When Chef René Redzepi, and his business partner Claus Myer opened Noma in Copenhagen in 2003, the Denmark capital and its visitors were wary of the concept that a restaurant could rely on Nordic produce alone. Housed at at the site of a former whaling house, Noma took on the challenge of bringing local ingredients to the forefront as a way of bringing authenticity to the Nordic dishes they were creating. The restaurant has since gone on to be awarded Best Restaurant in the World on four occasions, and remains at the top of the World’s 50 Best. As such, Redzepi is regarded as an influential and revolutionary thinker in the gastronomical world.
Filming from 2012 to 2014, Pierre Deschamps’ documentary Noma: My Perfect Storm explores the triumphs and failures of the esteemed restaurant and its chef. I spoke with Deschamps about meeting Redzepi and the otherworldly experience of eating a raw razor clam from Noma.
What initially intrigued you about René and Noma?
I need to go back to 2007, the first time I met René. I was living in Denmark with my Danish wife and someone told me about that restaurant and that chef, which I didn’t know. He was doing something in 2007, which is inviting 15 international chefs for the first time in Denmark to create an awareness about the Nordic ingredients. And I thought this was quite interesting so I went and met him and then did a 52-minute documentary about that. We sort of clicked together and we kept in touch. He gave me some books like the first Noma: Nordic Cuisine and later on Time and Place [in Nordic Cuisine].
The moment I finished the documentary, I had a meal at Noma and this was the starting point of Noma: My Perfect Storm because I was, first of all, blown away by the food that I had never experienced before in my life — though my first education is being a chef and being educated in France in very strict French, classic cuisine. But really this was things lightyears ahead. So I got really interested about it. So after I read the first book, then the second book, I knew what it was but there was much more to know, to understand, and I decided to contact René again after I received mail from him and I met him in 2011, and I said, “Okay, now we need to go further, I would like to do a documentary.” At the time the working title was Being René Redzepi and the idea is that we know that you revolutionized the gastronomic world, that you invented the new Nordic cuisine, but what’s going on in your mind? And that’s what I was interested in. Trying to do something about the chef in the foreground and have Noma in the backdrop.
When you first met him he was just at the beginning of becoming as well known as he is today. Was it interesting to witness him and his restaurant become well regarded and famous around the world?
There was a gap between shooting in 2007. He had two recent stars already but he wasn’t the Noma or the Redzepi that we know now. And I had not seen him for three years, there was quite a change of status. He became sort of the rock star of chefs and everybody was talking about Noma. So already there was a gap between the René that I knew and the Rene that he had become. And therefore I decided to focus on present time and whoever knows about that place to know the ground foundation of that place and how everything started and how the revelation came to René. And try to understand from a more internal point of view: what is going on, what is his food philosophy, and what is sort of his daily routine? So I shot from 2012 to the end of 2014, and that could give me a bit of depth with my story throughout the three years.
Do you feel like after those three years spent with him, that you really knew him by the end of it? And what surprised you most about him that you learned in those three years?
I think I found the same guy that I knew before when I met him in 2007. For me what was very different was when I started the film I thought I knew exactly what was the essence of Noma. But somehow, during the course of the shoot, I discovered differences between the message that was presented to the world and the reality of it. And that’s what I’ve tried to come across along the film. That, for me, was the biggest surprise. The rest, I read it in a book, I knew how it started, but I wanted to reinforce the fact that Claus Meyer, who was the co-founder and co-owner of Noma, was the guy who started it. And also I had an understanding of the revelation of Noma, the time and place. So there were things that I knew because I’d read it, because René told me some of it and some that I discovered throughout the course of the shoot. And some were definitely very surprising and challenging in terms of storytelling and the other one was just a matter of finding out in your arch how you are going to play with that and how you are going to play with the ups and the downs of his life.
I love seeing all the faces of people who work at Noma. When you returned in 2011 was that a relatively new crew that you had to acquaint yourself with? And were they receptive to you being there?
You know, they’re very busy and they’re use to media, they do a lot of shooting all the time, whether it’s photos or small reportage that they’re going to put on the web, or they also have TV crews coming in. So the only thing is that I was more transparent than the other ones because I’m not coming with two cameras or three cameras and sound recording and directors who are all around and going to shoot for a shorter time. They’re really going to mess up your environment. So once the head chef Daniel Giusti, if René wasn’t there it would be him saying, “Oh yeah, this is Pierre, he’s going to be with us today blah blah blah,” and everybody follows. And the team has been really, really welcoming and every time they would understand what I was doing, so they’ve been very kind.
It’s interesting filming in a kitchen. You always hear about how frenetic a kitchen can be. How was the Noma kitchen?
Noma’s kitchen must be like some other kitchens but there’s a cliché sometimes about kitchens where it’s just going to be about shouting and it’s just going to be 200 person per hour. I think there’s a cycle. You start very slow and slowly and slowly the clientele comes in. So it’s growing, it’s not suddenly the place is really fast. And sometimes I think you have good days and sometimes you have bad days. And when you have a bad day it’s like having a grain of salt or sand coming into your machine and something goes wrong. If you’re there of course it’s not going to go well and you’re going to capture that, but if everything is fine there is no chaos, it’s not everybody shouting at each other and René is not there all the time. When René is there it’s a different pressure, when he’s not there it’s a different ambiance and they’re following his moods as well.
You have such a great ending to this movie. Would you have been satisfied if things had worked out differently?
I didn’t know, I honestly didn’t want this to have an impact on my film. It would have, probably, but I thought that Rene had already done enough which is being who he was, he didn’t have to do anything more in a way, he’s being recognized around the world. The fact that they lost and the fact that they regain, you could create and arch of drama in it and of joy in the end. Obviously for him it’s a sort of grieving at the end but I thought it would be sad if this was to become the reason for this film. The reason for this film was this guy, who’s an ugly ducking, because he comes from a humble background, had issues of racism in his country, was rejected when he created Noma because when he went out in the world and said, “Listen, we’re only going to cook with Nordic ingredients in our restaurant,” everybody thought he was crazy. Everyone thought it was impossible and stupid and so it was booted. And in a few years he became the most beautiful swan of gastronomy, he became the god of food. That story, and that challenge of cooking Nordic ingredients, is what I felt was the story. Not whether he would win or lose the world’s 50 best. And I think at the end everything, more or less, functions because of these ups and downs.
Noma: My Perfect Storm is currently in limited release and available via on-demand services.