Rosio Sanchez: Tacos Rule at Hija de Sanchez, Copenhagen

One early afternoon on my last visit to Hija de Sanchez in Copenhagen watching a very self-assured Rosio Sanchez being interviewed on camera I recollected the first time I had met her. The year was 2011 and we were at the Noma Food lab on a boat moored by the restaurant . The very shy Sanchez had just joined the team a few days earlier. Five years later this pastry chef at Noma ventured out on her own with her taqueria Hija de Sanchez  in the trendy Torvehallerne a collective food market.

The second location that she opened recently  in Kodbyen, the old meat packing area of Copenhagen is in a historical building and so other than painting the ceiling gold they had to leave the old floor to ceiling tiles intact. Sanchez is already planning a third operation, but as she pointed out not a real restaurant for now, just take another away model like the other two. Rosio wanted to give it a homey feel and though ‘it’s a taco shop I didn’t want it be look like a fast food place, still very professional but not too industrial’. During our most recent conversation she spoke of the responsibility that comes with recognition and success that has come her way in a remarkably short span of time.

Sanchez prefers using free range and organic vegetables, the corn and chills come from Mexico but at the low price point of her tacos she says it’s a struggle. Sanchez’s taco enterprise has really taken off as evident by the buzz in the press and the constantly growing line up of well-known guest chefs at her taqueria. The latest addition is Brazilian chef Alex Atala the week before MAD5 and I know many people who are scrambling to change their travel plans to arrive a few days earlier in order stand in line for what will be a memorable experience. Damn! I’m going to miss it by a few hours but will definitely stop by during the MAD Symposium for one of her delicious tacos with a fiery hot sauce on the side.

A part of my recent conversation with Rosio Sanchez was published on The Daily Meal and the extended version is posted below.

 

Rosio Sanchez of Hija de Sanchez, Copenhagen

by Geeta Bansal

Rosio Sanchez hit the road to celebrity well before she placed the first taco on the counter of her stand outside the food halls of Torverhallen Market In Copenhagen. Since the opening last year she been hailed as a star by media all over the world, the phenomenon undoubtedly fueled by her connection to Rene Redzepi and Noma. Rosio spent six years as the pastry chef at a restaurant that is on every chef, journalist and food enthusiast’s radar. Considering that a virtual stream of cooks and stagiares have passed through the hallowed Noma kitchens Sanchez obviously stood out receiving the blessing  of her boss to open her own place. Hija de Sanchez (daughter of Sanchez) is not the only taco joint in Copenhagen but probably the only where occasionally her former boss Redzepi shows up to play cook. Many other  guest chefs and friends have  lined up to serve their own on spin on tacos since the opening and in coming weeks Daniel Burns (Luksus), Daniella Soto-Innes (Cosme) and Alex Stupak (Empillion), all from New York, as well as Brazilian chef Alex Atala are on the playlist.

The shy young cook I remember from 2011 in the Noma Food Lab has transformed over the years into a confident businesswoman now juggling two and soon three projects in the bona fide international food hub. Her time at Noma was well spent and provided the opportunity for her to travel to international events and connect with other heavy hitters in the culinary world. This past June she was part of a select group at Yale University for a MAD Leadership Summit along with Redzepi and French chefs Olivier Roellinger, Alex Atala, and Michel Troisgros. Sanchez worked as sous pastry chef in Wylie Dufresne’s WD50 kitchen in New York with pastry chef Alex Stupak and they have both since moved to the savory kitchen in pursuit of their passion for Mexican cuisine and in the case of Sanchez her American Mexican heritage . Sanchez laughed when the subject came up, saying she was just waiting for Malcolm Livingston, also a WD50 alum, who replaced her at Noma to open his own Mexican joint.

During the winter closing this young entrepreneur took off for Mexico on an extensive tour of eight states. Oaxaca to check on their corn suppliers then onto Merida, Tulum, Pueblo, Monterrey and also Cancun which she said” because I had to”. The girl from Chicago calls Copenhagen home now and when asked if she was planning to stay for the long run she said she didn’t know but for now she loves the city for its small town feel and feels part of the community. Her ten years in the industry and the long hours did not give much time for a personal life but during the last winter closing she says started dating and hoped that after her crazy schedule began she could still find the time…

Her stand is a requisite stop on any food tour of Copenhagen these days and though local and international chefs have been seen lining up for her tacos the one dream guest she is waiting for is Dubfire.

Hija de Sanchez

Hija de Sanchez

International press and media attention came from the moment  you announced your taco stand because of your association with Noma and Rene Redzepi. Did this attention put more pressure to be successful?

Absolutely, I felt a lot of pressure before I opened because I had just left Noma in March and in April I started working on the menu and in May we started doing pop ups and in June we opened for business. I felt it was all happening very fast and though it’s a taco shop and not a full-fledged restaurant because of my connection with Noma there were a lot of expectations so it was a lot of pressure!

Now things are going well and I look back and think that if you know what you are doing and not think too much about it but just stay true to who you are that is the best way. For me not focusing on all the pressure and people’s expectations and just doing what I am proud of was good for me.

What did you do after leaving WD50 and New York and then joining Noma in 2011?

I took some time to travel to Spain and worked as a stagiare for a few months at different places and then it was off to Noma. I worked at Paco Torre Blanca in Barcelona which is super classic because after WD I really wanted to work in a pastry shop. I wanted to experience that part of pastry to decide if I wanted to take that route. I figured out that I like the kind of dessert pastry served in a restaurant where it’s a little more fluid and the menu changes and the plating has to be perfect. It was a great experience for me though.

The cooking was more technical especially at WD and then at Noma so are you still using technical wizardry in your own kitchen?

I don’t use it because we are using very simple techniques and doing straightforward cooking, finishing and plating. The technical knowledge is good to have and to know how things work, and why. Knowing the basics especially when you are working with products that are manufactured, have modified starches, LBG gums etc. and understanding how to use them was good. At WD I was the pastry sous chef working with Alex Stupak who messed around a lot with trying not to use commercial stabilizers which are specifically made for pastry, sorbets or ice cream like glucose, gelatins, xantham gum and locust bean gum etc. Alex was trying to make his own mix to alter textures for the outcome that he wanted and a lot of those were failures but it was helpful towards understanding the cause and reaction of these additives in molecular gastronomy. I used a little bit of this knowledge at Noma, especially for ice creams when I decided what would give a nicer texture but I don’t use them at present.

Noma Food Lab, 2011

The food business especially restaurants are so unpredictable with a high possibility of failure. Were you apprehensive when you dived into the business with your first project and did starting on a small scale make it easier?

That is how I looked at it with my first venture because I wanted to figure it out and find out if that was the kitchen I wanted to be in. I had no experience of working in a taqueria and so I wanted to start with a taco stand to test the waters. I thought when I invest more into a restaurant I would have a clear idea of what functions. In the past my only experience has been working at kitchens with a totally different way of functioning than a taqueria. In the time since we first opened I have already learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

I had just left the Noma way of working and I wanted a little space to establish a clear identity for myself. Having something a little less permanent seemed ideal for me. This April we reopened the taco stand after the winter break as well as a more permanent place which is also a take away and in the same format. Opening the second place has been scary but we needed the space because the stand at the market is so temporary. Every year I have to work out a contract with the market that expires quickly and the second location will provide stability.

Your taqueria is in an exposed location at Torverhallen, so does the weather affect your operation?

Weather is HUGE! It’s a big factor in the winter time especially but even then on weekends this past winter we always had a line.

How about opening a full-fledged restaurant?

It’s funny but while working on the second spot I thought that it would be nice to have some chairs and then my mind traveled to using real dishes etc. At that point I caught myself from thinking that way because that would be a real restaurant.

Now that you are fully entrenched in the dining scene here, is Copenhagen going to be your permanent home?

I don’t really know but I have been really happy here though I work a lot and people in the industry would understand since we all work crazy hours. The community here has contributed to my being happy here; all the friends that I have made working at Noma have helped to make me feel at home. I like working here and hope my business is successful since I have opened recently as it’s too soon to tell but that will be a factor in my decision to stay. I like it here and haven’t thought about leaving anytime soon.

What happens if you meet someone from another part of the world?

It’s funny because I just started dating someone which is new for me because I have been single and focusing on work for ten years. I admit I have been trying to avoid a relationship and during the winter break when we closed for three months I started dating someone who I met here. Speaking of coincidences he is also from Chicago (laughing) not really but from Indiana. I have never been able to have a balanced life in that regard and so it’s a whole new experience for me.

What is a normal workday like for you? At Noma you worked five days a week and now that you own your business is it 24/7?

It’s true since I wake up real early to my phone, try to answer emails and set up appointments while still in bed and then head to the office to make sure things are happening at the pace that they should be. Now there are three locations since we have a prep kitchen, the stand at Torverhallen which is open seven days a week and the new take away in the meat packing area. The prep kitchen really needs to be functioning seven days a week.

Do you have a good team in place and are there a lot of women in your staff?

We hired a lot of new people and everyone looks bright eyed and bushy tailed and in the right zone. Of course proper guidance has to be given in order for them to succeed in our operation.

