There are only 45 seats at Noma. Or rather were. There were 45 seats at Noma and now those seats are no more. Chef René Redzepi will close the doors of his lauded Copenhagen restaurant at the end of 2016. Put those seats out of your mind.
For many of us, books like Phaidon's 2010 cookbook, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, and the 2013 follow-up, Rene Redzepi: A Work in Progress, are the closest things we'll ever have to walking through the famous doors down by the docks where the sailors all come in. Now, there's Noma: My Perfect Storm, a documentary about Redzepi and his restaurant, written and directed by Pierre Deschamps.
It’s actually refreshing that ‘Noma: My Perfect Storm’ is so erratic and incoherent in the portrayal of its main protagonist.How to measure a documentary like this? That's a toughie. Is success that it makes you want to eat there, or that it dulls the regret at never having been? Is the film successful if it makes the viewer like Redzepi as a man, as a chef, as a father, as a son, all of these roles, none of them, some of them? Maybe the documentary works if it gives a taste of what it's like to work in the kitchen at Noma. Though perhaps it should give you the feeling of what it is to eat there, since that's the experience for which the film is most likely a substitute.
The film itself is kind of a mess. It's all over the place, with a score of individual narrative strands that Deschamps doesn't even attempt to weave together. So it's a frustrating experience for sure, like watching an hour and a half of trailers for vaguely related feature films. And yet, it's not an unsuccessful film at all. A clear film about a mess of a man can't help but be a mess of a film.
Nor is to call Redzepi a mess trolling. We're all messes or, rather, the proportion of us who are not messes to those of us who are is about the same as those who have eaten at Noma versus the rest of the population. For the most part, each of us is a tangle of contradictions, a yard sale of character traits racing headlong away from each other, a logbook of unbalanced equations. It's actually refreshing that Noma: My Perfect Storm is so erratic and incoherent in the portrayal of its main protagonist. At least it's honest.
The film captures a tumultuous period in Noma's development, after it had nabbed the #1 slot in San Pellegrino's World's 50 Best list through the norovirus debacle of early 2013 which may (or may not) have resulted in its losing its championship belt, and finally its redemption in 2014, when it regained its spot at the top of the list.
Deschamps's first order of business is establishing Redzepi's genius. Who wants to spend 95 minutes of their lives following the travails of a middling talent? Without actually tasting Redzepi's work, it's hard to make the call. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, making a movie about a cooking is like shuffleboarding about chromosomes. Generally speaking, there are two workarounds. Deschamps avails himself of both. Firstly, and unfortunately, the film is marbled with Redzepi doing shit in slow motion: walking, eating, some more walking, turning around. If I never see a chef do anything in slow motion while Mozart plays in the background, I'll be a happy man.
Redzepi has the brilliance to illuminate and the time to hone his message.
The other tract is much more interesting and here, much more successful. Deschamps knows: Capture all the thought and all the story that went into the creation of a cuisine, and the sensation of actually ingesting it pales in terms of satisfaction.
First the thought. Redzepi's main insight has been trod to death. It's in the title of his first book: time and place. As far as insights go, it doesn't seem terribly revolutionary. It pops up everywhere from Ecclesiastes to Ram Dass to Lee Moses: Of course everything has its time and place. But it was a revolutionary approach as it pertains to contemporary Nordic cuisine. It was if Redzepi's gaze summoned forth the bounty of the North to the bone china plates of the fine-dining world. He literally awakened a world. And it also happens to be a truth that extends far beyond the fine dining kitchen. Comfort with impermanence, accepting the world as one finds it, starting where you are. If you don't get a chance to eat at Noma, just read Pema Chodron.
Through interviews not only with Redzepi — who resembles in appearance and attitude a shorter, more Scandinavian version of Stephen Malkmus — but with the Santa Clausian foragers for whom Noma's success has meant a flourishing livelihood, Deschamps brings that vision to life. He is helped, of course, by Redzepi, who has the brilliance to illuminate and the time to hone his message.
But that's about the only message Redzepi has honed. Other than that, he's working shit out like the rest of us. In his mid-thirties with three children, a beautiful wife and a (extremely) successful restaurant, Redzepi still seems to be struggling with old wounds. For those who don't know, Redzepi is the son of Ali-Rami Redzepi, a Macedonian Muslim who emigrated to Denmark in 1972, and Hannah, a Danish mother. The racism and rejection he experienced as a young man in a closed society still causes him to grimace. Some of the most affecting segments of the film are interviews with his mother and his chain-smoking father as they discuss what it was like to raise the boy. I couldn't help but think of the heart-breaking parallels today's Muslim-American parents describe. Redzepi himself recalls being called an Albanian dog and told to "go home."
I've long had an aversion to men — and it is usually men — who routinely flip off the camera. Redzepi is a habitual flipper-offer. When Noma regains the crown as best restaurant in the world, Redzepi, dressed up and surrounded by people who have driven themselves to dust for his Nordsk mad vision, raises his middle finger to the camera. What a stinker! How disrespectful. Yet, after seeing the film, I understand why he's saying "fuck you" to whoever is behind the camera and to all the eyes greedy to gaze upon him. Those eyes of accolade are the same ones in which he was worthless to so many, so many years ago.
Redzepi can be an asshole and he can be a genius. Those two notes exist simultaneously.
But even if the one-finger salute can be accounted for, Redzepi is no saint. As the film mercilessly depicts, he can be a real bully. So much of the cult of Noma depends on the charm of Redzepi that it truly is a shock the first time you see him rip into his coworkers. Yes, he is their chef — as the current head chef Daniel Giusti puts it, "He is the Father" — but he is also a person, and they are people, too. The way he treats them is unpleasant to watch. Not always but often enough as depicted in the film, he berates, he harps, he takes advantage of his power to upbraid those closest to him. There are a couple of scenes with three of his senior research chefs — Lars Williams, Thomas Frebel, and Rosio Sanchez (who has since left to open Hija de Sanchez, a taco stand) — that are truly, extremely uneasy.
To Deschamps's credit, Redzepi's piss-poor behavior isn't romanticized away like Adam Scott's in that Ramsay apologist agitprop Burnt. As caught in the film, Redzepi can be an asshole and he can be a genius. Those two notes exist simultaneously, like an insistent tritone Deschamps keeps hitting. It's confusing and unsatisfying to watch. One keeps waiting for the resolution, but there is none. Searching for the solid Noma or the saintly Redzepi or even a villainous one is futile. Stability has no role in time and place. The truth, just like the restaurant, is on the run.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (-1 for the Mozart)