A wisp of leaf atop a bed of flowers, a dash of foam, all circling a sea urchin plucked from the depths just hours ago — an edible work of art that demands an emotional response: This is the kind of dish that earned the Copenhagen restaurant Noma its fame, and its title as best restaurant in the world. In his new documentary, Noma: My Perfect Storm, director Pierre Deschamps has created a stunning cinematic portrait of the place that rivals the gastronomic art that it serves. He has also succeeded in creating an incredibly intimate portrait of chef René Redzepi and his life story.
The film, released by Magnolia Pictures, opens in some theaters on December 18; it will also be available on iTunes and on demand through your cable provider.
To gauge Noma’s influence in the global culinary world, one only need observe that its alumni have opened some of the hottest new restaurants around the world: Luksus in Brooklyn, the Willows Inn on Lummi Island in Washington state, Tamka43 in Poland and Relae in Copenhagen, just to name a few. Increasingly, young chefs are experimenting with the regionalist philosophy that Noma pioneered; a case in point is the new tasting-menu restaurant Nobelhart & Schmutzig in Berlin. Thanks to this trickle-down effect, Noma’s influence now is massive and will likely continue to resonate for years to come.
In 2017, Noma plans to reopen as an urban farm center, and at the same time, head chef René Redzepi has paired up with an alum to open a casual restaurant in Copenhagen called 108. With these announcements, a new era appears on the horizon for what might be the most hyped restaurant in recent history. Much of the ballyhoo began when Noma garnered the number-one spot on the influential Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2010. But behind the scenes, Noma’s beginning was actually quite rocky, and even after winning World’s Best, there were some dark days.
Filmmaker Deschamps was there to capture them all.
The director trained as a chef in his native France before moving to Scandinavia and switching to the cinematic arts in the 1990s. Before he first filmed Redzepi in 2007, while making a short for a TV program, he hadn’t even heard of Noma, but a friend had suggested it as a topic. Following that original shoot, the chef invited Deschamps and his family to dine at Noma, and Deschamps says he was “blown away” by the meal.
“I remember the razor clam — he served it raw, and this took me back to my childhood on holiday in the west of France,” the filmmaker recalls in a phone interview. Likewise, his wife ate something that evoked childhood travels in Greenland with her mother.
Because of this early friendship, when Deschamps set out to make a feature-length documentary about Noma in 2012, he was able to gain unprecedented access. At this time, Noma’s worldwide fame was at its peak, as was the phenomenon of globe-trotting foodies competing to get reservations at this unique restaurant housed in a former warehouse that used to store trade goods like dried fish and whale oil.
“Thanks to Noma, Copenhagen has a kind of gastronomic tourism, people traveling to Scandinavia to eat, and it never happened before,” says Deschamps. “The gastronomic world has recognized Denmark because of Noma. That’s what the title of the best restaurant has done with Noma.”
Back when Redzepi was just opening Noma, however, he was ridiculed — above all, because of his background. Redzepi’s father, who is interviewed in the film along with his Danish mother, hails from Macedonia. Letters arrived, blog posts popped up, calling Redzepi and his teams all sorts of names: “The whale penis,” the “blubber restaurant.” But the attitude in the Noma kitchen didn’t exactly command the public’s respect, either: “We were pretentious, and it was crap; it was just crap,” says Redzepi, recalling the restaurant’s early days, in one of many candid soliloquies that Deschamps captures expertly.
The turning point came during a trip to Greenland. Redzepi gazed at a stunning ice cap and knew it was time to take Noma to the next level. The new mission was to “every day, serve a meal…that tells people where in the world we are and what time of the year we’re in.” From there, Redzepi turned to traditional foragers to find the very best, rarest ingredients and developed the Noma menu that earned him fame as the pioneer of New Nordic cuisine.
These foragers represent one of the film’s most captivating highlights, and the breathtaking settings of their work are portrayed through quietly beautiful camera work. It was largely thanks to forager Roland Rittman, who reached out to Redzepi offering the mushrooms he found in the woods, that the chef was able to transform his menu. “The moment when you realized, ‘Wow, in the wilderness there’s so much more undiscovered’ — he gave us that. He was the one who sparked that initial interest,” recalls Redzepi, speaking of Rittman. Later on in the film, we meet fisherman Roderick Sloan, diving for sea urchins; Soren Wiuff, the farmer who turns Redzepi on to Nordic coriander; and Tage Ronne, a forester who extracts sap. Their inclusion in the film saves it from becoming a pure hagiography of Redzepi.
This is also accomplished by Redzepi himself, whose ugly side comes out in tense moments. In particular, 2013 was a difficult year for Noma, and Deschamps was right there, capturing the anxious mood. It started with a case of norovirus, which attacked the intestines of 63 people who had dined at Noma. After testing, it appeared that these guests had eaten infected mussels at the restaurant. This was a big setback, after nearly three straight years of a completely unanticipated path to glory, propped up by media hype. When Noma first got the number-one spot on the 50 Best list, Redzepi recalls, the restaurant didn’t even have a receptionist.
“Thanks to Noma, Copenhagen has a kind of gastronomic tourism, people traveling to Scandinavia to eat, and it never happened before.”
By 2013, though, the restaurant was in the limelight, and the norovirus situation did not look good for its prospects moving forward. When the Pellgrino awards rolled around that year, Redzepi asked Deschamps not to film. “He sort of knew he wouldn’t get the title. I wanted to capture this,” recalls Deschamps. “He would be talking to his team about why they didn’t get it, and I wanted to show him as a father figure, but he wasn’t at ease with that.” That was the year Noma slid from first place. Around that time, Deschamps himself had a meal at Noma that he “wasn’t crazy about,” he says.
But the following year, they were right back at number one. In the film, Redzepi swears he cares not whether Noma ever gets its third Michelin star (“So what. So fucking what. I’m gonna have three kids, that’s my three stars,” he says), but he does care unabashedly about that Pellegrino award. Perhaps it is contradictions like this that make Redzepi one of the world’s most dynamic, surprising and successful chefs at such a young age — he just turned 38. If there is one thing Redzepi is known for, it’s taking a simple concept — eat local — and making it as intricate and cerebral as possible. The result is nothing less than the birth of a whole new wave of Nordic cuisine, and a cadre of young cooks around the world with a fervent belief in locavorism.
It looks like Redzepi’s future holds even further experimentation with the art of fermentation, something Noma took up in recent years, as well as urban farming, children’s education and now a more casual restaurant. Which means that, in terms of culinary innovation, it’s time to turn our attention to his former protégés and their own projects to find what’s next.