Last time I checked we had sixteen people out of which only two are males. Most of the people are from Mexico though there are a few Danes as well. I am so proud that we have so many women since a lot of them applied from Peru, Venezuela, Mexico, France, Bulgaria and all over. Some of them are part time and doing their own things on the side. One of the guys is studying for a master’s in environmental change so it’s a mixed bunch which is nice because sometimes when you get chefs they tend to be jaded. It’s an advantage to have people who have their own world and are doing this because they like to cook. At Noma most people were very career oriented and were chefs or wanted to be one and here we accept all kinds of people who might be studying business or something else.

Do you think we have a lot of unhealthy competition in this industry?

That is what I like about the people working with me that there are not rubbing shoulders or elbows to be the best. I don’t like that and we don’t need that either. When I left New York I wanted to be away from all that and was a little fed up with the layers that come with working in a city. Those layers being egos and who is who, which guy needs to be addressed as such and those were my observations as a young cook at 21 years of age.

Did that time and those experiences help you realize how you wanted to lead your own team?

Yes, I had seen people be egoistic and real jerks and didn’t want to be like that. Rene is also a good example for me and how he is so down to earth and will talk to anyone and everyone. Even now when I speak to people in New York or when they use assistants to talk to me I find it strange and don’t want to be like that. It’s shocking since even someone like Rene will not do that and always answers his phone or mail and is very respectful. Then when you see someone in New York who is not even close to that level have a huge ego and think much of themselves it’s disappointing I didn’t want to like one of those assholes.

Where did you acquire more practical knowledge about running your own operation? Was it WD50 or Noma?

Definitely at Noma because it’s more recent and it’s where I spent the most time. The other reason is that at Noma  you really look over the whole restaurant and not just your own pastry section and just working on whether your ice cream is crystallized or not. At Noma the whole team is in tune with what’s happening with the guests and what  is working or what needs to be fixed. Everyone is responsible to be intuitive of people and know what’s happening around the whole kitchen. For me that especially has been a huge influence and prepared me for what to expect and to be on top of everything.

At Noma I joke about “Welcome to Noma” and now you are responsible for this, that and sometimes all over the place but I really like that you are expected to be a part of everything. If you are in pastry you will go over to help in appetizer section if they need help. It’s so simple that you help your neighbor and that’s different in the States and other parts of the world.

Have all the associations and relationships you formed over the course of your career been helpful to you, and have you kept up with them?

I still have that association with people I have worked with over the years. I don’t think that when you meet a really good person in this industry you ever want to let go and tend hold onto them. Especially when you have the same ethics and I keep in touch with Alex Stupak and I recently ran into Wiley Dufresne and there are others I worked with there that I keep in touch.

What are your thoughts on events or forums that focus only on women, and do they encourage more discrimination in our industry?

They have a good motive and are creating an awareness with these forums but I also think that you are making the situation worse with these things. It would be better to make a forum and just include women in it. I respect the work put into organizing these events to change something in the industry. I got upset with a journalist once while I was at Noma because this person wanted to write about why there were no women chefs in the industry because one of the first interviews I ever did was about women chefs for the New York Times. That story mentioned Elena Arzak, Pamela Yung, and I while talking about where are all the women chefs. So ten years later when asked this question again I felt this topic about  women chefs was so tired, especially when all you had to do was find the women chefs because they are there.

Do you have a set schedule for changing your daily menus at the taqueria?

We try to keep to a schedule but sometimes it just depends on what comes in. Sometimes we can’t get an ingredient or something is available for example when we had the sea urchin taco that we only served at a certain time when the water is the right temperature and so we put it on the menu. Sometimes we can’t get any or enough veal tongue then we have to switch to something else instead of having a fixed day for it. There are issues with the butchers and if they don’t butcher any or enough animals to give you the quantity that you need.

Does this unpredictability and creativity bring in customers who look for the unexpected?

A lot of them love it and though we have a lot of regulars who come in not knowing what’s on the menu and love the surprise. It’s also the trust they have in us to try whatever we are offering believing that it will be good regardless.

Any fermentation or pickling in your kitchen since it’s a major focus at Noma and very Nordic?

Yes, we make pickled onions and pickled spicy jalapeños in the very classic way with vinegar and spices. We also ferment our habaneros for our dark habanero salsa.

Any ants in your tacos?

They are used in Mexican cuisine and called chicatanas or grilled flying ants but we don’t serve them as they are but we toast them al plancha and add lime juice, salt and tajin pepper and put them in a bowl on the counter for people to add if they like. That is how it is served in Mexico and we have done it a few times. We do make a taco with grasshoppers using spicy grasshoppers from Mexico which we toast and add cheese for flavor.

You have a lot of guest chefs visiting and serving their version of tacos with a twist, so who are some of the chefs visiting this year?

Last year we had a lot of friends come to cook and we don’t do it for money but just for fun and the tacos are very inexpensive so it’s not for profit. This year I do have about nine chefs who want to come and maybe they will all come. Sometimes when friends are coming to town I will ask if they want to cook and then we have them over. It’s not pretentious or anything but just fun.

Has Noma been the ultimate learning experience for you and is does it motivate you to experiment and keep evolving on a daily basis?

It has been amazing and that is why I stayed there for almost six years. I could have stayed longer because every year you try something new there and it’s all done with a good heart. You are trying to make delicious food but you are doing it cleverly with regards to ingredients. I applaud Rene for the way he takes on challenges such as moving into the new concept of Noma. I faced so many obstacles in opening my little taqueria and he has now taken a huge challenge.

Do many chefs and friends visit and hangout at your taqueria?

I feel like I see much more of them now and it’s everyone from Christian Puglisi from Relae to Rasmus Kofoed at Geranium. From Rene to Lars and cooks from different places all come to support me. I don’t feel any aggression or competition but rather a lot of support.

Where do you usually like to eat in town?

I love eating at Christian Puglisi’s places and usually go with whatever they are offering since they change their menus quite often.

What advice would have for a young cook with dreams of opening their own operation?

I would advise them to have a clear idea or a business plan, and a strong genuine soul to their idea and be sure they are doing what they want to do. It makes it a lot easier and worth it.

Are you in a happy place now?

It’s a good time in my life right now but super scary at the same time, especially the day we first opened was really scary because I was really putting myself out there. For so many years I was behind the scenes in Noma and they have a great success and I was part of it and then suddenly I was on my own. To be successful on my own was a huge load to take on but I try not to think about it too much and just concentrate on what I am doing day to day. I have pride behind what I am doing and I am doing what I want. If I fail then at least I tried to do what I wanted to do.

Would you give it all up for romance?

Oh no you are asking me that way to soon! It would be hard but who knows. When I left Noma I thought I would make a business where I could have a personal life. I met someone when we were closed and we had time to hang out so we will see how it works out with me working from eight to twelve every day now. Let’s see….

 

Guy Savoy: Magic in Paris

A version of this conversation was recently published in The Daily Meal.

Chef Guy Savoy

Chef Guy Savoy

Guy Savoy: Magician of French Cuisine

by Geeta Bansal

Guy Savoy, the celebrated Parisian chef and restaurateur, believes that cuisine is magic. In any conversation with him it is impossible  to be unaffected by his infectious enthusiasm for cuisine, France and especially the city of Paris. A red neon sign at his three Michelin-starred restaurant proclaims “Cooking is the art of instantly transforming historical products into pleasure.” For a French chef he is quite unconventional as evidenced by his modern art collection and minimalist yet elegant decor in his restaurants that juxtaposes with the classic techniques he favors to reimagine  ingredients. The original “Guy Savoy” restaurant, opened in 1980 and then was relocated in 2015 to the grandiose Hotel de Monnaie (the former French mint), where its ten-foot tall windows look out over the Seine. A regal red-carpeted staircase leads  guests into six sumptuous dining rooms with contemporary art on the walls and exquisitely laid tables. The affable chef is the consummate host, often dropping by to greet guests, regulars, and the who’s who of the town.

In new the light-filled kitchens in the heart of historical 18th century Paris, Savoy and his team attempt to make the ephemeral unforgettable for guests every day. Food lovers experience that special magic and finesse in the iconic truffle-laden iconic artichoke soup, the famous “Colors of Caviar”, the humble “Myriad of Peas” or other magical offerings.

The suave chef is intimately acquainted with the foodscape of his city since he owns multiple operations that range from his posh three Michelin-starred restaurant to less formal places to grab a bite without dropping a bundle of Euros. Savoy started the casual trend as early as 1988 with his bistro l’Etoile following more recently with an oyster bar, a boulangerie spinning out those delicious brioches served with his truffle/artichoke soup, a seafood restaurant (at the former location of his gastronomic restaurant), and a soon to open cafe at the Monnaie. Savoy’s other restaurants in Paris are Le Chiberta (one star), Les Bouquinistes, and l’Atelier Maitre Albert. The “Guy Savoy” restaurant at the Caesars Palace  in Las Vegas was recently recognized by Restaurant Magazine as one of the top ten restaurants in the U.S.

It has been 49 years since the Burgundy native began his career in the city of Paris. While he himself interned in the famous Troisgros kitchens in Roanne, a number of well-known chefs like Thomas Keller, Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing, Richard Ekkebus, and Alex Guarnaschelli have trained and worked in his kitchen. Guy Savoy was recently chosen as an ambassador of gastronomy by the French government to attract the international business community for events and meetings to the country. An avid art collector, his collections adorn his various restaurants and he is known to frequent art galleries in search of singular pieces to add to his well-curated collection.

