“Have you got a mouthful?” The dish in question is deep-fried fish sperm, which Rene Redzepi — owner of one of the world’s top restaurants, Noma — is ordering his apprentices to taste. That’s about as sexy as the culinary documentary “Ants on a Shrimp” gets. Chronicling Redzepi’s project to create a 14-course menu in Japan, Dutch helmer Maurice Dekkers devotes most of his film to the celebrity chef’s extensive foraging, while his abstemious staff harps on about the onerous pursuit of perfection; one crucial missing ingredient, however, is the joy of eating or cooking. Although gourmands may complain about too much foreplay and not enough food porn, it’ll still be devoured by tube and on-demand platforms.
The 42-year-old, El Bulli-trained Redzepi is credited with reinventing Nordic cuisine through his daring use of freshly foraged ingredients; a signature dish consists of raw langoustine sprinkled with ants. Under his stewardship, the Copenhagen-based Noma was ranked the best restaurant in the world in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 by Restaurant magazine, despite having earned only two Michelin stars. At the start of 2015, Redzepi temporarily closed down Noma and decamped with his core team to Tokyo’s Mandarin Oriental, his second stunt since running a pop-up restaurant at Claridge’s in London in 2012.
On the first day of setting up, the team is rattled to find the kitchen located three floors below ground, while the layout of the dining area is less than appealing. “This is unbelievable, and I mean it in a bad way,” Redzepi says. For a large part of the film, audiences have to stick with the staff in this claustrophobic dungeon, watching Redzepi raking his chefs Lars Williams, Rosio Sanchez, Thomas Frebel, Dan Giusti and Kim Mikkola over the coals for not meeting his exacting standards. “Our work is not to succeed but to fail day after day,” says Thomas, with more pride than frustration.
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There’s not much footage of food preparation; nor can lay audiences gauge what exquisite flavors the chefs are aiming for, given the Masonic way they communicate: “This tastes good but it’s not working” is one of Redzepi’s many cryptic pronouncements. Moments that open a window onto Noma’s particularity over ingredients occur only during the team’s ventures into the Nagano forest to forage for wild plants. However, watching them nibble on freshly picked leaves or mushrooms oozing slime — and licking bits of soil with the expression of someone fitted with new dentures — doesn’t exactly fill one with wild anticipation to see them served on a plate.
When you have one of the world’s best chefs in a country where washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) enjoys UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status, one naturally wonders what synergy might emerge. However, the chefs’s tasting adventures — Tsukiji fish market, ramen and fish grilled over an irori sunken hearth — are not exactly off the beaten path. Their interactions with locals, including restaurant patrons, gourmets and other chefs, are are also kept to a minimum, and nothing said by Japanese individuals is granted enough significance to be subtitled.
After so much anticipation, the presentation of the 14 courses flashes by in a hasty slideshow at the end. While all the dishes have a Japanese accent, such as cuttlefish soba with a dipping sauce of Nagano pine trees and Okinawa wild roses, few of them look mouth-watering — not even a tart piled with 45 freshwater clams that took 13 people four hours to shell. Others look and sound almost off-putting, like black garlic leather, birch cep and scallop fudge — the latter two looking like dry bark and a scrubbing sponge, respectively.
Apparently 50,000 bookings were received, though they were able to cater to only 3,000 over the five-week period — without a single shot of patrons’ reactions as they savor the food, or any comments from food critics. One is supposed to just take it on good faith when Redzepi proclaims that responses are positive.
It helps to have seen Pierre Deschamps’ documentary “Noma: My Perfect Storm,” which offers a more intimate picture of Redzepi’s career and philosophy, depicting him as a sort of real-life version of Bradley Cooper’s chef protagonist in “Burnt.” Among other things, “Ants on a Shrimp” omits his struggle to overcome a crisis in 2013, when more than 60 customers were struck by Norovirus after eating at Noma.
Dekkers, who helmed three food documentary series for TV before making this feature debut, has put together a slick, professional tech package, with an eclectic and energizing score consisting of albums by Wong Kar-wai’s frequent collaborator Shigeru Umebayashi, Chilean-American musician Nicolas Jaar and Danish composer Halfdan E Nielsen.