià but "driven by the culinary ideas of Albert Adrià." - a name that I, not being amongst the cognoscenti, had ever heard before. Not to mention the hundreds of other staff of course. Behind every genius it seems there is a huge team.

Or another genius. In the case of Prince Harry - well not Prince Harry per se - but his memoir Spare - the genius - I don't think even his nearest and dearest think Prince Harry is a genius - is his ghostwriter. J. R. Moehringer. Well actually the genius is probably whoever is responsible for his PR. However, in this instance I am focussing on the ghostwriters who very rarely get a mention. In this case the ghostwriter has, and we are even told how much he got for it - $1 million. Well it's hard work writing all those words, and those celebrities who have 'written' memoirs just don't actually have the time - let alone the talent - to do it. This one actually won a Pulitzer Prize at some point. It may be a bit unfair to say the celebrities don't have the talent, as I'm sure that some of them are those nauseating people who are able to do just about everything they turn their hands to.

We all knew about ghostwriters of course, and Robert Harris even wrote a novel about one. But it must be difficult. After all sometimes, not only do they get no credit in the book itself but they also can't say anything to anyone else because of 'in confidence' contracts. Which can't help them with their next job much. After all you need a CV to get a job. That's why those unpaid interns at Noma were prepared to do it.

But I think things are changing. JR Moehringer is getting credit for his work as are more and more ghostwriters. Which brings me to Ottolenghi and the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen. Indeed I read somewhere else recently about the increasing visibility of test kitchens which have been around for a long time but hidden from view. And the career of recipe developer - the people who work in those kitchens is also coming out into the open.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about Ottolenghi and co. He has always acknowledged various of his colleagues in individual recipes and also often as co-authors of his books and nevertheless we all still think of his books as being Ottolenghi works rather than the work of a whole team. Below is the current team - well one of his teams - the one that produced his last book Extra Good Things.

But he also has other teams - he has a number of different restaurants and each one of those would have a team, including a head chef who is not him. He must also have another team of PR people, secretaries, administrators of various kinds. Perhaps he, and all those other chefs who have made it to the top of the tree have as their particular genius an ability to create those teams and nurture talent.

"It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed." – Charles Darwin

For he has certainly done that. Raise people to prominence that is. Initially it was his business partner Sami Tamimi, then Helen Goh and Ixta Belfrage and now Noor Murad. Perhaps these people became well-known in their own right through actually boosting Ottolenghi himself. "If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else." says Booker T. Washington. "Be so good they can't ignore you." Maybe those ghostwriters are hoping to do that too, although they are hampered by those 'no disclosure' contracts.

And there's another thing. The world - or most of the western world at least - is no longer quite happy to accept that working for nothing but glory is OK. But then again maybe money isn't that important:

"Research indicates that workers have three prime needs: Interesting work, recognition for doing a good job, and being let in on things that are going on in the company." Zig Ziglar

Not money, although of course it's always welcome. My son recently left a well-paid job because he was not being listened to. I'm sure he is not alone. However there also comes a time when you want the whole recognition for yourself - maybe that's why Ixta Belfrage struck out on her own, publishing her own book with just her name on the cover.

"Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well." Voltaire

I'm beginning to wander so I shall cease. I just thought it interesting how such disparate worlds had so much in common and how those who actually do all the work sometimes don't get the credit, or the payment that they deserve.

Or as Andy Warhol said (to paraphrase) - 'if you want validity, get talked about.'

Which in a way is rather sad. I think I am probably saying that the likes of Prince Harry, Rene Redzepi and El Bulli have validity - in that everyone thinks they are important in one way or another - because they get talked about. Whereas - and this is only what I think - the collaborative teamwork that appears to exist in the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen eventually reaps rewards for the individuals involved.


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