Is your new location meeting all your expectations?

It was love at first sight on my first visit in November 2009… and love ever again when we opened in May 2015. We’re now situated at the heart of historical Paris, by the Seine.

What has been the most unexpected and pleasant surprise during this year for you?

I knew that most of our clients would follow us, but the unexpected surprise was to see that, even the neighbors who are working at the old address (18, rue Troyon 75017 Paris) come to La Monnaie de Paris regularly.

Have you acquired any new pieces of art specifically for the new restaurant?

Yes. We are now exhibiting works from the Pinault Collection, as well as a new work by Fabrice Hyber, titled  “Effervescence”

La Liste listed your Paris “Guy Savoy” as the 4th best restaurant in the world and now the World’s 50 Best has mentioned your Las Vegas restaurant as one of the ten best restaurants in the United States. Do these recognitions affect the flow of business and diners to your restaurants?

It is not evident on the flow of business in my restaurants, but it is such a good thing for the spirit of my teams.

You have rapidly opened a lot of new ventures and were they being planned over a long period of time?

They had been planned a long time ago, but with the delay at La Monnaie, everything seemed to arrive at the same time. The restaurant at la Monnaie should have opened long ago (three years and a half).

Over the past three decades how has your clientele changed?

No, I would say everybody has followed. It keeps renewing, but some of our guests have been with us since 1977 when we first opened.

Has the kitchen concept changed in any way at the new location?

No. It will keep evolving as it always did.

What do you enjoy most about cooking in the new kitchen?

The light and space, with the magnificent view over 18th-century Paris.

What are your latest creations on your summer menu at the restaurant? Is there a new contender for your soupe d’artichaut à la truffe noire et brioche feuilletée aux champignons et truffes or huîtres en nage glacée or your unforgettable pea soup?

There are many like the “Tomatoes in two services”, “Red mullet ‘swimming in the sea'”, “Surf spray and turf saddle and rack of lamb”.

Well-known chefs like yourself are opening casual eateries like your oyster bar or your latest brioche boutique. Is casual dining taking over the fine dining market?
No. I started this in 1988, with ‘Les bistrots de l’Etoile’. As for the brioche shop, it is just an answer to our guests who keep asking to buy our brioches.

You take pride in using the best French products. Is there a new product that you are using in the new kitchen or anything being produced exclusively for you?

Ours is the land of diversity. I have not gone through all the possibilities and riches of France, by far.

Are there dishes or ingredients on your menu that you would have not considered ten years ago?

There are a few products like seaweeds, shellfish (a few years ago I thought that oysters were the only high-quality shellfish), now I use clams, goose barnacle, etc. I also use parts of the beef like beef chuck that I wouldn’t have done earlier.

Do the tastes of chefs and diners change with changes in society? How has this changed your own food?

This is an eternal question: Is it the cook that changes the mind of the guests, or the opposite? It is like “the chicken or the egg” I think we are unconsciously inspired by the society and the time we are living in.

Are chefs more adventurous about introducing unexpected flavors, combinations, textures, and ingredients these days?

I don’t think so. We (the chefs) are lucky to work in a time where we can find so many different products. Chefs dare to express their sensibility on a technical basis. There are so many different styles on Earth.

You now have multiple operations in Paris. Have the recent tragic events affected your business?

Of course it has affected my business. Fortunately our Parisian guests (who are numerous in our restaurants) are still there but there is a decrease of tourists. I have to say that if the Parisians have such a choice of restaurants it is thanks to the tourists that enable the restaurants to work.

What would you say to tourists, especially gastrotourists, about continuing to come to your beautiful city?

I tell them that it is also risky to drive your own car in your own country. Life goes on.

Is the French government or tourism board providing sufficient support to promote French gastronomy?

It’s getting better. The power of gastronomy is now a real topic for our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius. And let’s not forget that we export over 11 billion € in wines and spirits.

Do you like guests constantly taking pictures in the dining room before savoring your exquisite cuisine? Is it proper etiquette, and when is a line crossed?

I don’t mind guests taking pictures in my restaurant. I just hope that the best memory they keep of their experience stays on their palate (all that a picture can’t do).

What’s the most pleasant change in French gastronomy in recent years? Do you like the toned-down dining rooms of today?

The change is not only in France but all over the world. There is a diversity that grows in regards of the plates, the decorations, the ambiance, the service (which is more friendly).

Was there any unusual request when President Obama dined at your restaurant? Any special incident or memory from that event?

The people who organized the dinner composed the menus a few days before. Because of a time issue, they decided to skip the  cheese course . President Obama asked for cheese during his meal and said “We are in France so I would like to eat cheese” and he did. The First Lady was not there, but when Mr. Obama was about to leave the restaurant he told me that he would come back with her the next time they visit Paris.

What do you feel is the biggest misconception regarding French cuisine?

(Smiling) I never pay attention to misconceptions.

Would you share some of your favorite places in the city of Paris with us?

Of course!

 

Some of my favorite restaurants, bars, and other haunts in Paris are:

Mama Shelter
109 Rue de Bagnolet, 75020 Paris, France
www.mamashelter.com/paris

Mama Shelter

Mama Shelter

 

Les Bouquinistes
53 Quai des Grands Augustins, 75006 Paris, France
www.lesbouquinistes.com

Le Bouquinistes

Le Bouquinistes

 

I like to shop for groceries at Papa Sapiens
7 Rue Bayen, 75017 Paris, France
www.papasapiens.fr

Papa Sapiens

Papa Sapiens

 

The bar of the Hôtel Raphaël. So British! I can contemplate a beautiful Turner before coming in.
17 Avenue Kléber, 75116 Paris, France
www.leshotelsbaverez.com/en/home/raphael

Hotel Raphael Bar

Hotel Raphael Bar

 

And L’Aventure. So Parisian!
4 Avenue Victor Hugo, 75016 Paris, France
www.laventure-paris.com

 

Other haunts in the city:

The beautiful Jardin des Plantes, the centuries old main botanical garden of France.
57 Rue Cuvier, 75005 Paris, France

Jardin des Plantes

Jardin des Plantes

Quartier Latin – 5e Arrondissement

Rue Geoffroy Saint Hilaire – 75005 Paris

 

The place Igor Stravinsky with the Stravinsky fountain created by Jean Tinguely et Niki de Saint Phalle.
Rue Brisemiche, 75004 Paris, France

I love visiting all the museums and art galleries and I enjoy theatre, but unfortunately my job does not allow me time however one of my regular guests for 30 years goes to the theatre 250 days a year. That goes to show the cultural richness of Paris.

 

 

​Nathan Myhrvold and his Modernist Cuisine

Nathan Myhrvold and Magnus Nilson

Nathan Myhrvold and Magnus Nilson

I have no hesitation in joining the ranks of food geeks or nerds especially if it leads to an invitation to dine at the Modernist Lab in Bellevue, Washington. It was an amazing meal that marked this years Cinco de Mayo with a Taco el pastor imprinted with an image of the guest of honor that night the very cool, long haired affable chef of Faaviken in Sweden. As I flew to Seattle on the day of the dinner I knew that the evening would be exciting with an opportunity to visit the inner sanctum of the high tech modernist cuisine proponent, Nathan Myhrvold. Having Magnus as a dinner companion made the evening even more unforgettable.

An ensuing conversation with Nathan Myhrvold who can expound on almost any subject under the sun was not only full of laughter but also accompanied by his very frank opinions about any subject we touched upon. He chortled when I said I could listen to him for hours and it is not hard to do considering the many disciplines he is involved in. His crew being quite aware of the possibility rolled their eyes leaving me with the impression that it had happened before, probably many times.

The interview as published in The Daily Meal.

Nathan Myhrvold

Nathan Myhrvold

Nathan Myhrvold and his Concept of Modernist Cuisine

by Geeta Bansal

Nathan Myhrvold has a natural exuberance and generosity in his laughter, the food that he occasionally serves to the lucky few who make it to one of the rare dinners in his Modernist Lab, and in sharing his ideas or opinions of which he has many. In a nondescript office park in Bellevue, on the outskirts of Seattle, Washington, the doors to The Intellectual Ventures Lab open into Myhrvold’s private imaginarium. Within this 87,000sf space the Modernist Kitchen serves as the crucible where food ideas and techniques are tested and opinions floated. The former Chief Technology Officer and Strategist of Microsoft is the founder of Intellectual Ventures, a private invention marketplace. This physicist, inventor, author, scientist, trailblazer, philanthropist, and self-confessed geek is undoubtedly very smart, considering he pursued a post-doctoral research fellowship under Steven Hawking. A close friend of Bill Gates, his former boss, Myhrvold has a penchant for challenging experts in any field. A considerable fortune assists his large-scale hobbies that include researching dinosaurs, which led him a few years ago to challenge a scientific report on the growth rate of dinosaurs. Controversies about Intellectual property and patent collecting business aside, he is probably more well-known for his forays into the science behind food and avant-garde cooking than for paleontology, oceanography, history, or nuclear science and a multitude of other disciplines that interest him.

