Finding a great food documentary is easy these days. From your local arthouse theater, across umpteen streaming services, and cable TV, food is everywhere. Some of it is standard food porn, highlighting the complexity of haute cuisine and the relentless personalities who make it possible. Some of it is straight forward and dry. Rarely do you find a film that exposes the real lives of the people in the kitchen and just how annoyingly hard it is to make a perfect dish and get it out on time.
Enter Maurice Dekkers who followed chef René Redzepi of NOMA on an odyssey from Denmark to Tokyo. The resulting doc is an anomaly of culinary cinema called Ants On A Shrimp. In 80 minutes, Dekker’s lens does something shockingly new and fresh: He focuses on the staff, demystifies the chef, and humanizes the whole experience. As they travel around Japan’s forests, markets, and cities, the team immerses themselves in local cuisine on every level. Yes, they eat live ants. They get lost trying to navigate streets. They work out in the hotel gym. They drink Red Bull to get a kick before starting service. They fret. They scarf down cheap pizzas and drink regular beer.
Ants On A Shrimp pulls off the amazing task of reminding us that there are regular people behind the aprons.
I sat down with Dekkers a few months back at the Berlinale to talk about his film, travel, how René Redzepi’s cuisine can translate to the common person, and the real life of a chef.
How did you and René first meet?
To make long story short, a lot of TV stations in the world want to do something with René. He was not really happy with the offers. It was all too commercial. Then one of the co-owners of Noma, who knew me, introduced us. Then I showed him my work and he loved it and then I had an idea for a documentary series about cooking techniques. Then, he said, “Well, I’d love to do that.” We went to a hotel near the sea in Denmark where he normally forages for his greens. We spent a couple of days writing this series. Then he told me about Japan and I said, well, I want to do that. I want to make a film of that because that’s a closed arena. It’s one point. I’m really really curious how you create 40 dishes at your level. People expect a lot and I felt I had the opportunity to see the creation of this. I asked if it was okay and then I joined him on the trips and I joined him in Tokyo.
What fascinated me the most is that a lot of culinary film is so focused on the top of the pyramid — the head chef, the genius, the enfant-terrible. You focused on the team behind that head chef, and their struggles. Instead of showing food porn, you showed us regular people. What drew you to this angle?
When you see films about that on that level, they create kind of a mysterious thing. They’re gods of food. And they make everything in slow motion and it’s food porn. Actually, that’s not the real world man. These people are just normal people. They are no gods. They’re good at what they’re doing because they are really extremely hard workers. It’s a tremendously hard work in the kitchen. Most of the people in the kitchen are not used to fine dining. They’re used to eating pizzas.
Some of my favorite scenes are actually of Chef Daniel Giusti walking home drinking a beer from the bottle, then eating his cold pizza before passing out.
Yeah. I wanted to show more the reality and not to make food porn and not to come up with beautiful shots from food. That’s just a very small part; that is more for the people who are there eating. It is more the thing on before that; it’s a very long period of thinking and of doing and of calculating. I didn’t talk in the film about the money. That when you want to get rich, you don’t want to be a chef. Don’t do that because it’s just hard work for nothing because you love it. That’s also, of course, a legitimate reason to do it.
That’s what I wanted to show that they’re drinking Red Bull before service starts, and that they’re just a bunch of people.
They’re not all celebrity chefs signing endorsement deals. They’re craftspeople working hard every single day.
Yes and it’s the same with cinema of course. When a lot of people see it at the red carpet, they think you’re rich when you’re not. For a lot of people in film and TV, or writers, it’s a struggle.
As you point out in your film, maybe 3,000 people will get to eat at Noma in Tokyo and they do 90 covers a day in Copenhagen. The average person is not going to be eating this food. How then does their cuisine, for lack of a better term, trickle down to the common person?
I think because they do a lot of research. Before René there was the generation of El Bulli, of Ferran [Adria]. The Molecular kitchen. You cannot reach to that when you’re an average person. What René is doing is walking to the soil and he is picking greens that everybody can pick. It’s not his territory. It’s out there for everybody. I work now with René, so I also look with a different perspective. I walk to the woods and I look around if I can see something that’s edible.
Suddenly your eyes are opened?
