‘Ants on a Shrimp’: How Rene Redzepi found himself in Tokyo

by

Special To The Japan Times

Rene Redzepi is having his moment — and it’s a long one. It began in 2010 when his Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, was deemed by Restaurant Magazine to be the best on the planet. Noma has now been voted to the No. 1 slot on the magazine’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list four times and Redzepi remains one of the world’s best and most influential chefs.

Since that moment began, he has been the subject of more than a dozen films and TV shows, but the latest —”Ants on a Shrimp” (“Noma Tokyo: Sekai Ichi no Resutoran ga Nihon ni Yatte Kita”) by Dutch documentarian Maurice Dekkers — is sure to strike a chord with audiences in Japan when it opens on Dec. 10.

“Ants on a Shrimp” focuses primarily on the few weeks in January 2015, when Redzepi came to Tokyo to open a pop-up Noma inside the Mandarin Oriental hotel. Dekkers takes viewers behind the scenes as the chef and his staff create a new menu for the occasion.

“I wanted to experience how the best chef in the world (and his team) develop 14 new dishes in a totally different city with a unique food culture of its own,” Dekkers says. “For that, I needed to earn their trust, because Rene and his staff do not trust media people easily. I needed to be there every step of the way, from the depths of the kitchen to Rene’s excursions into the countryside where he foraged for foodstuffs. And I didn’t want the film to be just about Rene — he’s a celebrity and it’s easy to concentrate on him. I wanted to make a film about the whole team.”

Dekkers put microphones on everyone who worked closely with Redzepi in Tokyo, and even on those who didn’t.

One scene shows a noisy crowd of 50 chefs in the Mandarin’s basement kitchen. But when Redzepi steps to the center to speak, there is absolute silence.

“You know, the kitchen is full of noise but it’s not as noisy perhaps as ordinary restaurants,” Dekkers says. “I think the viewer will be struck by the level of calm and discipline in Rene’s kitchen. Yes, there are a lot of people doing 1,000 things at once but they are united by a sense of dedication and shared concentration.”

Noma Tokyo was the first time Redzepi had worked on a pop-up restaurant, and the fact that he chose Japan’s capital city was flattering, but also a little baffling.

“It makes perfect sense,” Dekkers says. “The Japanese are driven and so dedicated to their craft. I was so awed by the way many Japanese people spend their entire lives aiming for perfection in their chosen field of work. And I think Rene knew instinctively, that Tokyo was the place to open Noma because, in Tokyo, people revered and understood work like nowhere else.”

The process by which Redzepi ultimately creates each new dish is fascinating. Like a both painter and a conductor, he gathers strands of different ideas, textures, tastes and colors until something clicks inside him and he knows what should be done and how to do it. He then assembles everything he has collated on a single plate, where the components come together to formulate one part of the Noma experience. For the Tokyo pop-up, Redzepi insisted on creating 14 new dishes, which meant that the process was repeated 14 times in the depths of the Mandarin’s basement kitchen. The film follows Redzepi and his trusted inner circle of top chefs as they hone in on new ideas and tastes like lab chemists or falcons circling around prey. The intensity Dekkers captures is awe-inspiring.

The title “Ants on a Shrimp” comes from one of Noma Tokyo’s more surprising dishes. Ants are one of Redzepi’s signature ingredients and he tasted them all over Japan before deciding that those from Nagano were the most delicious, owing to their citrus flavor.

“Rene faced a lot of criticism when he first opened Noma,” Dekkers says. “In the food world, criticism can break a chef: people say some negative things and then the restaurant is over. But Rene stuck to his convictions. As a filmmaker, I am fascinated by Rene because he has such a vision and never wavers from it.”

Redzepi and his entire crew of 77 arrived in Tokyo 15 days before opening Noma but he and his inner circle of trusted chefs had been coming to Japan regularly for two years in preparation. To create the best sensory experience possible, the team scoured the country for vegetables, leaves and tree branches. In the documentary, Redzepi is particularly enamoured with tree life in Nagano.

They’re less sure of themselves in the labyrinthine backstreets of Nihombashi. “Where are we?” asks Redzepi at one point — he seems to be questioning the teams wider struggle to find themselves in Japan. But once the team starts working in the Mandarin — for 12 to 14 hours a day — all cultural and language concerns fade into the background.

“Rene is always on a journey,” said Dekkers. “He never stops moving, and he’s never satisfied with what he has achieved. And he never acts like he’s the best, he wants to learn from other people and from nature.”

Dekkers says that he was also touched at the Noma team’s “simple tastes.” They cook up some of the most expensive and advanced dishes on Earth, but when it came time for them to eat, Dekkers says they liked to eat the food they ate as children: hamburgers and pizza.

“Those guys were always ordering pizza, and it wasn’t very good either! But that’s the mind of many chefs. They’re not interested in fine dining for themselves.”