Myhrvold the perfectionist added a culinary degree to his master’s degrees in space, geophysics, mathematical economics, and a PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics. A sabbatical from Microsoft to attend Ecole de Cuisine la Varenne, a French cooking school in Burgundy, was preceded by a stage at a local Seattle restaurant as a requirement for admission. You have to give him credit for never resorting to half measures. For many “food geeks” Myhrvold’s encyclopedic “Modernist Cuisine” published in 2011 is the new go to cookbook/reference book for professional cooks. The six volume and 2400-or-so-pages-heavy tome requires physical as well as literary fortitude to stick with the elaborations of the pure science of cooking not forgetting the $625 price tag.

Myhrvold, whose can trace his own Nordic heritage all the way back to his great great grandfather Johan Adolfus Svendeson Myhrvold who migrated to Minnesota in 1878, recently hosted an intimate dinner at his lab to honor famed Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson. The unusual setting of the dinner in the middle of an active laboratory researching and elaborating on food techniques with its team of chefs and in house sommelier set the tone for the twenty three course gustatory experience. Prior to the dinner the small group was privy to an informational lecture along with stunning slides and interesting anecdotes of the teams visit to the Svalbord Seed vault in Norway. Visuals from the next book Modernist Bread: The Art & Science to be released next year accompanied interesting bits of information gleaned by his team during their exhaustive research.

Ferran Adria, Massimo Bottura, Andoni Aduriz, and Anthony Bourdain have also graced the tables in the Modernist Lab. Myhrvold, who attributes his interest in food to Ferran Adria and his many visits to El Bulli, when asked about why he hosts these events said, “We want to tell people that we can cook” and a recent dinner there proved that they certainly can.

Why did you choose Modernist Cuisine as the title of your book, and what is modernist cooking?

It is cooking that is using modern ideas and modern techniques. It’s not trying to be the past and that is the simplest definition of it. It’s cooking that is just focused on saying we can do new things as opposed to the ideas that cooking should be about the past and authenticity is the most important thing. Everything in cooking was invented at some point so it is not in the air and water but it is a human invention.

How long does anything remain modern or current because a split second later it’s already the past?

That is a really important point. If you asked an art critic what modern art was they would have a similar idea or response. If you are in a museum of modern art you will see things from the 1920’s which is not terribly modern but at the time it was really modern.
You are investigating the science behind cooking and you have considerably weighty books in print. Even your book on bread that is in the works is probably the same if not even more expansive.

You are investigating the science behind cooking and you have considerably weighty books in print. Even your book on bread that is in the works is probably the same if not even more expansive. Why not choose a digital dissemination of information?

I really like books and in fact have always loved books and think there is something wonderful about a physical paper book. We go to all this trouble and do all the incredible work on the books, take these beautiful pictures and then to just stick it on a website comes with two problems. First that we can’t make any money back from it or it would be very difficult to and second it just isn’t the same experience as holding a physical book. For the same reason I could say why don’t we just take nutrition pills, vitamins and protein powder and we will be just fine. People are doing this stuff called soylent which a disgusting soy milk shake you drink instead of ingesting real food.

We could but it wouldn’t be much fun!

Is there any particular cookbook that has impressed you during your foray into cooking?

There are tons of good books and I hate playing favorites because for one thing people might get mad at me and the other is that there are too many wonderful books out there. I certainly think those like Rene Redzepi’s book and Magnus Nilsson’s books are important. Especially Magnus since he has a tiny restaurant out in the middle of nowhere and in order for him to have an impact on the gastronomes and chefs of the world and in light of the fact that most people who would like to eat in his restaurant never will it is significant. That is why it is important for him to publish and that is also an element of our strategy here. We think it is really important for us to write books in order to influence more people and have a bigger impact on the world of cooking than if we tried to have a little restaurant in Bellevue, Washington.

You are also very keen on photography and have come out with a book on it. In fact all of your books have some amazing images. Is such visualization important to stimulate interest in food?

I think that people like looking at pictures of food and it is a part of getting people interested in our books. Some of the images in our books are pure science and that can be scary for people. Some of the things are very technical, especially some cooking techniques that are so advanced that they are meant for professional chefs like Redzepi or Magnus. In order to make the book accessible to people we used pictures as a universal language. The pictures interest you and then you think about looking up more stuff and pretty soon you have sucked them in. It’s a very important point that in order for us to make cooking techniques, ideas and science accessible we make them visual and pretty.

You have so many passions and varied interests ranging from paleontology , photography, history, scientific research, and food, but which particular aspect of cuisine interests you the most? Is it the creation, or the comprehension, the process, or the invention?

You left out my favorite part, consumption because I love to eat!

Sometimes I get asked if now since I know so much about food if it’s impossible for me to enjoy it anymore. No, I love it, it’s more fun because I have the understanding. By the way there are still a lot of things I still don’t understand. It’s all important and they are all things that I love and food to me is about all of that stuff. It is understanding and figuring things out. There is a great pride in making food and people like to make food and I like to because it’s fun and comes with a feeling of accomplishment. It also feels great to serve food to others and have them appreciate it.

You referred to the reformation of cuisine. Can you elaborate?

Most fields have gone through periods of trends as well as big new movements. Modern art and Modern architecture are really good examples and it happened even in poetry, literature, and painting. Many schools like the French impressionist school of painting for example came up with their own vision, there were many schools of painting and each one came up with their own new vision. That strangely did not occur in food and most of  the twentieth century was about the emergence of new art forms like bold new architecture and same for other fields, but we did not have a bold new phase in food and cooking. The closest we came to that was as late as the 1970’s when the French Nouvelle cuisine movement began and that was a shocking thing within France.

It was considered wacky, bold and horrible because people don’t like when you change stuff. Just as the French Impressionist paintings had been viewed as ugly when they first emerged. Everything else in the human culture and aesthetics went through this big revolution and metamorphosis. During the revolution in French Nouvelle cuisine they went from being revolutionaries to winning very quickly and then they stopped there and there wasn’t another movement right afterward. In art there was a continual effect of new movements like Picasso bringing Cubism and then came Surrealism and other forms. This change in food only happened in Spain where chefs like Ferran Adria, Juan Mari Arzak, and Joan Roca rose to the top of the revolution. In the 80’s Ducasse and Robuchon were at the top but there wasn’t another French chef after them to start another revolution to overthrow them. In Spain the chefs I mentioned wanted to emulate the French but unlike them the Spaniards kept innovating. They developed this new avant-garde, modernist type of cooking in Spain and then suddenly they were at the top of the heap.

Heston Blumenthal started cooking this way in the UK and then it came to the U.S. Then the Scandinavian chefs started cooking this way too so I view all of these movements as modernist. Like modernism in art they are about creating a new thing though inspired by the past. They were not slavishly following the past just like this new movement in Scandinavia which I consider to be modernist even though they might be cooking with old techniques they are still their own and not French. Not that there is anything wrong with French cooking!

So I think this movement has been very powerful just like the reformation in Christianity or art in the earlier part of the twentieth century.

Has this change given freedom of expression to people in cuisine?

It has given tremendous freedom and allowed people to create. They get to do what they want and no one can stop them like for example Nordic cuisine which has been embraced. Customers are lining up, it has helped the economy and brought in more tourist trade. It has also prompted other guys to open restaurants. The impact of these Nordic chefs like Nilsson or Redzepi is not just their restaurants but it’s also putting their countries on the map and encouraging other chefs to do cool things.

Since you had Magnus Nilsson as your guest of honor and in light of your own heritage, what is your perception of Nordic cuisine?

The important aspect of Nordic cuisine according to me is that they are doing it and I draw the connection back to the Spanish chefs like  Ferran Adria, Joan Roca, Juan Mari Arzak . Prior to their work the only way would have been to be French or copying the French. The Spaniards created a model whereby they could be doing their own thing and still create great cuisine. Rene Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson and then at Maaemo in Oslo along with other chefs set out to make a New Nordic cuisine  and it’s a fantastic thing. Rather than cook like they were in Paris they decided to cook their own thing though they took inspiration from Nordic ingredients, history  and it’s a creative cuisine that is evolving. The idea that anyone would go on a food tour of Scandinavia would have been a joke twenty years ago. You would have eaten rotten shark or herring, and now people are going there on food trips because these guys are cooking up a storm.

Have these Nordic chefs changed direction in recent years and have they begun using more regional ingredients and techniques?

I’m not sure that is true. One of the things about creating your own cuisine is that  you can do whatever you want and take your own direction. While it’s great to use Nordic ingredients and traditions most Nordic cuisine is not authentic in any reasonable way. It’s not about your grandmothers Nordic cuisine it’s a totally new thing. I mentioned at the dinner that there are Nordic chefs making fish sauce which is commonly associated with Southeast Asia. Now they are making it with Scandinavian fish, which of course will ferment just as the Southeast Asian fish does since there is no trick to that.

Going back to Nordic ingredients, there is an interesting challenge of working with things that are only available in the Nordic countries. There is an ethical challenge but at the end of the day I don’t think that some appeal to localism or regional ingredients makes much sense. For example Tim Wendelboe is a Norwegian who by many coffee lover’s standards makes the best coffee in the world. He selects, roasts and brews at his shop in Oslo. This for me is the definition of great coffee and whenever I am even remotely in the vicinity I make it a point to visit. Since coffee doesn’t grow there so should he not be doing this? Of course not, because people in Scandinavia drink it and it’s a wonderful tradition in the region.

