“We recommend you eat this dish in seven bites,” the waiter said, before gliding away to serve another table. I was halfway through a 16-course tasting menu of Korean-inflected Nordic cuisine at a fine-dining restaurant in Copenhagen called Koan at Relæ.

Each dish, including oyster tempura resting on burnished black pebbles and a smooth pool of cream and langoustine sauce, banked by minced Jerusalem artichoke and a local caviar supplier’s “platinum selection”, had been fantastically delicate. I ate them with heavy cutlery that came from a dark wooden drawer built into the table that opened and closed noiselessly. One course came with its own mother of pearl spoon.

The following afternoon, still full, I went to a café to meet a kitchen worker at another high-end Copenhagen restaurant. This person was so afraid of losing their job by speaking to me that they asked not only to be anonymous, but for their nationality and gender to be obscured as well.

After we had been speaking for half an hour about their struggles to feed themselves on low wages and having their work hours constantly cut at short notice, they looked down at their empty mug. “This is the only thing that I allow myself, to buy a coffee on my day off,” they said, “because I cannot afford anything else.”

In fine-dining restaurants, two stories are being told. The first is in the dining room, a perfectly choreographed show of luxury and excellence, a performance so fine-tuned, down to the decor, the staff uniforms, the music, the crockery, that in some ways the food itself is the least important element. And then there is the story that you, as a diner, are never supposed to hear. The story of what happens on the other side of the kitchen wall. In Copenhagen, at last, someone is trying to make us listen.

A month or so before my visit, a woman named Lisa Lind Dunbar, who had spent the past 15 years working in Danish restaurants, was scrolling through Instagram. A video posted by a pair of Copenhagen-based food influencers came up, showing their dining experience at one of the city’s Michelin-starred restaurants. In the clip, a waiter performed wildly for consenting guests. He’d fitted a gun-shaped attachment to the top of a champagne bottle and was squirting white frothing jets of wine into one diner’s mouth, while saying “on your knees”.

Watching the video, something in Dunbar snapped. “All of the hurt, all of the trauma that I’ve gained working in the restaurant industry was being shown as entertainment,” she said when we met in a café in Nørrebro as February rain lashed the windows. “It provoked me.” Later that night, she started posting on her Instagram page, soliciting anonymous accounts from anybody who felt they had been mistreated while working in Danish restaurants. “I thought, what could happen, if I did that?”

What happened was an avalanche. Stories poured in about abuse of all forms: sexism, racism, homophobia, bullying, dangerous working conditions. One person wrote in about a chef who used to throw his staff’s phones in the deep-fat fryer, another about her experience of being sexually assaulted by a prominent sommelier, another about a chef who kept a gun in his drawer at work to shoot rats in the restaurant elevator, reams and reams of accusations that Dunbar reposted to her Instagram stories. Suddenly, the whole restaurant industry was watching. “The feeling was victory,” one chef at a prominent Copenhagen restaurant told me of the outpouring on social media. “Like, fuck, finally someone is saying something.”

Even 20 years ago, there weren’t many good restaurants in Copenhagen, and certainly nothing that could generate a lively food-tourism industry. Then, in 2003, two Danish chefs called René Redzepi and Claus Meyer opened Noma, a fine-dining restaurant that used only ingredients local to the Nordic region. (Noma is a portmanteau of Nordisk mad, or Nordic food.) In doing so, they invented New Nordic, a hyperlocal, eco-conscious food movement that set the culinary world alight.

Redzepi, who was in his mid-twenties when Noma opened, became one of the food world’s biggest stars. By 2019, the Danish restaurant industry was worth over £5bn annually, and more than a quarter of foreign tourists were there primarily for the food, including dozens of Michelin-starred establishments. In 2021, the top two spots in the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards went to Copenhagen: Noma at number one for the fifth time and Geranium at number two.

The Danish capital, meanwhile, became a mecca for hospitality workers. “For a lot of foreigners, there’s this idea of Copenhagen being a restaurant industry utopia, where there’s endless possibility and opportunity,” one Canadian chef told me. The hours were said to be more manageable than in London or Paris or New York, and Redzepi had started something genuinely new and exciting there. Pieces about Noma, including in this magazine, gushed about his vision, his genius, his departure from the old world of wrathful chef-dictators.

