Film Review: Noma—My Perfect Storm

Aesthetically pleasing profile of highly charismatic young star chef René Redzepi, who put Nordic cuisine on plates and the culinary map, and his famous Copenhagen restaurant Noma.
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Noma—My Perfect Storm is a welcome addition to the array of food-themed docs of the past few decades that leverage the ever-growing appetites, if not frenzy, surrounding the culinary arts and its famous and less-known practitioners, high priests, celebrity chefs, meccas, trends and competitions. Founded in 2002, Noma and its young chef and co-owner René Redzepi gained renown for the invention of Nordic cuisine and emphasis on locally grown and especially foraged ingredients from fields and woods. (Can we call fans of Noma cuisine ground hogs?)

And like the late El Bulli in Spain, Noma stands at the forefront of experimenting with new culinary techniques, although its emphasis, unlike El Bulli’s, seems more on food than techniques.

Debuting long-form director Pierre Deschamps, who spent years of research close to the chef and his restaurant, makes a worthy entry into feature docs. With Noma, he just may have helped suggest some kind of distinction between the mass of mere serious, passionate food lovers and the more micro-focused, detail-oriented and studious foodies who, when not scrambling to the latest restaurant and chef sensation, are captured by process, details and origins of innovative dishes out of the mainstream. Noma—My Perfect Storm leans towards the latter, for whom the Quebec government has just sanctioned a new designation: cuisineomane.

To get down to the nitty-gritty and marrow of it all, the dishes and ingredients depicted in Noma, which does not deliver food porn, probably fall short of looking mouth-watering or finger-lickin’ good to mere food-lovers. Like Redzepi with food, Deschamps the filmmaker is trying for something exceptional and unusual. As he puts it, the image for him is paramount and “I tend to focus on the aesthetic, visual side of my subjects, which lends my work a particularly poetic quality.”

Well, OK, but viewers also value knowing who they are watching and listening to and may not be happy with the few identifying titles for the doc’s many talking heads and others on camera. Nor are dishes identified. And what does “noma” mean (beyond the dictionary’s unfortunate definition of “a gangrenous ulceration of the mouth or genitalia”)?

Happily, Redzepi is a hugely valuable key attraction, a savvy low-key salesman and all-around showman for the camera and for his young international kitchen staff. Handsome, bright and well-spoken, he’s a perfect MC and team captain. He has a remarkable ease with American English and is never at a loss for words, especially with a “fuck” this or that tossed around throughout like salts in prep work. (“I became a miserable fuck,” he says about his early success.) And he’s clearly passionate about “creativity,” about making new culinary discoveries in the fields, woods and his garden to invent exciting new dishes.

Redzepi is forthcoming, whether sharing the racism he encountered as the son of Muslim refugees or recounting his restaurant’s terrible blow when scores of patrons were felled by a virus in the food. Going from volatile boss to good boss, the chef these days is seen communicating warmly and effectively with his hard-working, dedicated kitchen crew.

As for co-star Noma, a large, lovely, understated space in Copenhagen named“Best Restaurant in the World” for 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014, it requires 45 place settings each for lunch and dinner and each meal served during a small time frame. “Local” rules, except for occasional cheating when ingredients like olive oil enter the picture. The result is a menu largely for serious locavores and those seeking Nordic cuisine and wanting to fathom its mystique.

With much commentary from Redzepi and an assortment of journalists and culinary experts (the late El Bulli’s founder/chef Ferran Adrià perhaps being the best known), the doc follows the restaurant’s dramatic ups and downs. There’s the soaring Noma reputation in the first years (“We went from zeroes to heroes overnight,” says Redzepi), and the shock when the virus hit (in mussels, maybe, but the provenance is left ambiguous). And Deschamps films a recent, charged “Best Restaurant” competition (maybe 2013 or 2014) and its nail-biting buildup to whether Noma is again named a winner.

As for production values, Noma hits all the marks as a smart stylish doc: It is beautifully shot, with the de rigueur close-ups, slow motion and occasional animation adding flavor. Forays into woods, forests and shots of vast lakes yield some fresh-air breaks from the hectic kitchen or the staff’s delicate plucking of tiny leaves from mysterious plants. And a subtle music track adds just the right Scandinavian notes.