Another example is that as a child I could not figure out why traditional Swedish baked goods have cardamom. I looked it up and found it comes from India and was surprised that these spice cookies were still Swedish cookies. In the Middle Ages all throughout Europe spices were a really big deal and Europeans were fascinated by them. The spice trade was what Columbus and other great explorers set out for on their travels. So the question is: Are cardamom cookies traditional Swedish cookies and I would say they are since they are made in Sweden for a couple hundred years. But is cardamom Swedish? Hell no! And I don’t see a contradiction in that.

Is this a current trend with chefs talking about going back to their roots or bringing back lost or forgotten ingredients to their kitchens?

There is an element of this which is very much about being trendy and I totally agree with that. However there are other motivations. I think it fine to rise to the challenge of using these ingredients and it is trendy. Sometimes people wind up fixating a little more on the trend than they do on other things. One aspect is that many people who go to Noma or many other such restaurants somehow fantasize about this and the notion that there is an element of tradition in it. There may be an element of tradition in the inspiration or even the techniques but it is not your grandfather’s Danish restaurant. This is a new wonderful thing and it’s novelty is something we should celebrate and not pretend that it doesn’t exist.

What do you think about all the international conferences and events these days? Are they also contributing to this progression of cuisine?

Absolutely, these conferences like MAD or Madrid Fusion, the Internet, the fact that people can find out about new things so easily and quickly help in this process. If people like Magnus had to wait twenty years before the world discovered him he would have a lot harder time. Though he did have to wait before the world discovered him but probably not as long as Ferran Adria who started cooking in a bar and grill that was part of a golf course in 1983. It took a long time before the world of foodies found him. Other young chefs have been found earlier in their careers because of the media, conferences, the present worldwide interest in food, writers like you covering all of this have got a role in this as well.

You are fond of the term “nerd”. Is that the target audience for your books?

I don’t want to apply one label to everybody because there are actually a lot of different folks with different ideas. Certainly the biggest set of people we are targeting are those that label themselves as foodies and are into food. They may or may not be cooks or at the level we were cooking at the dinner the other night. Without a lot of such people being interested in food it would not be possible for any of this to happen. There are lot of other segments besides customers consuming food that are important so I don’t have a word for “food nerds” but yes I am one. When I use the term nerd I mean that I am a science guy so a lot of my approach to cooking is pretty much about science and technology. There are a lot of people in the food world who love food but they don’t come about it naturally from that point of view because they don’t consider themselves as science sort of people.

There is widespread perception that when science and technology are applied to food, taste and flavor are lost in the process. Is that a valid criticism?

I think that is bullshit, but maybe that’s just me. There is this stereotype that if science is involved it somehow takes the soul out of cooking or that it is not about the ingredients any more. In almost every walk of life people will come up with trends, words and ideas which tend to get overused. This is a good example because there is wonderful insight into food that you can get from traditional ideas and ingredients by themselves can be totally wonderful and I agree with that. It’s like the pea soup which we served at the dinner where we have taken an ingredient and enhanced the taste and not detracted from the essence of it.

You are often criticized for research into food techniques which do not benefit a broader cross section of society. For example not everyone out there knows of a sous-vide or a centrifuge. You are also researching many other fields that many people are not aware of. Any response to that?

In our case we do the food projects and are famous for the crazy, big cookbook and intense focus on food like you experienced at the dinner. What we are aiming to do with that is just creating the best food experience that we can. We have lots of other projects at Intellectual Ventures that are directly aimed at the Third World and at helping people to not starve to death example our projects aimed at food in Africa and that I feel is an important area. A problem like famine is of course different from trying to make the world’s best pea soup which is not going to save the world. Our projects at Intellectual Ventures like fixing the world’s energy problem and dealing with climate and global warming are important because they have consequences on people’s lives. At the same time we are also dealing with things in a personal sense like my passion for food and cooking in the Modernist Lab.

Talking about your forthcoming book on bread, you mentioned an electron microscope that could detect gluten strands, so are you looking into the gluten intolerance that seems to be afflicting a large cross section of people these days?

What we have done is two things in the book. For one we covered what is known scientifically about gluten and gluten intolerance and then we also have a chapter on gluten free bread recipes. To be honest these are two different things because a lot of this gluten intolerance is self-diagnosed and there is potentially no scientific evidence that it’s correct. I think people should eat whatever it is they want to eat and I don’t like telling people what they should eat. Personally I don’t think that is my job. One of the things that is true about this gluten free movement is that a lot of the people who are in it don’t have that point of view. They want to proselytize and tell people not to eat gluten because it’s terrible for you. You have to be correct before saying that but unfortunately they are not because there is no scientific evidence to back them up. In our book we provide gluten-free recipes because there is a lot of interest and there are people who do have celiac disease or other medical conditions and should not consume gluten. So we have some of the best gluten free recipes that I have ever tasted. I also think gluten and bread have been unfairly demonized by people who are proclaiming something they believe in or they want to sell books.

You visited the global seed vault in Svalbord , Norway while researching your bread book. Other than the frost nip on your nose, what else impressed you about this project?

It is an amazingly cool place and we went dog sledding and it was a fun experience. I think it’s awesome that someone has gone to the trouble of making a doomsday seed vault to save us all in case some major shit hits the fan. It’s one these places you hope the world will never need and that would be everyone’s hope. It’s great that someone actually put the passion, energy, and money into doing it. I am proud to be part of a society broadly speaking that has the foresight to do that even though I hope that it is totally pointless, a complete waste of money and we never have such a catastrophe and need the seed vault because we have destroyed the planet. It’s great that someone planned ahead just like the building I am in has fire sprinklers which I hope never have to be used.

The other message behind the seed vault is that we tend to take so many parts of our food system for granted and that is one of the reasons our food system is so screwed up. In all the musings over what would happen in case of a catastrophe how many people are thinking about seeds we will need to plant to feed the world? It is a great example of recognizing the importance of something we take for granted.

Since we are talking about seeds, what are your thoughts on the subject of GMO’s and the controversy with the seed vault?

I am not sure what the GMO controversy involves in this case but generally speaking throughout history people have been freaked out by changes to food. People were afraid that new things were bad for them and even tomatoes were viewed with skepticism when they first came to Europe from the New World. Part of it was because the leaves looked like deadly night shade family which they were. Tomatoes are not bad for you but very well-meaning people over a period of two hundred years were skeptical about them.

Ironically the place where they were most outraged and took a lot of time to accept them was what is now Tuscany which seems ludicrous now. The food in Tuscany now revolves around tomatoes. A lot of the worry about GMO’s is way overboard in my opinion.

Does it stem from a fear of the unknown?

Food particularly seems to freak people out and fear of the unknown about food is worse than in any other case because we actually put it into our bodies. People who are against GMO’s are typically not against anything that actually happened. What they are afraid of is that there will be some scenario like the Godzilla movie and suddenly some GMO in the future destroys the world or kills us. The GMO’s that exist today have all been proven scientifically to be safe. It’s just this question of “could it be” and maybe it could, that is why this whole issue, I think, is overblown a bit. It is a choice and if someone doesn’t want to eat them then they have a right not to do so. What bugs me it when people go out and tell the world and frighten them by saying they are dangerous especially when they have not been proven so.

Do you view food as medicine?

Food is essential for our existence and certainly there are some foods known to have medicinal properties. I am sympathetic to the idea of food as medicine but we haven’t focused on that. In our book we have focused on the other aspect of food and health which is foods that are bad for you. We have found that scientific evidence of foods that are bad for you is contrary to the popular conception. For example lot of people think that dairy products, meats are terrible for you and there is really no scientific evidence of that. In fact in the 1970’s and 80’s food companies unwittingly promoted poly unsaturated fats or fake fats as being good for us while animal fats were bad. It’s turned out that these manufactured fats or trans fats were really bad for us so there is a history of bad stuff being touted as good for us contrary to the facts. If you actually care about fats this is a very troubled history.

What do want your contribution to food or legacy to be?

Personally I hope my legacy does not start for a long time (laughing) and I don’t want to think about it for now so I can’t say what it will be. All I can say that we certainly have tried to make a book that covered food in a very different way than all other cookbooks out there. By the way it also happens to weigh more than any of them out there!

A lot of people have resonated with that and we have been able to communicate things about food that I think are useful to people regardless of whether they are a foodie or a chef trying to cook simple food, but are yet very curious about it. So hopefully we will continue to make books that people find useful.

Any unrealized dream out there?

(this was responded to by guffaws of laughter)

I will quote Lord Byron:”Man’s reach exceeds his grasp what the heaven for”.

Incidentally the lines are from Robert Browning’s poem Andrea del Sarto

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?

Whoever the poet, in this instance the words succinctly express Myhrvold’s thought.

Travelogue Spring/Summer of 2016

With Chefs Nathan Myhrvold and Magnus Nilsson

With Chefs Nathan Myhrvold and Magnus Nilsson

My quest for food experiences and those who influence the world of food has recently taken me to Seattle, Washington, Nice, Monte Carlo, Menton, Cannes in France, and Ventimiglia in Italy in May and the early part of June thus far this year. Mid-June I headed to New York City for the first and apparently the last for now World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards (and all the events around it) that had moved from across the pond. I was back home in time to meet with Alice Waters for a most interesting dialogue, and then it was off to the city by the bay (San Francisco), the picturesque Half Moon Bay, and Napa Valley to enjoy some wonderful meals and meet with some amazing chefs.

