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City of Gold & Noma: My Perfect Storm

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Rare indeed that a feature documentary takes, as its focus, the life, times, and experiences of a critical force, especially within the restaurant world, but Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize winning food critic from the Los Angeles Times does not limit himself to mere discussions about food, so why should a film about him?

City of Gold finds the man strolling along a unique critical and creative avenue, patrolling the food landscape like an obviously hungry hunter, gathering sensual experiences to pass along to readers, but there is another, far more intriguing urge marking Gold’s journey, and that is the imperative of the storyteller, the chronicler of taste and culture.  In this function, Gold, during a later point in the film, discusses how a series of meals doesn’t, in and of itself, provide knowledge, but rather context, which he willingly shares. And he is quick to make sure that readers understand that he can’t be expected to “know” a particular region or community merely from sampling their dishes, but he can place that region/community within a larger global and social scene.

And his scene – so beautifully rendered by documentarian Laura Gabbert (the curiously engaging feature No Impact Man: The Documentary about a family attempting to live a year with no net environmental impact) – is Los Angeles. America myth speaks of its “melting pot,” the general appeal to diversity that tends to sadly fall short of the ideal, but what Gold has found in LA is the real complex stew – the sweet and sour, the bitingly bitter, the earthy grit and fresh fleshy slime – of transplanted ingredients (people and cultures) tossed together and offered up for exchange and sustenance. To say that he covers the LA restaurant world teases with the notion that there is one monolithic taste or precious profile uniting and binding every eatery in the city.

But Gold exposes that misconception each and every time he opens himself up to a new meal. There is a desire to democratize food, the city, and culture at the heart of every word that Gold commits to the task at hand. From the endless stream of street food options that seemingly transform commercial strips and thoroughfares into tasting blocks to the more exclusive enclaves of fine dining that bear the national flags and markers of settled tribes, LA is not one. It is many, and because of that, it is one and Gold is our guide.

As a critical brother, I envy how food allows him a greater degree of intimacy. The plethora of restaurants and food trucks, especially the family-owned and run kitchens, presents an opportunity to engage more directly with both his subject (food and the cooks & chefs) and his audience (eager and hungry patrons), while stripping away the elitist/intellectual veneer normally associated with such critical endeavors. To be fair though, the lion’s share of the credit for reducing the artifice belongs to Gold and Gold alone. He refuses to judge the experience beforehand or create a needlessly ambiguous and obtuse web of terminology to distract from the pursuit of pleasure.

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In Noma: My Perfect Storm, director and cinematographer Pierre Deschamps serves up another cinematic treat dedicated to the foodie revolution that has now taken over the head of the mainstream table. Chef René Redzepi, a rising iconoclast in the restaurant world opened Noma – a restaurant dedicated to exploring the hyper-localized elements in the northern Nordic (Denmark, Scandinavia, Iceland) region – and seized the attention of the scene, when the Copenhagen-based spot was named “The Best Restaurant in the World” in 2010-12 and again in 2014. The guiding principle was the intense focus on Nordic ingredients and cuisine and “foraging.”

What, no olive oil?!?! (That seems like the first question on the tongues of even the casual would-be foodies.)

Restrictions, to be sure, but somewhere in there, Redzepi sensed freedom too, and the potential for innovation. Elitist and highly intellectual, but able to inspire and ignite the senses with real passion. Culling culture, location, and seasonal changes on the palate. How we eat and its impact on how we listen, read, see, and experience the world.

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A critical approach from a chef and artist that ended up driving the trend engine. Is this modern (a favorite query from me, via Cornel West) – the point where critical intelligence butts up against boundaries and limitations and pushes past them, towards what comes next? How do you live once you’ve changed system? Do you become the new norm, the standard, without continuing to challenge the established hierarchies? With success, do you become an asshole, a diva in this brand new spotlight?

As luck would have it, I came to Noma (and City of Gold) at the exact moment I happened to pick up Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food. In the introduction, Pollan references Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the eighteenth-century gastronomist who “drew a useful distinction between the alimentary activity of animals, which ‘feed,’ and humans, who eat, or dine.” This, he decided, was determined as much by culture as biological imperative.

Redzepi takes this a step further in the film, saying, “We put the world into our bodies. Food becomes who we are.”

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His culinary approach blends his Macedonian roots and Nordic social norms/values. He comes from a tight family, headed by a Muslim immigrant father. Along the way, he confronted issues of racism in Denmark. Intently dialed in during this segment, I sought to discover how different/similar what he experienced might have been to what we see and know of racism in America, even beyond the ever-present black & white dynamic? At its core, we’re still talking about systemic/institutional concerns – access to services, civil rights, along with the more personal attacks, the name calling, the shaming of others for being different. The new questions about immigrants and Muslims.

Redzepi contributes to Danish culture, arguably moreso than regular everyday Danes. He runs a pure Scandinavian restaurant, remember? You see the merging of culture and diversity in his kitchen, and yet everything that comes out of it does so honed into something distinctly Danish.

He’s telling a story that many question whether or not he has the right to tell it, since he isn’t a native. But so what? When has that ever mattered? If you think and try to define the American story, who is better able to pass our narrative down – African-Americans, Native Americans? White immigrants? Think about how that reads – white immigrants.

There is an eagerness to move beyond the politics of identity though, to other questions.

And the chef himself wonders, “Where does creativity come from? Is there a second brain, in your guts?”

He embraces a willingness to fail as a result of trying, putting 100% into every attempt. This is a solid working definition for experience. He encourages his chefs each week to craft and experiment with new combinations of flavors and ingredients, making new dishes that get critiqued.

The restaurant and the film is not following a recipe, but creating one. And until it is complete, he believes there will not be a third Michelin star. Does it matter? Success is nothing more than a matter of hard work. Punishing at times, for him and the staff.

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City of Gold is currently showing as part of an exclusive engagement in our region. Noma: My Perfect Storm debuted on Blu-Ray, DVD and for digital rental/download on March 22, from Magnolia Home Entertainment.