Throughout Noma: My Perfect Storm, the documentary’s subject, René Redzepi, tellingly refers to his cultural origins as an immigrant from Macedonia living in Denmark. The Scandinavian country has been his home for awhile, but he clearly hasn’t forgotten the resistance that he weathered from locals for his Muslim heritage, throughout school and early adulthood before achieving great professional acclaim. Textually, this information is but a small portion of the documentary, but, sub-textually, it’s massive.
Now the world-renowned chef of Noma, a restaurant in Copenhagen that prepares only “pure” Nordic cuisine, Redzepi clearly has a chip on his shoulder that’s familiar to many transcendent rags-to-riches success stories. He’s been accepted into a world defined by the rarest of the rarefied, now striving to earn Noma its third Michelin star, but Redzepi still feels ostracized, outside of his world, both haunted and affirmed by his past, simultaneously suspecting himself and his patrons of phoniness, nursing an inferiority complex within a pretense of superiority. The chef’s forever trying to prove himself, never content no matter what praise is thrown his way, which is precisely the quality that fuels his greatness.
Featuring an immigrant who becomes a beacon of his adopted culture, Redzepi’s story is richly dramatic and ironic. And it’s clearly tailor-made for a foodie doc in which cooking is revealed to be a metaphor for self-actualization, connection, and reconciliation, with both our fellow humans and with Earth itself. Yet Noma never entirely comes to life. Director Pierre Deschamps has a flair for meticulous compositions, particularly ones in which the chef and his team are layered throughout the restaurant’s kitchen, functioning together as a singular organism, but his camera rarely seems to be catching the moments that matter. Life-altering events, the very essence of the story here, are often glossed over with under-compensating generality.
In 2013, Noma failed to earn the third Michelin star that Redzepi sought, while also coming in second in the Best Restaurant in the World competition after winning the top spot for several years running. The startling setback, though, was the discovery that over 60 people contracted a norovirus from eating at Noma—an event that Deschamps practically elides until recalling it for closure in the service of an abrupt happy ending. Redzepi’s 2013 was the kind of year that spurs a true crisis of conscience for an artist, in which they reconsider their talents and the decisions they’ve made up to the point of failure. But these events float by the film in a vague cloud, each covered by a few minutes of obligatory interview footage.
Too much of Noma is composed of gorgeous pillow shots, which grow static and fussy, appearing to exist almost apart from the subject matter. The images literal-mindedly support the oration of the frequently redundant, stiflingly retrospective interviews. There’s rarely a sense of discovery in what we’re seeing. The dishes created at Noma are shot with painterly detail, for instance, though we learn precious little about them.
A memorably stout Scotsman who fished sea urchins for Redzepi at a low point in both men’s lives says his association with the latter changed the course of his existence—a revelation that Deschamps promptly, remarkably drops with no further elaboration, lingering instead on ocean footage before moving on to the next setup. Interviews with foragers are similarly diverting and rich in outdoorsy photography, yet are peripheral to Redzepi’s life as presented. The dead ends pile up on one another, nulling the fascination of Redzepi’s personality. Noma isn’t really a proper meal. It’s all starters.