Illustration of one chef observing another
‘You’ll get to realise pretty quickly how small Copenhagen is, especially in the restaurant industry. Everyone knows everyone,’ one chef told me © Fede Yankelevic

But what so many workers found when they arrived in Denmark was that this Nordic utopia was a myth. And what the Covid-19 pandemic did for many of the city’s overworked, underpaid restaurant workers was give them a forced break from the industry as well as time to reflect. “You work five days a week, for 16 hours, and self-reflection is time-consuming,” as one Polish-born chef put it to me. “We found out that we have actually been victims of kidnapping from life, because the life we had been offered is not a life,” another chef originally from Ukraine said. Dunbar’s stories showed them they were far from alone in their disillusionment.

When I went to Copenhagen to meet Dunbar, and to try to get a sense of why many elite kitchens continue operating this way, it was initially difficult to find anybody to talk to. Almost all of the 30 people in the industry who eventually spoke to me, including servers, chefs, restaurateurs and food journalists, did so on condition of anonymity. “You’ll get to realise pretty quickly how small Copenhagen is, especially in the restaurant industry. Everyone knows everyone,” one chef told me.

There is also a strong culture of blacklisting. If you badmouth a chef and they find out about it, that can mean you never work here again. Loyalty is reinforced by restaurants referring to their staff as “the family” or “the community”. Kristoffer Granov, the editor of a Danish culture magazine called Atlas, told me that, among journalists, “there’s so much pride in the Copenhagen food scene that there’s a code of silence. People know how this works, and nobody wants to talk about it.”

When I started my reporting, I thought I would hear about individual chefs behaving badly. I did hear a lot of stories about specific Copenhagen chefs over the past 10 years. We could get into those. A famous Danish chef that one source asked me not to identify because he wants to bring legal proceedings against him, kneed student chefs “in the dick” in his kitchen.

At another restaurant, a chef pushed a swinging door on to a young chef called Peter-Emil Madsen, spilling hot coffee grounds from a French press on to his hand, and refused to give Madsen permission to go to the hospital. “It sits and burns, you know?” Madsen told me. “My skin was falling off.” Several people told me about chefs who used to pin people up against the walls, punch and kick their colleagues.

But what I ultimately heard, in dozens of hushed conversations with restaurant workers in corners of cafés all over the city, was not a story of a few bad apples, but of a rotten orchard. For Dunbar, and for most people I spoke to, the problem is the restaurant industry itself, a system that relies on unpaid or low-paid labour and a culture of fear that slowly erodes the lives of its workers. One that is specific to Denmark but also representative of a global industry.

Every year, hundreds of front-of-house and chef hopefuls arrive in Denmark to undertake what is called a stage at Noma: an unpaid internship lasting three months. It’s far from the only restaurant in the city, or the world, that does this – Redzepi was a stagiaire at El Bulli in Spain. But the number of stagiaires at Noma is notable. Before the pandemic, it accepted about 30 at the beginning of each internship cycle. In 2019, Noma employed 34 paid chefs, meaning that the best restaurant in the world relied heavily on unpaid labour to produce its food.

Recently, intern numbers have been lower, according to one insider. There are now more like 15 to 20 stagiaires, but the nature of their work remains the same. “It was so taxing, mentally and also physically, they used to work for like five and a half days per week, from like eight in the morning until like two,” one person who used to intern front-of-house at Noma told me of the chef interns. She remembered one specific occasion when Noma was serving a duck dish. “I saw six interns plucking the duck feathers outside in freezing rain. They were covered in feathers, and they’re just like shaking, and their hands were stuck like claws.” There was, she happened to know, space to do this in one of the prep kitchens upstairs. “Who makes people do that?”

