Cooking is an inherently cinematic profession. Struggling chefs, who work long hours for nothing more than a pittance and a notch in their culinary reputation, make for compelling protagonists. The thrill of watching a kitchen in motion—personnel moving in organized chaos that eventually yields a singular creation—is undeniable. Ants on a Shrimp, a documentary from Maurice Dekkers, follows celebrated Danish chef Rene Redzepi and his crew of culinary virtuosos as they attempt the unthinkable: move from their beloved Copenhagen Noma—the illustrious restaurant that made Redzepi a star—and cross the world to start a new restaurant in Tokyo, Japan.
The new Noma sits on the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo; the chefs have, quite literally, been set atop a pedestal and the film makes excellent work of understanding their unique pressures and making them relatable to the audience. Rene Redzepi is a compelling character. A perfectionist without a doubt, Redzepi has a warm quality that’s missing from other rock star chefs, who often seem bumptious or bellicose (see Anthony Bourdain, Bobby Flay, Gordon Ramsey, et al). Redzepi’s team includes chefs from all over the world who long ago abandoned any semblance of a personal life to work at the Noma. Redzepi fosters a relationship between himself and his staff that’s both mentor and peer. For his part, Dekkers stays out of the way, allowing Redzepi and his vision to drive the film forward, with little narrative interference from the film’s crew. Mixing interview segments with thrilling kitchen shots, Dekkers’ camera begins to feel like a part of Redzepi’s kitchen rather than a way of documenting it.
Baring a passing resemblance to Jiro Dreams of Sushi—the 2011 film about the life of legendary Japanese sushi chef Jiro Ono is also a documentary about a famed Japanese restaurant—Ants on a Shrimp is more concerned with culinary innovation than legacy. The film is at its strongest when following Redzepi and crew outside of the kitchen, immersing themselves in Japanese culture and tastes to discover which flavors will work best in their new restaurant. In the film’s best sequence, Redzepi and his crew (including his soft-spoken right-hand man Lars Williams) venture into Japan’s Aomori Skirakami Mountains to “harvest” flavors, tasting any and every bit of the mountains that isn’t firmly rooted into the ground (they bring along a guide who advises them that a mushroom they are looking at could kill them in five minutes if ingested). On its surface, Ants on a Shrimp is a documentary about a restaurant in flux, but beneath the hustle and bustle of a high-profile restaurant is a poignant case study of creative anxiety, adventure and success.
Craig is a writer living in north Florida with his wife and ornery dog. He writes about film and TV. He creates and publishes comic books under the label Gentleman Baby Comics. He's currently wishing his bio sounded more engaging.