An invitation to a dinner to honor Magnus Nilsson of Faaviken in Sweden at the Modernist Lab home of Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine and cookbook took me to Seattle. It was an incredible experience from the moment I arrived at the nondescript office park on the Microsoft campus in Bellevue on the outskirts of Seattle. The twenty three course intimate dinner served to the fourteen guests included a Taco el Pastor (it was Cinco de Mayo) with a laser etched image of Magnus on the taco that definitely broke the ice amongst the small group. Seated next to the usually reticent  Magnus I saw the consternation followed by amusement on his face as he gamely folded the taco with his face on it and took a bite. Daniel Burns of Lukshon and Torst in NYC and I suggested he should ask the host to make him a pack to take home to his three young children. Magnus said he was not quite sure what they would make of it. An interview with Nathan Myhrvold and a story on the dinner will follow soon.

My dear friend Mauro Colagreco chef patron of Mirazur, France is celebrating his restaurants tenth anniversary with ten guest chef dinners at his restaurant over the next few months. Last  October he came to my restaurant and cooked a collaborative dinner with me to celebrate my restaurants 30th anniversary. In the absence of any family anywhere in the world my friends around the world are my family, always beside me when I need them and I cherish each and everyone of them. It was a given that I would go at least to the first two dinners in this celebratory series. David Kinch of Manresa the three Michelin starred restaurant in Los Gatos , California initiated the dinners with an elegant multi course repast. The Daurade sashimi and the crostillant of foie gras, the caramel of chèvre on the vanilla glacé had my dinner companion Julia Colagreco and me ready to beg for seconds. David and Mauro have been friends for over fifteen years when they met in the kitchens of a restaurant in Toulouse, France. Colagreco and he have cooked together in each other’s kitchens on numerous occasions during this time.

David Kinch's Loup de Mer

David Kinch’s Loup de Mer

The next day after a morning shopping trip to the Ventimiglia produce market across the border with Kinch and Colagreco in Italy we all (the Colagrecos, their son Valentin, and Kinch with his team members) set off for Cannes and a boat ride to the Ile Sante Marguerite. We landed on the picturesque shore to walk into La Guerite a relaxed beach restaurant, with sand underfoot, sunlight filtering through the canopy overhead  leaving the views of Cannes over the water to enjoy over the next several hours. The festive live music, the Nebuchadnezzar’s of wine (yes, at almost every table) and Chef Yiannis Kioroglou’s amazing food inspired by his Greek heritage and the exceptional produce of the region made for a memorable afternoon that extended into evening. David and Mauro checked out a few yachts for fantasy purchases and then we headed back to Menton for a late night meal at Mirazur. I saw Yiannis two days later in the Mirazur kitchen when he could not make it in time from his island retreat for a seat at Redzepi’s dinner. I think he will soon be flying to Copenhagen for the experience.

The following morning the team from Noma arrived for guest chef Rene Redzepi’s dinner the next day. After a meal at Louis XV during the hoopla over the Grand Prixe in Monte Carlo it was back to the kitchen to prep and then dine at Mirazur that night. Colagreco’s exquisite cuisine following the grand meal in the afternoon actually blew everyone away. No surprise the two-starred Michelin Colagreco moved from #11 to #6 two weeks later in NYC at the world’s 50 Best awards. It was a joy to be with them in the moment to celebrate their well-deserved success.

David Kinch and Mauro Colagreco

David Kinch and Mauro Colagreco

I enjoyed a very interesting conversation at the dinner table with the team from Noma about our industry and people and after Mauro joined in we were there till the early hours of the morning. I will be seeing them again soon in August at MAD5 in Copenhagen. Redzepi though somewhat under the weather hunkered down next day to prepare one of the most brilliant meals from the Noma team that I have enjoyed. It surpassed my last meal in the private dining room at Noma last October which was one of the best I had all of last year.

The next evening began with the most excited diners I have seen entering the restaurant and the guest list included well-known chefs from all over Europe. Such is the charisma of Rene Redzepi not to mention the fact that reservations at Noma are not easily acquired especially since Redzepi announced the closing in December to reopen in another location in 2017/2018.

It was a magical evening and there was a spirit of camaraderie in the air and the dining room. One after another beautiful plates appeared along with wine pairings. Redzepi and Colagreco first met in 2005 in London for an evening with grand chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, Andoni Aduriz and conjectured that the two of them were thrown in the mix as young chefs to add interest. Nevertheless the two hit it off and have been friends since.

The evening began with a rhubarb rose, followed by a radish tart and ten more courses and I watched the faces around the table that included well known French chefs , transfixed and amazed. Several guests commented  that they didn’t want the evening to end, but it did, leaving us all wanting more. Chef Jean Luc Rabanel from Arles was so happy to see me and I was touched that he still appreciates  the story I wrote about him a few years ago. I couldn’t visit this time but maybe in October when I will be back in France. All good food events end in the kitchen and it was chock a bloc with Michelin chefs vying to take pictures with Redzepi over the jumble of languages in play along with the free flowing  Billecart Salmon champagne. These are some memorable moments and hard to put in words. The night ended well into the early hours and the next morning after an early breakfast the Noma team headed back.

With Rene Redzepi and Mauro Colagreco

With Rene Redzepi and Mauro Colagreco

While in Monte Carlo I visited JimmyZ the hottest new nightclub adjacent to Alain Ducasse’s Pit Stop and Trattoria  with my two partners in crime. Time flew by leaving magical memories to cherish and revisit and on the long trip back home I reflected on relationships, special people in my life. Redzepi commented that I was home anyplace in the world and can count on friends just about anywhere, and I agree that I am very fortunate to have all of these wonderful people in my life.

Soon it was time for the biggest party in the food world in New York on June 13th and I headed to my former home. The first morning at breakfast in the NoMad hotel it was wonderful to see all the familiar faces from around the world and be greeted with kisses and warm embraces by some of the nicest people I have the good fortune to know. Elena Arzak, Massimo Bottura, Sven Elverfeld, Jose Andres, and the room kept filling up with the who’s who but then one of my favorite chefs Alain Passard waved and beckoned me over to the group of French Chefs that included Pierre Herme. Soon the Mexican group walked in followed by Mitsuharu of Maido and Virgilio of Central in Lima. It continued for the next few days with familiar faces of Wylie Dufresne, Dan Barber and other New York chefs dropping by to meet and greet their friends. I spent the afternoon the day before the awards with Massimo Bottura and his lovely wife Lara and conversing over lunch at Danny Meyers new restaurant Untitled at the Whitney Museum. That amazing conversation will be coming up in the next few weeks.

The evening of the awards at a cocktail reception in the NoMad library before we were transported in sprinter vans to the Cipriani Wall Street for the awards there were dressed up chefs, with spouses getting a bite and few drinks. I joined Joshua Skenes of Saison in San Francisco and his lovely wife for a cocktail and were digging into fried chicken, fries, crudités, etc. when Massimo Bottura came over and we plied the anxious chef with some food since he had missed lunch that day. Jordi Roca and wife were into some serious PDA moments. There were anxious faces including Massimo Bottura and the Roca brothers, especially since they were both contenders for the number one spot. A spiffily dressed Dominique Crenn reminded me of a brunette Ellen, all ready to take to the stage to accept her World’s Best Female Chef award. The evening ended with a jubilant and emotional Bottura on stage. It was wonderful to see everyone celebrate, though some did not achieve the position they had hoped for but to make it into the top 50 or even the top 100 restaurants is an achievement. Joshua Skenes from Saison, his wife and I had traveled together along with Mitsuharu Tsumura and Virgilio Martinez with wife Pia Leon to the event, and just a few hours later it was wonderful to see them victorious and celebrate their happiness with them.

These rankings are very subjective and in no way the last world on who is the best since it is hard to justify term in the very competitive industry. Some chefs were notably missing including Alex Atala of DOM, Sao Paolo, chef Rene Redzepi of Noma whose restaurant dropped to #5 this year, David Thompson and a few more. Eleven Madison at #3 ended up as the best restaurant in the U.S which did not surprise many. Next year with the awards moving to Melbourne it will probably be some Australian restaurants in the top ten and we will wait and see.

After Party at Eleven Madison

After Party at Eleven Madison

The bar at NoMad was bursting at the seams with journalists and chefs over the days leading up to the event which was followed by a roof top barbeque courtesy of the Aussie chefs next morning as an introduction to next year’s awards event in Melbourne. The NoMad hotel is run by the Eleven Madison team who had hosted many of their friends from around the world. They also hosted one of the after parties at Eleven Madison where chefs not at the awards like Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud joined the crazy partying throngs. The bar was almost inaccessible so we headed to the kitchen for Perrier-Jouet accompanied by bites of the whole roast pig and tiny hot dogs. There were people dancing on the table in the middle of the normally elegant and formal restaurant and we all watched as it was being literally trashed and the cleanup later that night must have been a bitch. The overjoyed Massimo and Lara walked in to a champagne shower courtesy of Mauro Colagreco who got real handy with a case of Perrier Jouet. The sedate Alain Ducasse with whom both Massimo and Mauro Colagreco worked at one time did not escape the fizzy shower. I will never forget Daniel Boulud trying to take a video on his I phone of the bacchanalian festivities over the crowd!

The Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay

The Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay

Needing some serious R&R, I headed to the beautiful Ritz Carlton resort at Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco on the scenic coastline of California. The incredible views were matched by superb service and an amazing dinner at their Navio restaurant helmed by Executive Chef Jason Pringle. The next few days took me to Napa and a meeting with chef Christopher Kostow of the three Michelin starred The Restaurant at Meadowood. That interview along with conversations with chefs Mourad Lahlou of Mourad and Aziza, Chef Michael Tusk of Quince and Cotogna will also be coming up soon. Chef Joshua Skenes’ Saison (the Michelin starred restaurant that jumped to number #27 in the 50 Best list this year) is the subject of a profile along with the most interesting take on the food industry that will also appear soon.

Now I must hunker down and catch up on my stories!

Paris Mon Amour!: 4 Top Chefs of Paris, Gourmet Magazine

Paris, the city of lights and love, the epicenter of French gastronomy where millions of visitors from all over the world flock to satisfy their gustatory cravings. It’s the city with a veritable galaxy of restaurants helmed by some of the most celebrated chefs in the world who set the tone for gastronomy even in far flung corners of the globe. Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, Anne-Sophie Pic, and David Toutain share their insider secrets and their favorite locations in Paris to spend their rare moments of leisure.

Paris - Swedish Gourmet 1Paris - Swedish Gourmet 2Paris - Swedish Gourmet 3Paris - Swedish Gourmet 4Paris - Swedish Gourmet 5Paris - Swedish Gourmet 6Paris - Swedish Gourmet 7Paris - Swedish Gourmet 8Paris - Swedish Gourmet 9Paris - Swedish Gourmet 10

 

Alain Ducasse: Defining Modern French Cuisine

Like many other food enthusiasts, I have dined at Chef Alain Ducasse’s restaurants in many different parts of the world and met him on many occasions but never had a prolonged conversation with him till a few weeks ago. A version of this conversation was recently published in The Daily Meal and the extended version is posted below.

Chef Alain Ducasse

Chef Alain Ducasse

Alain Ducasse: The “Glocal “French Superstar Chef

by Geeta Bansal

When Alain Ducasse is not jetting across the world to one of the 23 restaurants in his 19 Michelin star studded empire, he may be cooking, though not necessarily in one of his own kitchens. It might be Massimo Bottura’s Reffertorio soup kitchen in Milan, or the Lido 84 restaurant on Lake Garda for the Gelinaz chef shuffle or simply putting in an appearance at a chef event in Los Angeles. We met recently for a conversation about his passion for gastronomy and his quest for excellence in all his ventures, which are meticulously researched and planned to the last detail. No surprise that this perfectionist’s schedule includes four hours of tastings every day!

The elegant, dignified and somewhat larger than life persona metamorphosed into an entirely different being as he spoke animatedly about a tasting in Paris the previous day and about his love of travel and architecture. There was a lilt in his voice and a sparkle in his eyes as he described his meal at a new LA hotspot adjacent to a museum or the second Gout de France event (initiated by him) happening around the world. His Breton wife Gwenaelle is an architect and the couple, along with their young son Arzhel, when not in Paris spends time on their farmhouse in the Southwest of France. Originally from the same area, he trained with greats like Alain Chapel, Roger Verge, Gaston Lenotre and Michel Guerard and now is sharing the knowledge acquired through his decades of work in the business via his training programs for the professional as well as novice cooks, numerous books including “Cooking for Kids” a cookbook for children.

The savvy entrepreneur heads an extensive culinary empire that stretches from France to London, New York to Las Vegas, Hong Kong to Tokyo and from Monte Carlo, Monaco all the way to Doha, Qatar. The three flagship restaurants at the Plaza Athenee in Paris, Le Louis XV (renamed the Alain Ducasse restaurant) at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester in London hold three prestigious Michelin stars each. In addition to these, he has a Hotel & Chateau Collection, inns in the countryside, chocolate manufacturing, a consulting division, cooking school, and even a publishing company that produces many books authored by him.

But wait the Chevalier of the Order of the Legion d’Honneur bestowed man is not done yet!

The most recent project Champeaux, a contemporary brasserie at Forum Les Halles debuted in April of 2016. The royal Palace of Monaco with which he has a longstanding relationship since the time of Prince Rainier commandeered his services for the wedding celebrations of Prince Albert in 2011. The royal connection that began with Monaco continues next year with Ore, a modern cafe to open at the Palace of Versailles. His first foray into China with a restaurant project in Beijing also comes later this year. The culinary world pays close attention to whatever he does and when he chose to introduce a “naturalite” menu at his Plaza Athenee restaurant a furor ensued over the mistaken impression that his restaurant was going vegetarian. (His wife incidentally is a vegetarian.) The newly reopened, extensively refurbished restaurant in Paris lost a star for a year but quickly regained it returning to its elite status in the world of haute cuisine.

For a man constantly on the move traveling not only to his international operations but also taking the time to check out international food events and connecting with his younger peers he has taken the stage at events like MAD in Copenhagen and Mistura in Peru. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Le Louis XV in 2012 he invited 240 of the world top chefs from 25 countries for a unique gathering to facilitate sharing and exchange of professional knowledge and experiences. When I asked about the next such event where the chefs prepared over 100 dishes he smiled saying not anytime soon as it was a huge endeavor.  The invitees ranged from Rene Redzepi to Joel Robuchon with whom he co-chairs the College Culinaire de France formed specifically to promote French Gastronomy. Last July when he was roped into the famous Gelinaz chef shuffle he exchanged his kitchen at Plaza Athenee with David Thompson from Bangkok who cooked his fiery Thai cuisine for one night while Ducasse himself cooked in Italy.

Ducasse is not just an extremely successful practitioner of French cuisine but also a teacher who is still an ever-curious student himself, absorbing all he can from the world around him. He continues to expound on the significance of grand chefs like him sharing their knowledge with the next generation of chefs as he continues to unfold new projects.

Amuse bouche at Alain Ducasse

Amuse bouche at Alain Ducasse

Since you are involved in so many different aspects of gastronomy, how would you describe yourself ? Who is Alain Ducasse?

I am a professional in this industry and I like to say a local chef with a global expression. In every country where I have a restaurant I have a different story to tell the guests and diners.

So is this what you refer to as a “glocal” sensibility?

Yes and It’s still French cuisine but adapted to the market I am in. My restaurant in Doha, Qatar is a good example where the menu has influences of Indian, Lebanese, Middle East, and Morocco. The cuisine is very French but the flavors are very Middle Eastern since I mixed all the regional flavors to create the experience.

What is modern French cuisine?

It’s a contemporary cuisine that is less rich, that fits into the present lifestyle; it has the DNA of traditional French cuisine but it caters to the contemporary life style of present day guests since it dials back on certain products. These contemporary guests, though not always loyal, are however perpetually curious.

Modern cuisine in itself doesn’t really exist, it is just the capacity to be current  and in harmony with today’s society to seduce today’s diners to the table. It is the cuisine of 2016 as opposed to that of say 2007. It’s not the cuisine that itself is contemporary it is the just the necessary adaptation to our contemporary lifestyle.

Gamberoni, délicate gelée, caviar

Gamberoni, délicate gelée, caviar

The description on the menu at your new Restaurant Champeux in Paris describes the cuisine as contemporary version of traditional. What should diners expect?

It has the DNA of a typical French brasserie but it is more sexy, lighter, more refreshed and updated to fit the expectations of diners with more modern tastes. It’s an attempt to seduce the guests!

How do you bring a dish from the past into the present?

You can bring any dish from the past and update it. Once you make the decision and then bring something from the past, you keep the character of the dish but give it a twist to evoke a fresh sensation. Each dish can have its own twist or a different factor to make it fresh and contemporary.

In this era of easily accessible information, have you seen a change in the diners?

There is now a younger clientele taking an interest in gastronomy, and it’s a clientele that is very alive, curious, and communicative. They show off their experiences on social medal like Instagram. They are not necessarily loyal to a specific place or person and their attention is constantly focused on “What’s new out there”. It’s all for the “moment.”

Primeurs à la truffe noire

Primeurs à la truffe noire

Is it a generational aspect?

I am myself very curious and though I feel we must preserve the traditions we must have new chefs emerging to bring in new and modern things. I visited Otium, a restaurant adjacent to a museum in LA and it was an extremely enjoyable experience though very different and modern. In contrast, just a few weeks ago I had a very pleasurable lunch at Bocuse in Lyon and though both the experiences are very different they are vey unique. One was more formal and beautiful while the other had a very different but interesting vibe.

Why do you think the younger generation of French chefs in Paris or elsewhere are dialing down dining, opting for a casual vibe?

I think because it’s cheaper, more sexy and as for me I do many different levels of gastronomy. I do high end down to the other end of the spectrum. French gastronomy goes from €25 to € 500 , of course they are not similar proposals, but that is  the idea behind French gastronomy.

As a chef who enjoys working with a mortar and pestle at times, do you appreciate technology in the kitchen?

Technology offers an extraordinary assistance in the kitchen and it helps chefs be more consistent and regular. The technology takes the lead on the art. The new techniques should be used to assist the cook, essentially they should be at the service of the chefs and not the other way around. It certainly helps the performance and all these new techniques have helped to elevate the quality of cuisine. However the chef should always stay in charge of the destination.

Loup, betteraves, agrumes

Loup, betteraves, agrumes

What is not acceptable to you in any of your kitchens?