“Some of the stagiaires would say ‘I’m going to the toilet’, and they would just never come back,” one ex-stagiaire remembered. Many accused the restaurant of misleading them about the number of hours they would be working. One person saved up and travelled from Central America to undertake their stage in 2018 when they were 26. “They gave me a contract saying I’d be working 37 hours a week, and I signed the contract. And as soon as you get there, it’s like, ‘Welcome, you’ll be finishing at one in the morning tonight. And you’ll be doing 70-plus hours a week.’” (Until recently change, Noma sent stagiaire candidates a document labelled “informal agreement” to sign.)

The work itself often consists of little more than doing one element of one dish on a 20-course menu. “All they need is hands,” an ex-stagiaire who was there in 2019 said. “You put them on picking herbs for three months. They don’t get the experience they were promised, but who cares? Because Noma got their work done.”

A spokesperson for Noma and Redzepi disputed these characterisations of the stage programme. “We forage outside throughout the year,” the representative said of interns’ working conditions, noting that the restaurant has since improved its preparation facilities. They said allegations that interns are brought in on false pretences and do not get the work experience they are promised are “incorrect. For 20 years, our Noma interns have gained valuable experience and, for many, it has served as a great stepping stone in their career. Achieving a better balance for our team is one of our greatest challenges and something we continuously work to improve.” As I was reporting this story, Noma announced it would begin paying stagiaires for the first time next year.

It would be unfair to point the finger exclusively at Noma. And it’s not just interns. Several people told me about their mental breakdowns in the aftermath of working in abusive kitchens. After seven years of moving between toxic restaurant environments, Madsen couldn’t stand it any longer. “I remember waking up one morning just crying. I couldn’t do anything more. I had to be taken to the psych department.”

For Levi Luna, a chef who has been in the industry for the past decade, post-traumatic stress disorder reshaped who he was as a person. “It destroyed my life completely,” he told me. “Physically, it was headaches, chest pain, a bad stomach. Mentally it’s much worse. It made me doubt everything I was.”

According to multiple staff at different restaurants, taking sick leave is interpreted as a betrayal of the company, or a sign of weakness. One ex-front-of-house worker at a Copenhagen restaurant told me about a bike accident she had that broke several of her ribs. Her doctor signed her off work for two months, but she never took the leave, because her boss guilted her into staying. “I look back at it now, I’ve sometimes started laughing because it’s just like, how funny, I got the sick leave. I could have gone and never come back again. But that wasn’t the way we did it.”

It is typical for bosses to make their staff feel guilty for the precarious finances and understaffing of the restaurant, I was told. “When it’s literally people crying because we cannot handle more, but the owner is happy because we made good money at the end of the day, what was the price of that good money?” one kitchen worker said.

Intuitively, it would make sense that the trend towards open kitchens, which New Nordic Cuisine in particular is known for, would make this kind of treatment of staff more difficult to hide from diners. It took several conversations before the penny dropped for me that the reason people recalled being kicked rather than punched is because when you kick someone in an open kitchen, it’s below the counter.

“We always had this joke, an explanation for why things are so horrible: shit falls down,” Luna told me, with a cold laugh. In the kitchen, the head chef gets mad at the sous-chef, who gets mad at the person below him, a chef-de-partie, who then takes it out on a stagiaire. Then one day, the sous-chef is the head chef, and he has learnt how a head chef behaves: badly. It should give a sense of the strength of feeling I encountered about how damaging this system is that several people independently described it as being like children who are abused going on to commit abuse as adults. This is the dark flipside of the restaurant-as-family metaphor.

Illustration of a solitary man walking into a building
‘What I ultimately heard, in dozens of hushed conversations with restaurant workers in corners of cafés all over the city, was not a story of a few bad apples, but of a rotten orchard’ © Fede Yankelevic

Many high-end restaurants in the city are run by chefs who used to work at Noma. The founder of the powerful Relæ group is Christian Puglisi, a former Noma sous-chef. Koan, where I had my lavish meal, is run by Kristian Baumann, another ex-Noma sous. The scared kitchen worker I spoke to on my second day in Copenhagen works for a different Noma-trained chef. “The power of the Noma family is so strong in this city,” the person said, “if you upset any of them, that’s it. They have contacts everywhere, every small place, every shitty place, every big place, every new place. It’s all connected.”

