Noma Two Ways

Paleo Retiree writes:

René Redzepi at Noma

I recently watched and enjoyed “Noma: My Perfect Storm,” Pierre Deschamp’s documentary about René Redzepi, the brilliant chef behind Noma, an avant-garde Copenhagen restaurant that’s often been called the best restaurant in the world. Inspired and curious, I snooped around afterwards to see if I could turn up more docs on the same topic. It turns out that Anthony Bourdain devoted an episode of “Parts Unknown” to Redzepi and Noma. I watched that show too.

“Noma: My Perfect Storm” is in the high-art mode of “El Bulli” and “The Birth of Saké,” two food docs I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog (here and here). It’s a very controlled, hushed piece of work. The colors are pale and highly-buffed, with the near monochromaticism set off by spare splashes of juicy, intense red and green. The score is that modern cliché: slowly-swirling, chic New Age sounds that indicate otherworldly rapture. There’s an almost relentless emphasis on clarity of the most subtle kind. And Redzepi himself is presented as a dour, difficult philosopher-artist, a visionary bent on opening the world to new vistas of thought and experience. “There’s an element of Mozart to him,” says one interviewee. “He has this automatic access to genius.” Food, thought, pleasure, ideas: it’s all one, One, ONE …

The film’s title refers to a stretch when Noma lost a ratings star. Will it be able to win it back? This episode in the restaurant’s history is presented as an agonizing metaphysical crisis — an occasion for introspection and spiritual striving — on the order of “The Seventh Seal.” Racism (Redzepi’s dad is an immigrant of Albanian ethnicity) doesn’t fail to get explored as a likely factor in our genius’ history and drives …

OK, I’m having a bit of a giggle at the movie’s expense, and I do think some snickering is warranted. Goodness, how much straight-facedness is a person expected to tolerate while watching a food documentary? Nonetheless, I mean no real disrespect: the movie is very enjoyable for what it is. Its high-art manner doesn’t feel affected or put-on, and Deschamps is a genuinely elegant filmmaker. And, in case anybody cares, I’m beyond-OK with thinking of a chef as a great artist and creator. Besides, if this isn’t an era when food is culturally paramount and food documentaries have become a major film genre, I don’t know what it is. Verdict: if you’re in the mood for a beautifully crafted, somewhat austere look at a remarkable chef and his restaurant — I haven’t eaten at Noma and never will, but even onscreen the food that Redzepi creates comes across as conceptually and visually astounding — you could do a lot, lot worse.

It’s quite startling how completely different an experience the Bourdain episode is. It’s in Bourdain’s typical ’60s-New-Journalism/travelogue mode: earthy, jazzy, wisecracking, quick-witted and informal. The food is the same, much of the information is identical, and many of the characters we run into are familiar. But the tone of the piece is such a contrast that even Redzepi comes off very differently. In Deschamp’s movie Redzepi is a tortured, bold-yet-hesitant introvert; in Bourdain’s episode he’s enthusiastic, resilient and convivial — a brilliant creator to be sure, but also an earthy host and showman. The making of meals here isn’t a matter for slow-motion spiritual contemplation (although there’s that too); it’s 90% a question of getting up early, working long hours, handling organic ingredients, inspiring your staff, and doing your best to delight people’s digestive tracts while keeping a business afloat. Oh, and remembering to enjoy a personal life. That too.

The episode is beauty, by the way — a standout even among Bourdain’s many terrific TV shows. Despite his flip, macho swagger and punk-inflected wryness, Bourdain finds himself downright captivated: by Redzepi’s food; by the modest, collaborative gestalt of Danish life; by the lowkey people and their response to the Northern European summertime; by the urban bliss of Copenhagen itself … The episode isn’t just a hip, caustic, knowledgeable, run-and-gun visit to a city and a restaurant, although it’s that too. It’s a vision of civilization at its finest. There are moments in the show of such intense beauty, pleasure and connection that they feel downright transcendent. It’s fun and touching to watch the hardboiled Bourdain and his rowdy crew find ways to be frank and expressive about how moved and transported he was.

Speaking of expressive … Is anyone else as surprised as I am that more hasn’t been made of Anthony Bourdain as a filmmaker? God knows he hasn’t suffered from a lack of appreciation or success generally. But I’m a little shocked that film critics haven’t recognized what an innovative, daring and kickass moviemaker he is. I see Peckinpah, Renoir and Chris Marker (and more) in his work. Once he got his skills and crew in place, Bourdain started making show after show on a very high aesthetic level. He’s found ways not just to do New Journalism in TV form but to convey and express ideas, reflections and experiences. Talk about direct personal filmmaking …  Film critics and film visionaries used to enjoy discussing what was then called “le caméra-stylo” — the “camera-pen.” The dream was of a time when we’d have filmmakers who create with the kind of directness and freedom that the best essayists have enjoyed and made use of. It seems to me that, in Anthony Bourdain, we have exactly that. If these things were up to me — and thank god they’re not — I’d rank Bourdain right up there with the filmmaking superheroes of the 1960s and 1970s.


  • “Noma: My Perfect Storm” is currently available on Netflix Instant.
  • I watched the Bourdain episode on YouTube, but the upload I found has been taken down. Currently you can see a mangled version of it here.
  • I wrote about Bourdain’s superb episode about Ferran Adrià here. Adrià was one of Redzepi’s influences.

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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