Monday, January 25, 2016

1MB On Film: NOMA: My Perfect Storm

NOMA: My Perfect Storm is a portrait of groundbreaking chef Rene Redzepi:  his cooking as his love letter to mother nature, built with an alphabet of local and foraged ingredients.  From his start as the target of derision in the culinary world, to head of the best restaurant in the world many times over, to the brink of possible ruin with a norovirus outbreak, to his climb back to the top, this film charts the tempestuous career and mind of Rene Redzepi as a force of nature that you can’t help but root for.

Official movie synopsis:

With automatic access to genius, René Redzepi plays with wilderness and interprets a forgotten edible world into a language we all understand. A modern ugly duckling, bullied by his peers, Redzepi found his home in the no man’s land and transformed into swan. Noma, My Perfect Storm is a creative journey into the mind of René Redzepi. How did he manage to revolutionise the entire world of gastronomy, inventing the alphabet and vocabulary that would infuse newfound pedigree to Nordic cuisine and establish a new edible world while radically changing the image of the modern chef? His story has the feel of a classic fairy tale: the ugly duckling transformed into a majestic swan, who now reigns over the realm of modern gourmet cuisine. But beneath the polished surface, cracks appear in the form of old wounds. 2013 stands as the worst year in René Redzepi’s career. We follow him as he fights his way back to the top, reinventing NOMA and reclaiming the title of best restaurant in the world in 2014 for the fourth time.

[Synopsis from]


There are many ways a documentary can approach its subject, when that subject centers around food: the easy tropes are hero overcoming adversity, or retracing career milestones embellished with a smattering of foodporn. Noma: My Perfect Storm doesn't break the mold, but writer-director Pierre Deschamps crafts its delivery in a way that is familiar yet balanced in its portrayal of Redzepi as genius and perfectionist-bully, and shining in its (counter?)structural mirroring of the analogy of Chef Redzepi's life as the perfect storm (from a Norwegian fisherman's tale) throughout the film: imperfect but powerful poetry, hewn from the same raw nature the chef embodies.

The film opens on an icy landscape, and Chef Redzepi ponders via voiceover, dining as philosophy, tied to time and place.  Humans are inseparable from their environment, and so are ingredients: "they belong to the seasons, they have a ripening process, they have their own temporal dimension".  Harvest and enjoying ingredients from the right place at the right time, results in not only a great dining experience (we all know the buzzwords that appear everywhere these days like "seasonal" and "farm to table') but truly gives diners a sense of where they are in the world, and to celebrate what they are eating as a way to understand that environment and culture at that specific point in time (and hopefully in doing so, also to think about how to consume in a responsible way).  Where Chef Redzepi trailblazed is in choosing to showcase Scandinavia, despite its terroir - known for being harsh and not produce friendly -  against all expectations to establish, in mentor Ferran Adria's words: "national culinary identity which they never had before."

We get a glimpse of eccentric local forager Roland Rittman, whose passion is to discover new ingredients in the wilderness of Denmark.  Chef Redzepi is clearly inspired, and passes this on to his team in the kitchen: he sees them as explorers of an edible planet. 

"As a cook, you’re creating a language….if that’s the case, then we need vocabulary, an alphabet to build sentences and paragraphs, and the ingredients are our letters.  The more letters we have, the more beautiful the prose." - Rene Redzepi

He encourages his staff to think about ingredients in new ways: and we hear the joy and wonder in his creative process: "omigod, it’s a cabbage...a, it’s a drink!"  Although, the film would have done better to offer deeper insights into a few highlighted dishes to better showcase this, especially since Redzepi moves on to use ingredients most people have never heard of, or that most chefs would never consider serving (like moss, or ants).  The 'why' and 'how' would be burning questions any viewer would have about Redzepi's specific creations / methods.

On balance, Deschamps does offer a glimpse at another side of Redzepi: one who drives his team to the brink, with the unreserved severity of a perfectionist who relentlessly and impatiently demands flawlessness from not only himself but everyone around him.  He also rips into traditions he finds objectionable, with vitriol: in his view, diners should focus on food and their connection to it, rather than the trappings of fine dining which do nothing in service of that (the requirement that waiters wear bowties, for example, was the target of expletive laden tirades).

But the intellectual paired with tradition-bucking approach was not well received in the beginning: back in 2003 when Noma first opened (with then 25-year old Redzepi at its helm), the gastronomic community did not understand nor accept his grandiose thinking, and particularly harsh critics branded his team with crushing monikers like "Seal-Fuckers".

Redzepi persisted.  He knew what it felt like to be an outsider, growing up as the son of a Macedonian muslim and Danish mother in Denmark.  He held firmly onto his vision to revolutionize Nordic cuisine, drawn from the land onto diners' plates: and success finally crossed the frozen tundra in 2010: when Noma won the prestigious #1 spot in the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards. 

And Noma won again, in 2011 and 2012.  Only for a norovirus to hit the restaurant the very next year, causing 60 diners to fall ill - and bringing chef Redzepi from the height of his career to a low from which they were not sure they would recover.  Would people be too afraid to continue to follow him along on the local, foraged food journey?  Or would they have to abandon the concept altogether?

In the moment of truth in 2014, the film aptly immerses viewers into the emotional whirlwind of the moments leading up to Noma's triumph: from Redzepi telling his team to "Go there, be good sports...I'm not expecting anything to happen" to first person style footage shot on cell phone as Rene and staff huddled anxiously together like an Olympic sports team to listen to award announcement countdowns, to the burst of pure joy and excitement as #2 was named...and the team realized that Noma will again take top honor.  

In his moment of triumphant redemption, Redzepi cannot forget his humble beginnings, and the cynics' words that stung so deeply but ultimately fueled so intensely his fire to succeed: 

"Guys, we did it! you remember the opening years of Noma, how few people believed in us?...  They gave us funny names. We all remember the “seal fucker” but that didn’t bother us, it fucking killed us.  and look at us now...celebrated for all the experience.  Wood sorrel conquered caviar...You have to remember, that everything we’ve achieved today is by failing, or by how we handle the failures we stumble over daily.  We have to stay there, on the edge, right there, looking for our next move, playing like we have nothing, and nothing, to lose. The road is not paved in front of us...we want to be the ones laying the bricks... My dear Seal-Fuckers, thank you again, and let’s keep failing, together."

It is only in the final moments of the film, that we get to hear the perfect storm tale directly from Redzepi himself:

"A Perfect Storm is a storm in which the sky and the sea seems to flow together, and Ragnarök or the end of the world is around the corner.  Everything goes wrong, you’re about to give up, but you still continue even though your strength is almost exhausted.  The thing that keeps you going is that everything will calm down at one point.  All your instincts telling you, calm down, everything will be ok. That there is control in spite of everything...perfect analogy of my life at Noma"

It is an elegant close to this chapter in Redzepi's narrative: the film may not have any revelatory insights to offer, but what you come away with is more than a glimpse of one chef's path to success, but inspiration to persist in the face of forces that have every probability to deter / destroy.   To believe, and to persist - to keep moving and weather it through.

Outside of the documentary, news had been circulating that Noma will shutdown at the end of 2016, for a new incarnation with a new menu and an urban farm on property.  I for one hope to be fortunate enough to get to experience Noma in its current form, to capture this point in space and time, before it moves on with gale force.


Noma: My Perfect Storm
Run time: 95 mins
1MB Rating: 3 bites (out of 5)
Available on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play and video On Demand (check cable provider listings here)
And playing in select theaters:
Likelihood of 2nd Helping?: 80%

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