The Noma spokesperson said blacklisting former employees “was never our practice and never actually happened”. Both Baumann and Puglisi were characterised to me by multiple former employees as verbally abusive, shouting angrily at staff. Baumann and Puglisi did not respond to requests for comment.

But the figure of the macho, screaming chef is not a Danish creation. They are themselves products of a global kitchen culture that has lauded bad behaviour for decades. “That’s the old story about working in kitchens, this super-stressful, almost, like, violent atmosphere and leading by fear,” Nicolai Nørregaard, the head chef and co-founder of Kadeau Copenhagen told me. “I’ve heard those stories basically forever, in all countries, in most fine-dining restaurants.” The aggressive celebrity chef is a familiar figure: we laugh at people like Gordon Ramsay on television. And it is largely male. “It is worst in high end, and where the egos are,” Trine Hahnemann, one of few famous female chefs in Denmark told me. “It’s a real boys’ club.”

Some big chefs have been trying to change. Redzepi, by several people’s accounts, tries to keep a lid on his temper these days. In 2015, he wrote an op-ed for a food magazine called Lucky Peach in which he admitted to yelling and pushing people, and vowed to change his ways. His spokesperson said Redzepi had been open about the issue and participated in “hundreds of hours of counselling”. In 2020, he published a book titled I Know This to Be True: René Redzepi: On Teamwork, Creativity and Kindness that was dedicated to “the memory and legacy of Nelson Mandela”. In his acceptance speech at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in 2021, Redzepi said his next goal was that he wanted Noma to “be the best in terms of workplace”.

Whether being “the best in terms of workplace” is a realistic goal for any high-end restaurant is an open question. Typically, my conversations for this piece went like this: people would start talking about specific chefs and restaurants in Copenhagen and specific injustices in the way Denmark employs hospitality workers. Denmark has robust employee protection laws, but the state seems to turn a blind eye to hospitality, knowing that people are working well over the government mandated 37-hour weeks for no additional remuneration. Many are often foreign workers who rely on their jobs for their visas and so are too afraid to push back.

People would mention how it’s particularly galling in Denmark to be paid a pittance, even at relatively senior levels in the kitchen, given that wages are generally high in the rest of the country, or express dismay that the focus on “sustainability” in restaurants does not extend to working conditions for staff. Copenhagen is a useful Petri dish to examine restaurant culture because it’s compact and because people are speaking up about it at the moment, but it’s representative of norms that exist all over the restaurant world.

Around the globe, people are leaving the hospitality industry in droves. A survey of 3,000 restaurant operators in the US at the end of 2021 found that 70 per cent reported not having enough employees. Between February and April 2022, the UK’s Office for National Statistics recorded 171,000 vacancies in accommodation and food service, an increase of 297 per cent from the previous year. Many restaurants saw their foreign workers leave during the pandemic, and they have not returned.

“This year, after corona, is the first time I hear restaurant owners considering how they can sell themselves as a workplace — should we consider giving pensions, or paying overtime? They’ve never had to do that before,” a Danish ex-restaurant worker who now runs a bed-and-breakfast told me. “So many people have left that you can have all the best intentions in the world, like my boss at the moment does, and we’re still way too busy, so short on staff,” one chef at a popular bar and café in Nørrebro said.

Is it possible to create a fine-dining experience at the highest level without exploitative labour practices? Perhaps predictably, those who say yes are often at the top of the industry. The practice of taking interns is a difficult issue. “If a restaurant’s output is dependent on free labour, I think then that’s a problem. But on the other hand, I also think [it’s] part of the industry, it’s a part of getting closer to a job or getting experience,” Nørregaard told me.

In terms of cruelty in the kitchens, many people told me that things had improved compared to five or 10 years ago, but that there was still work to be done. “I hope that we’ve come to a better understanding about this, over the years,” said Søren Ledet, co-owner of Geranium, number two in this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards. “I’ll take my London time from the 1990s for context. And I said to myself back then, I will never, never ever treat my staff that way. Because nothing good comes out of a hostile kitchen atmosphere.” Several other head chefs in Copenhagen I reached out to declined to speak to me for this piece.

