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The new documentary Ants on a Shrimp is three things. It’s the last of the Chronicles of Noma to come out before Noma itself blinks out of its current existence. It’s the first documentary about the restaurant, a nice little 45-seat Danish spot in Copenhagen, I’ve seen since I ate there last month for the first and last time. It’s also the best chronicle of the restaurant I’ve ever encountered — and between Noma: My Perfect Storm, Noma at Boiling Point, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, and René Redzepi: Work in Progress, not to mention hundreds of articles and hours of hearsay, there have been plenty of chronicles. If, whether, and how those three factors are intertwined is hard to parse. But what’s indisputable: the film, which comes out today, captures something essential about the Noma experience.
Noma, at its essence, is a mode of seeing. It’s a lens through which to perceive, to clarify, and to reimagine the world.
There has been ample documentation of what Redzepi has been up to these last six years since his restaurant was named the best in the world. But most accounts can only suggest what it actually feels like to be there. Even at its best, it’s the difference between IKEA assembly directions and using the bookshelf. Worse, in the absence of actually stepping foot inside the restaurant and ingesting the food, much of the nomalia falls victim to hyperbole or hagiography. Ants on a Shrimp, however, avoids these traps.
Most of the written and filmic matter produced about Noma suffers from, in my view, a fundamental error, and it is this: The spirit of Noma is not to be found in the end product. Sea buckthorn berry has nothing to do with what makes Noma Noma. Nor does moss or nasturtium. I’m not saying a dinner at Noma is besides the point. But it’s simply the tip of the iceberg, the manifestation of a much richer movement. Noma, at its essence, is a mode of seeing. It’s a lens through which to perceive, to clarify, and to reimagine the world. It’s a relationship, that is, to the surroundings. And this is what Ants on a Shrimp perfectly captures.
Maurice Dekkers, the director, is helped by a few factors. Firstly, Ants on a Shrimp captures the run-up and opening of Noma’s Tokyo residency at the Mandarin Oriental, which occurred for five weeks in the winter of 2015. This was, if you’ll remember, a totally far-out and radical move on behalf of Redzepi. He transported his entire staff from Copenhagen to Tokyo, scrapped the menu entirely, and built a new one. It wasn’t Copenhagen’s Noma in Tokyo. It was a Tokyo Noma, Japan through a nomadic lens. As Redzepi says in the film, the idea was to allow "our vision and our aesthetic to free-fall into a new culture and see what comes out of it."
Standing by a van, Redzepi’s mind is blown by a tiny kiwi. This is the Noma philosophy caught in real time.
It’s neat-o keen to see this free-fall in action, and it’s key to understanding the nature of the Noma lens. Since Dekkers is there to capture the process by which Redzepi and his team explore their new surroundings, we see the lens being applied to hitherto-unseen territory. And this palpable sense of discovery, curiosity. and wonder is, perhaps, the closest most of us will ever get to mimicking the true experience of eating at the restaurant.
Some of the best scenes, the most informative and most accurate reflection of what has made Noma more than a restaurant but a movement, consist of Redzepi and his outdoorsy team — Rosio Sanchez, Kim Mikkola, Lars Williams, Thomas Frebel, and Daniel Giusti — walking around the forests of Nagano and Fukuoka. Through the bramble of branches, they traipse. Kneeling close the dewy ground, from their perch on moss-covered logs, they pluck colonies of far-out mushrooms as their Japanese guide warns them that the mushroom in question will kill them in five seconds time if ingested. They are constantly shoving things in their mouth. By a van, Redzepi’s mind is blown by a tiny kiwi. "The most sickest fruit ever!" he cries. This is the Noma philosophy caught in real time.
What sets the Noma team apart is their execution. You could say this is the polishing of the lens, the care and relentlessness with which the team translates a way of seeing into something that can be eaten. Dekkers is in the kitchen for this necessary step. What a relief slo-mo is used sparingly (#NeverSloMo), because much of the "action" in the kitchen isn’t action at all but tasting, thinking, sensing — slo-mo would be mad boring. So are other documentaries’ endless talking-head interviews: Much more truth can be conveyed by watching this small team of chefs puzzle out, for instance, what transforms a plate of vegetables with sauce into a coherent dish. There’s truth, too, in how the jangly bodies of Noma’s chefs wait impatiently for the Mandarin Oriental’s elevators to take them from the basement kitchen to the restaurant, or in their exhausted visages contemplating an embryonic menu scrawled on a white board. These aren’t glamour shots. But it’s almost as if Dekkers has osmotically absorbed Redzepi’s vision of seeing beauty where others see nothing at all. And we viewers are the beneficiaries of both the content, Redzepi’s vision, and the form, Dekkers’ images.
This canny maneuvering to put oneself in the path of beauty is something Dekkers shares with his subject.
Not to say staring at the staff thinking is altogether unpleasant. I’m sure he doesn’t, but it seems like Redzepi hires by how closely his kitchen staff look like a character out of a Courbet painting. Stern, handsome, and muscled, neither Williams nor Frebel would look out of place in The Wrestlers. And Dekkers, for those interested, makes sure to include ample scenes of the two working out in the hotel gym, as gravy.
Meanwhile, the scenes in the kitchen — unlike another recent documentary — shed light on Redzepi’s rather stern approach. His sadistic-seeming Socratic method is meant to reinforce the purity of the lens. Redzepi mercilessly points out, a few weeks before opening, that Williams and Frebel have essentially just recreated the Copenhagen menu abroad. This, he says, will not do. But in this film, the exchanges never venture into unpleasant territory. This is a directorial choice, for surely, judging from all we know, Redzepi is no saint. But this subdued Redzepi is true, too.
The film, I would say, works because Dekkers was in the right time at the right place. His directorial hand, though expert, is felt lightly. There’s no virtuosic cinematography, contrived drama, or flashy editing. He trains his camera and preserves those interstitial moments, no-great-shakes moments, those moments so many other filmmakers and Boswells discard. A woman ironing flat the leaves of a branch. The young chef Kim Mikkola digesting criticism, receiving praise. Williams as he pulls the head of a snapping turtle back and slits its throat. Talking heads are seldom; manufactured drama is not present. Instead, there’s a lot of staring. A lot of thinking. A lot of seeing.
In other words, Dekkers lets the camera roll. Perhaps he was simply in an incredible place during an incredible time. This is not a knock or a dismissal. He was just lucky. But this canny maneuvering to put oneself in the path of beauty is something Dekkers shares with his subject. As Redzepi shows throughout the film, by taking himself and his team to Japan (or, as he did later, to Australia), by taking them into the forests and deserts, the markets and fields, he’s constantly putting before them new stimuli, asking them to polish their lens, not just to look but to see.
To see this in action isn’t quite as good as eating at Noma, but it’s the closest we’ll probably ever get.
Rating: 5 of out 5 stars
Ants on a Shrimp is in theaters and available on-demand now.