Few of us will have the funds or the free time to travel the world visiting the restaurants officially touted the best, though it's certainly a nice dream. Despite swinging a personal pendulum between despising pretension in food and admiring the dedication it takes to care intensely about the placement of each micro-herb leaf, Copenhagen's Noma always ticked a lot of boxes for me. In the new documentary Noma: My Perfect Storm, my inclination to applaud more than scoff is fully realised.
The trend for only cooking with locally sourced and seasonal ingredients now seems such an obvious and ancient concept that it's easy to dismiss René Redzepi's achievements. But when he imagined in 2003 what Noma could be - a forward-thinking restaurant that showcased nothing but the best of Nordic ingredients - nobody else was putting Scandinavian food on the map. In fact, in the spirit of all great success stories, he was told that it couldn't be done and that it simply wouldn't work because there wasn't the breadth of variety needed for a full menu. Noma was named the world's best restaurant three years in a row and the doubters were silenced. In his words, people flew in from around the planet to experience time and place. To know what Denmark tasted like in that very moment in time, with a story to each element on the plate. The documentary explores where those jigsaw pieces came from and how the chef persuaded their owners that he should have them to tell a complete tale.
The fairytale came true, but the problem with success is that the more you have the more voices there are telling you how to do it differently. It was literally a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. Michelin Stars brought unsolicited advice on what the waiting staff should be wearing, the money that should be spent on upgrading the cutlery to a more precious metal and general interference from beyond the confines of the kitchen. Redzepi admits he became confused and grumpy during this time. Not only had he achieved his life's ambition far earlier than even he expected, he was also yelled at from all angles on how he was still getting it wrong. "I became a miserable fuck," he says, only managing to press reset when he remembered that he didn't have to play anyone else's game. The best chicken he'd ever tasted had been eaten with his fingers as a child in Macedonia. Silver knives and forks had no place in Noma.
Being the child of Muslim immigrants in Copenhagen massively influenced both the core themes of Noma and René Redzepi's tenacity. We may view Denmark as a perfectly balanced and cosy-minded society, but nowhere finds itself free of racism. That Danish idyll is slightly tarnished by his experiences of being told to go back to the Balkans where he allegedly belonged. Even as an adult, some rather patronisingly questioned whether someone of Macedonian heritage could deliver fully authentic Scandinavian dining. The Eastern European simple eating ethos certainly keeps him from falling into the trap of genuflecting in front of critics and awarding bodies, but Redzepi's food has actually ended up being a poster child for Nordic cuisine. There's both irony and redemption in that outcome.
What comes across in the feature-length documentary and what makes it such a fascinating watch is René Redzepi's heart-on-sleeve personality. He has an ego, because it's impossible to reach this level of accomplishment without that very deliberate self-belief. But what sets him apart is that, unlike several other Michelin-starred chefs, he looks to himself for validation as opposed to external influences. He seeks to galvanise his core values instead of asking everyone else to tell him how great he is. Family and a happy home life come before everything, which is about as Danish a notion as you could imagine. He has no hesitation in letting his staff know when they're dropping the ball, but he does it without ripping them to shreds. He is delightfully sweary, but not aggressively so. It's more the relationship of a father figure who everyone's keen to make smile. Apprentices are given opportunities to shine and even suppliers suggest that their dealings with Redzepi have had a profound impact upon them as people. "He put the wind back in my sails," says a reluctant Scottish sea urchin fisherman. The enthusiasm for life is apparently contagious.
The real test of character came in the space of a few months in 2013, where Noma was linked to numerous cases of Norovirus. This medical disaster, which could have closed the restaurant entirely, was followed by the news that they hadn't received a third Michelin Star and they'd lost the title of Best Restaurant in the World. Neither plaudits mattered in the true sense of the word, but it was a series of blows that left every member of the this cultivated family feeling as if their bubble had burst. There is something especially appealing about the fact that Redzepi allows himself to feel openly bruised before picking himself up and attempting a comeback. If this was a Hollywood movie, the Rocky-style training montage would be kicking in right about here.
People who truly care about food more than the crown it places upon their heads are often poetic about it. René Redzepi muses regularly over what creativity actually is. He's not sure whether it's an inbuilt intuitive talent or simply good luck that strikes you at the right time. What he does know, though, is that food is about so much more than fuel. It feeds the soul as well as the stomach. He's also not one to sit back on his laurels when things are going well. At the end of 2016, Noma will voluntarily close its doors and morph into what they're calling an urban farm in a different location. Having kickstarted interest in the region, Redzepi now wants to cook with produce grown on-site and condense the menu into even more distinct seasons. Noma: My Perfect Storm seems a fitting and an entertaining way of closing the book on one of the most extraordinary and innovative food phenomenons of the decade. I wonder if the urban farm is taking bookings yet? (I've checked. It is. Who's coming?)
Noma: My Perfect Storm is available for home viewing in the UK from 5th September.