Yes. I think that’s why it makes it available for everybody, is that it’s out there. You can pick it. And the simpleness of how he cooks. It’s not that difficult. For example, the dish with the citrus, it’s just a matter of carving the citrus. Of course, he picks the good fruits. But I’m carving it now as well in my home and it works. He added some oils and some greens that you can pick. Everybody can buy these things and make it at your home. Not, of course, every dish. There are those dishes that are very complicated.
René started what is called the Nordic Laboratory and that’s for everybody. He started it, but everybody can use this knowledge. It’s for free! He did some very important things for everybody in that he’s going to nature and looking into your surroundings. He doesn’t create something; he just picks things. That I think is why it’s very reachable to the common person.
It’s important to know what’s on your table. And we can go out and forage. It’s becoming popular even in urban areas.
Yes, they can do that. I think the influence on a lot of kitchens is very big with what he did. I think also that you can if you really want to experience this food, it’s also not that expensive. It costs you around 300 euros. Of course, you have to make a trip to Copenhagen; that can be expensive. For 300 euros, it’s all worth it and it’s up to you if you think it’s worth it. When you save for let’s say every month one euro, in four years you can eat with him. You don’t have to do it every month; it’s an experience and I think I could I recommend it to anybody.
Absolutely. It’s a life experience.
Yeah. You see, I live in an area in Amsterdam North. There are a lot of poor people and every week they’re buying lottery tickets. That lottery ticket adds up over time. They hope that they’re going to be a millionaire with the lottery ticket. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. When they save the money from those lottery tickets somewhere else and go eating. I think it can change your life because you experience new things. The chances to become a millionaire is much bigger when you experience life than when you’re sitting at home buying lottery tickets every week.
I was watching your film looking at all these chefs and I started wondering where are they going to be in 10 years. What restaurants will they would be opening? Where do you see Rene’s team going as the next big generation of chefs?
I think they’re going in different directions. To be a good chef is one thing. But when you have a restaurant, you have a business. Running a business is completely different than cooking. When you want to have your own restaurant, then you not only need the skills of cooking but you also need the skills of leading a team. I saw very good chefs; but, they’re not able to run a restaurant. There are some. I think Thomas Frebel for example, yes, I think in 10 years he will definitely have a restaurant.
My wife always tells me with our kids that, if they want to be artists or follow my career or go into something like cuisine, they have to go to business school first. That way they know the business before it’s too late.
Yes. That’s, of course, difficult and especially in food. The earnings of food and the profits are really tiny. I think, in general, the food is not very expensive. It’s really hard to run a successful business. But when you have the skills… People like Rosy Sanchez, for example, she already started her own business. Rosy started a taco shop in Copenhagen. It’s fantastic! When you go to Copenhagen; you go to her. It’s just a small shop in, like, a corner in a food hall and she’s making tacos. She has the Mexican roots. And she even makes her own flour.
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What a DAY! Thank you to those that came out and waited in this weather, 💪👏 Big thanks goes out to @reneredzepinoma and the noma team for all the hard work that went into these delicious tacos. And extra big thanks to our team for always pushing everyday! #hijadesanchez #amigosdesanchez
She does it proper!
Yes! She makes food for common people. I don’t know what it costs. Let’s say six euros or seven euros and you have a taco you can eat there. She is a very good pastry chef. She worked a long time with René and then she started a taco shop. I like that.
I like that too.
Yes. Dan Giusti made a complete change. Dan quit as head chef. I didn’t expect that, but he stopped a few weeks ago. He is back to the States. He is running a business making meals for school children. He wants to put his skills into developing a meal for three Euros that is nutritious and sustainable. That’s fantastic.
Yeah, that is fantastic.
I think it’s also the people that I met. I met them only for a couple of months. But they’re not only very good chefs, they’re fantastic people. I think that’s one of the most important things as to why René became one of the best chefs in the world: the team are so dedicated and they’re so nice. People forget that sometimes you have to be very nice and very friendly, and willing to help other people and let them in. They took me in as one of them and felt really comfortable. That’s a skill that they all have.
Fantastic. Can what your next plans are?
There’s one thing I definitely know is that I’m going to eat every day. That’s the only thing I know… and I enjoy it.
Ants On A Shrimp premieres online at IFC.com and will have a small theatrical run starting July 29.