Connoisseurs of global cuisine and foodie documentaries probably know René Redzepi, the founder and head chef of the Copenhagen eatery Noma. It’s not difficult to see why filmmakers gravitate toward Redzepi, as he’s a commanding and charismatic figure with a touch of mystery. Publicly, he doesn’t fit the cliché of the temperamental chef who achieves excellence in the kitchen with bullying and hysterical theatrics. Redzepi is quieter and less neurotically self-aggrandizing than such a stereotype allows, unafraid to tell someone they can do better, though in a tone that’s strangely complimentary, allowing his collaborators to understand that he’s paying them a courtesy by expecting excellence. He’s a conductor pushing for the ineffable unity of elements that separates goodness from greatness, and sometimes gut instinct distinguishes a memorable dish from what might merely be “ingredients with a sauce,” as Redzepi says of a plate that disappoints him.
Maurice Dekkers’s Ants on a Shrimp often plays as a superior sequel to Pierre Deschamps’s My Perfect Storm. Dekkers presumes that Redzepi’s reputation and celebrity precede him, leaving us gratifyingly concerned with present-tense narrative. In 2015, Redzepi transported his entire staff to Tokyo for a temporary restaurant project, adapting his acclaimed Nordic cooking methods to the new setting. As in his own country, Redzepi refused to rely on importation of products, embracing and confronting the riches and limitations of the land around him. Throughout Ants on a Shrimp, Dekkers follows Redzepi and his team as they explore Japan, attempting to forge a deep, non-touristy bond with the country so as to create a cuisine that merges the best sensibilities of alienness with insider tradition. We see chefs practicing how to slit the throats of turtles, a delicacy in Tokyo. We also regard the Noma staff as they scour Japanese woods, tasting mushrooms and bark, speaking with master fish merchants and practicing the roasting of mouth-watering duck, while conceiving of a fascinating-looking root dish that’s unified by egg yolk.
More than the over-expository My Perfect Storm, Ants on a Shrimp drinks in the details of creating and tasting foods as well as debating the outcomes on a literal drawing board, lingering on the trials of honing a menu, which testify to the exhilaration and torment of the artistic drive. Dekkers offers lively and layered images that reveal the chefs both as individuals and components of a larger social organism. The film resembles David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Paul Lacoste’s Step Up to the Plate in its comfort with silence and reliance on long sequences in which we watch professionals in action, allowing the audience to savor the tactility of foods, utensils, and hands, understanding cooking or creation of any kind as a sort of secular meditation—an achievably earthly opportunity for communion and transcendence.