The former Jaime Lannister is a different kind of ruthless in “A Taste of Hunger,” a foodie film whose protagonist’s ambition is summarized by the opening epigraph: “If you ask me what I want, I’ll tell you I want everything.” Everything, in this case, is the restaurant world’s crowning achievement: a Michelin star, which since 1926 has designated the best of the best around the world. Only 2,817 eateries have been so honored, and director Christoffer Boe’s drama focuses on a restaurateur’s quest to become the 2,818th. The result certainly isn’t fast food, but neither is it fine dining.
While it would be wrong to say that “Game of Thrones” didn’t allow Nikolaj Coster-Waldau to display his increasingly impressive range as a performer, we certainly never saw the kingslayer obsessing over wild apples, French vinaigrettes or other mouthwatering delicacies. Not that this relationship is any less complicated here: Carsten and Maggie (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal) are partners in life as well as in business, and Malus, the restaurant they open together in Copenhagen, takes up most of their time — so much so, in fact, that one of them eventually looks beyond the marriage to fulfill their needs.
Denmark may seem like an odd setting for a narrative of this kind until you remember that Noma, a three-Michelin-star restaurant based in Copenhagen, has been named the world’s best restaurant on five different occasions. And while the film’s fictional establishment probably doesn’t serve them, there’s no denying the hygge-like joys that come with Danish staples like frikadeller, brændende kærlighed and flæskesteg. That’s something Maggie is more likely to remember than Carsten, whose single-minded focus on attaining the elusive Michelin star occasionally has him missing the forest for the trees. His outbursts when things don’t go perfectly are reminiscent of Gordon Ramsay’s, only they don’t feel like an affectation for the cameras — more frightening than funny, they’re reminders of how cutthroat this industry is.
You can hardly browse a streaming service for 30 seconds without coming across a food-centric docuseries these days, but few of them are as willing to delve into that world’s soft, dark underbelly as “A Taste of Hunger.” At its best — which is to say, when focusing on this aspect rather than Carsten and Maggie’s increasingly torrid entanglements — Boe’s film has the effect of an intriguing appetizer that has you eagerly awaiting the main course.
Its back-and-forth flashback structure, however, feels unnecessary — the present-day plot is compelling enough on its own without sequences showing the early days of the not-so-happy couple’s relationship and how they went from aspiring restaurateurs to disillusioned spouses. The subplots likewise come across as poor complements, like white wine with steak one half of the couple’s infidelity leads to an overwrought blackmail scheme, while another sequence involves one of their children going missing.
Co-written by Tobias Lindholm (the filmmaker behind “A Hijacking” and “A War,” in addition to co-writing “Another Round” and “The Hunt” with frequent collaborator Thomas Vinterberg), “A Taste of Hunger” is broken into chapters named after different cooking elements: “Sweet,” “Fat,” “Heat.” In these more literary moments, we’re reminded of the film’s ambitions as much as the characters’. To paraphrase one of the script’s more vulgar ruminations, however, the world doesn’t care about our good intentions, dreams and hopes. All that matters is what’s on the plate. In this case, there’s plenty — just not as much as there could or should have been.