I did speak to Nick Curtin, the executive chef and co-owner of Alouette, the Michelin-starred restaurant where the viral video was taken. “We understand how it looks, but at their core these videos chronicle an elaborate joke among friends,” he told me. “While we are not keen on the circumstances that have looped us into this conversation, it is still an important conversation to be having.”

Curtin said Alouette is only open for three weekly services to ensure waiters work 37.5 and chefs about 43 hours per week; the restaurant offers generous benefits on top of those provided by the state. “The industry typically prioritises technical skills over management skills,” said Curtin, who came up working 100-hour weeks in New York. “Too many chefs have been promoted on their ability to cook, not their ability to lead.”

Many people I spoke to believe that restaurants, and particularly high-end restaurants, operate on a business model that is fundamentally broken. “There’s so much work and time and effort required to make those dishes. And just to keep that quality up, if you were to pay everybody, including interns, even a salary of like, €400 a month, you would lose so much money that they could not be profitable,” Antoine Plancher, a chef who now works in Amsterdam told me. “We have seen what fine dining can do now, and it kills me to say this, but I don’t think you can achieve these results without exploitation,” said Madsen, the chef whose hand was injured.

Three months after she began posting on Instagram about working conditions, I called Lisa Lind Dunbar to see how things stand in Copenhagen. Although every kitchen in town is discussing the issue privately, to date, very few restaurant owners and famous chefs have spoken publicly. “I think it’s exemplary of the problem, that so few of the stakeholders are actually engaging and seeing it as an opportunity for co-operation,” she told me.

But the point has never been to reach the chefs. Everyone in the restaurant industry already knows that this is how it works. For most people I spoke to, the reason they are speaking at all is to reach the public. A number of them mentioned a piece Julia Moskin wrote for The New York Times last year about a restaurant in Washington State called The Willows Inn, run by an ex-Noma chef named Blaine Wetzel. The story’s allegations, which Wetzel denied at the time, got the restaurant world talking.

“But what I got out of that story is that people didn’t care,” one Canadian restaurant worker said. “It didn’t affect the restaurant at all. They’re still open; they’re still running as usual.” “The only reason I would sit here and talk to you is because we can’t talk to our direct boss, we can’t talk to the owner either, they have no interest,” Jasmine Linde, a former front-of-house worker at a Copenhagen bakery told me. “Our only chance now is to affect the customers.”

An illustration of a man crouching outside a building smoking a cigarette
‘We have seen what fine dining can do now, and it kills me to say this, but I don’t think you can achieve these results without exploitation,’ said Madsen, the chef whose hand was injured © Fede Yankelevic

I spoke to Nicole Philipson Garcia, a chef at Copenhagen’s Jatak, a new restaurant that people mentioned as having better working practices than many others. She said that for change to happen, diners need to start thinking about the working practices of a restaurant they patronise. “When you’re sitting down in that dining room, it’s really hard to put two and two together, because you’re just out for dinner. You’re just looking to enjoy yourself,” she said.

Fine-dining restaurants want you to think about the craft of what they do, the performance of labour, but not the actual working practices, in the same way that professional gymnasts want you to see the perfectly nailed routine and not the injuries sustained on the practice mat. Many of the top places now make you pay in advance, so you don’t even have to handle money while you’re there. How can customers be expected to confront the material realities of the restaurant world when the whole experience is engineered to make you feel as effortlessly cared for, as special as possible?

I had a good time at Koan. I ate and drank well and enjoyed the company I was with. The meal came to about £230 per person. But what was the true price of my enjoyment? When we as diners look at a beautiful ceramic dish of handpicked crab and individual grapefruit juice vesicles, what do we see? Two mouthfuls of food? A story about ingredients and flavours? Or 40 hours of labour under intolerable conditions? How does it taste now?

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Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misstated when Noma plans to begin paying its interns. It will do so beginning in 2023.

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