What do chefs want? In an age that fetishizes food and makes stars of those who prepare it, it sometimes seems that every cook out there is fervently seeking a second (or third or fourth) restaurant, that next Michelin star, or a cookbook deal with a Food Network tie-in. But had you squeezed next to the flattop of one busy Japanese kitchen on Friday afternoon, as whelk cream got piped into rolled slices of black radish and squid was chopped into tartare, the answer would have been clear: what chefs want most is to be with other chefs. Preferably while cooking.
Cook It Raw is all about fulfilling that desire. In its fourth incarnation, the gathering, organized by culinary consultant Alessandro Porcelli, brought 15 of the world's most talented chefs to Ishikawa prefecture in western Japan. Arriving on Nov. 14, the chefs who included Denmark's René Redzepi, of the top-ranked Noma, Alex Atala, of Brazil's D.O.M, and David Chang, of the Momofuku empire spent a few days scoping out the Naneo fish market and foraging in the Satayama forest, before preparing a dinner made from their discoveries. (Although the first edition of the event required participants to prepare their dishes without using electricity hence the name by now chefs interpret the "raw" more metaphorically.) But for all the chances the trip gave them to try new techniques and products (to say nothing of eating a virtual ocean of sashimi) the most pleasurable aspect was the most simple. Despite all the star machinery in place behind them these days, most chefs still tend to think of themselves as members of a guild. And at Cook It Raw, they got to act like one.
"Taste this," said Daniel Patterson, of San Francisco's Coi, as he extended a spoon of ethereal tofu mousse toward Barcelona chef Albert Adrià's mouth. Adrià took a bite, declared it delicious, then went back for a second taste. "Maybe you need to up the yuzu a bit," he said. "And you definitely need to give me the recipe."
Interactions like this explain why the chefs who participate in Cook It Raw love it so much. Between the long hours each puts in at his own restaurant, and the regular circuit of press interviews, international presentations and charity dinners that are an integral part of the industry today, being a chef can be a lonely job, and most get to spend little time with peers cooking at the same level. "These are some of my best friends, but I never get to see them," said Redzepi. After negotiating with fellow Nordic chef Magnus Nilsson for time at the dehydrator, he added: "So it's like a vacation."
Or, at the very least, a busman's holiday. Because Cook It Raw culminates in a lavish meal in this case served to local officials, international journalists and one Anthony Bourdain it requires tremendous amounts of work. Indeed, many of the chefs passed up tours of Ishikawa's local saltmaker and sake brewery to concentrate instead on preparing their dishes. Charged with basing their dishes on local ingredients, they still hoped to express their individual styles a goal made more challenging by the fact that 15 artists studying at the Utatsuyama Craft Workshop in Kanazawa had created unique plates for each of the chefs.
Artist Ilryul Lee had designed his thick, unglazed square plate, cut like a hot cross bun in the middle so that rough clay oozed through, with Sean Brock in mind. "I wanted it to have a natural feel, because I think that's what matters to Sean," said Lee. "And we both care about getting the most out of our materials." But the chef of McCrady's in Charleston, S.C., initially wasn't sure he saw the connection. "I don't like squares, and I don't like separating the elements in my dishes I want them to be whole," he said. Still, a little thought about why Lee might have chosen to divide his plate into quadrants led him to think about things that come in fours, like the elements. And with that, a dish containing ingredients that would represent each of them air, fire, water, earth fell into place. Which would have worked well, had the duck that Brock intended to symbolize air not fallen seriously below his standards. With just 24 hours to go before the start of the meal, he made a last-minute switch to pork, and renamed his dish "When Pigs Fly."
It wasn't all stress though. The night before the climactic supper found the chefs at the bar of a ryokan (traditional inn), dressed in bathrobe-like yukatas and doing the wave for the sushi man who was busy chopping uni into tuna belly. After midnight, as sake gave way to scotch, Cook It Raw took on a marked similarity to a frat party, albeit one with better food and a nervously smiling innkeeper.
Yet the atmosphere in the kitchen the next evening was even livelier. Some of that energy derived from the success of the dishes created. "This really shows the mix of the two cultures," Brock marveled. "All of these ingredients are versions of something that I can get at home, but they're still distinctly Japanese." And by topping his dish of smoky grilled pork and subtle purple yam with a ring of peppery foraged greens, he even came to love the square plate that had been designed for him.
But the real joy was in the interaction. Chang expedited the dishes 15 in all coming rapid fire over the pass, while Adrià, who was for decades the genius pastry chef at Spain's legendary elBulli but now runs an innovative tapas bar called Tickets, helped Redzepi fend off a last-minute ice cream disaster when the freezer switched to its defrost cycle. All the chefs took turns carrying plates to the dining room, including the translucent balloons of Japanese paper lit from within by an edible candle on which Yoshihiro Narisawa, of Tokyo's Les Créations de Narisawa, served his herbaceous fish.
For Cook It Raw newcomer Ben Shewry, whose dish of wasabi flowers and chrysanthemum petals in a deeply flavored shiitake broth was one of the night's best, the collaboration made all the travel and work worthwhile. "Getting to be a part of this thing with these guys," said the chef of Melbourne's Attica, as celebratory bottles of postdinner champagne were passed around the kitchen gleefully, "it's one of the best experiences of my cooking life. It makes me remember why I love cooking."