To not choose the best product available and then not use the best technique to bring that ingredient forward. Selection of the perfect product is very important so I stress that we must select perfectly, prepare perfectly, season perfectly, and cook perfectly. The right sauce or the right condiments, chosen wisely, make the dish.

What qualities do you look for in prospective employees and on their resumes, and is formal training a requisite?

I want to see their eyes sparkle if they want the opportunity. The desire and passion must be there. I am more interested in what the individual is capable of doing versus what’s listed on a CV. I am open to everything and don’t necessarily look at their training. It’s the passion for their work and desire for the opportunity that I look for. Motivation, ambition, and their drive to excel and succeed are the important qualities.

How was your experience during the Gelinaz Shuffle last year?

I was at this restaurant in Lake Garda Italy (Ristorante Lido 84) and had a very interesting experience and the chef Riccardo Camanini is a great guy. I really liked him, his personality as well as his food. For me personally it was a great experience to work there since I believe if you have the technique and the right products you can cook good food anywhere. I thought it was a great idea to organize this event and we served a beautiful dinner to the guests that night.

Baudroie de Méditerranée et boulghour en tajine

Baudroie de Méditerranée et boulghour en tajine

David Thompson from Nahm, Bangkok cooked his Thai cuisine at your Plaza Athenee restaurant. Did he bring in any fiery Thai chilies for the event?

Absolutely, he is extremely talented and he served a great dinner to our guests . I absolutely love this whole idea of the chef shuffle. Just yesterday in Paris I tasted the cuisine of a young Taiwanese chef who has trained in Canada. He recently opened a restaurant in Hong Kong where I discovered a mix of Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, and other Asian cuisines that I absolutely loved. So I invited him to present a tasting of his food in my Paris kitchen and of the nine or ten dishes he served, each was a different flavor. He identified the influences of each culture in the dishes and it was a great proposal.

You have had a curiosity and interest about Chinese and Indian cuisine as you mentioned a few years ago. Have you since explored more of these cuisines?

Every time I am in China I taste and experience the cuisine of China which is very complex and very difficult to comprehend because each region has its own and very different style. My chef who will be going to China at our restaurant there will be going six months ahead to research so when we do open it will be again the French DNA but encompassing those local flavors.

A few years ago you were contemplating a restaurant with Alex Atala in Brazil. Is that project still on the books?

On that trip I visited Acurio and Atala, among other chefs in the region. I visited Alex in Brazil but it was not the right time to visualize a project in Brazil. Maybe we will still develop that idea one day in the future.

Légumes des jardins du Château de Versailles, noisettes pilées

Légumes des jardins du Château de Versailles, noisettes pilées

These days besides the Michelin Guide there are lists such as the 50 Best and La Liste that have become  a part of the conversation in gastronomy. Any thoughts on this subject?

I am not so involved in this conversation but in Europe it’s still the Michelin that carries weight. It’s fantastic for the Roca brothers from El Celler de Can Roca to be named number one on the 50 Best List. And now Massimo Bottura is the second one on the list and as you know he worked with me and is very talented and who knows maybe in the next two or three years he will be at the top of the 50 Best List. Even if you place in the top ten of the 50 Best list its fantastic. The greatest difficulty in our industry is to ensure longevity to last beyond five ten years to over 25 years.

According to you are there any young chefs who are destined to make positive changes in the industry. Is it important for young chefs to keep their egos in check to ensure the longevity of their careers?

I actually find the chefs of the younger generation to be very modest. They have also have created a unique relationship amongst themselves in the industry. They are low key, fraternal and down to earth. There is not just one but in fact there are hundreds who will continue this story and make contributions.

Is the job of a chef encompassing many other roles these days?

It is the decision of the chef to take on these different roles. At the Plaza Athenee we play the role of a humanitarian and politician since the whole idea behind our menu is to encourage people to eat without depleting resources , to be sustainable, eat more grains and to mindfully protect the products and environment. It is the role of chefs to carry forth these humanitarian values.

Riz noir, coquillages et poulpe en chamba

Riz noir, coquillages et poulpe en chamba

Dan Barber’s Stone Hill Barn is situated on a farm and now Noma is moving to an urban farm. Since these chefs exert a huge influence in the industry, are more such restaurants likely to pop up in the future?

These are not easy propositions but they are going to come up. Dan Barber has been doing this so well for ten years at Stone Hill in New York and is really the best real example of such work. I have also been doing this at a lot of my restaurants and auberges and of course they are seasonal.

You have a lot of women heading kitchens and other jobs in your organization, but is it fair to distinguish between chefs based on their gender instead of their talent?

For me it a decision and not about gender. I have a female chef heading the kitchen at my Allard restaurant in Paris or at Benoit. I chose them because they are the best and I think that my chef at Allard is the best chef for that restaurant, and I don’t see any male chef being as capable for that job. She is ideal person to achieve what I want at that restaurant.

It is a hard job and it’s easier for men and so it’s important to notice and recognize when women make a mark. We just talk about it more since it’s not as common. Even I tend to talk more about my female chefs than my male chefs though I regard them as equals in the field. Sometimes I will point them out to the men saying they are better than you!

What is your reaction to incompetence in the kitchen by one of the team members?

I just go ahead and show them how to do a better job since for me it’s all about the teaching.

Going back in time any recollections of your first day in the Hotel de Paris kitchens in Monte Carlo?

I had already dreamed and written down what I planned to do before I actually arrived there. I do remember was a Thursday on 27th May, 1987, and everything was already in place to begin my work.

Prince Rainier had challenged you to get three Michelin stars in four years for Monaco?

Yes, and I decided to take the challenge and then I managed to get them in just 33 months.

Have you always had such confidence in yourself, and where does this confidence come from?

I believe that you just have to work and not doubt your abilities. You just have to be sure of your destination. The only problem is when you haven’t decided what you want to do in life. In order to accomplish your dreams you must have a clear vision at the outset.

Did surviving a catastrophic air crash change the way you look at life?

I realized that there were no insurmountable challenges and anything was possible . Even prior to the accident I had confidence but it certainly changed my vision making me realize the possibilities out there. Your destination is a decision you make yourself for your work or life and should be courageous in following.

Do events like Gout de France boost the profile of French cuisine around the world?

It’s a way to show off our cuisine, and that it’s alive and strong. One day I just woke up with this idea and the subsequent success of this event has exceeded my expectations. The aim was a 1000 restaurants and this year in 2016  we have a 1700 around the world, out of which just  250 are in France.

What are your other interests besides collecting vintage travel gear?

Actually travel is also my passion and hobby. I believe it’s important for chefs to travel and as for me I discover something new every time. I also love architecture like that of Doha where my own restaurant is located in the new museum.

Favorite architects?

I would say I. M. Pei, Jean Nouvel, and many other big names in architecture and design with different styles who have contributed to our cultural diversity.

You have achieved so much in your life and are continuing to do more, but are you content with the status quo?

I am satisfied but always curious and impatient to do more. What is important is knowledge and transmitting that knowledge to the younger generation. To share the knowledge is my dream and that is why I write books, teach around the world and have a cooking school. I teach both in France and Canada, do collaborations around the world and publish books.

You realized a dream you had held on to for thirty years to manufacture high quality chocolates. Are there any similar notions you have been harboring over the years?

I have a lot of dreams, but I know I won’t be able to accomplish all of them. I have many, many dreams!

 

Naomi Pomeroy of Beast, Portland, Oregon: Dispelling Myths 

Naomi Pomeroy and I met up while she was in LA for Ludo Lefebre’s All Star Chef Classic event and she shared  her thoughts on what is around the corner for all of us in this very challenging industry. It takes strength of character, persistence, and bravado to be successful in this business, and it’s a pleasure to know this very positive and determined woman who has made a mark in this male-dominated industry.

These impromptu and organic conversations with chefs and restaurateurs offer a unique insight into the industry and are the reason why I shadow and write about these individuals. I don’t review food (though I am guilty of posting pictures of culinary creations at times); it’s these meetings that enable me to share the inside stories with other curious food adventurers.

An edited version of this conversation was featured on The Daily Meal.

Chef Naomi Pomeroy

Chef Naomi Pomeroy

Naomi Pomeroy: A Portland Chefs Perspective

by Geeta Bansal

Vivacious, exuberant, articulate: it’s easy to fall under the spell of this talented chef owner of Beast restaurant and Expatriate bar in Portland, Oregon. Sans any tattoos or chef jacket, as she cheerfully informed me she wouldn’t be caught wearing one (though a visual of her in a white or black jacket did pop up, I brushed it aside). It’s difficult to imagine the attractive, blue-eyed woman behind a hot stove butchering a pig (yes, she is known to do that) or as a chef, especially one awarded the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the Northwest in 2014. Her appearances on Top Chef Masters as a contestant, Knife Fight as a judge or ABC’s The Taste have made her a familiar face around the country, and added to her fan base.

The self-taught Pomeroy says she fell into the industry by accident, a job in a catering company that led to her to starting her own catering business and then going on to open underground supper clubs with her then husband and partner. The business morphed into three brick and mortar operations which eventually closed in 2006. The newly single mother after her divorce in 2006 unerringly followed her passion and opened Beast in 2007 with just twenty four seats around communal tables and a prix-fixe menu. The very successful restaurant has since (in its nine years of existence) made Pomeroy a celebrity in Oregon and beyond and this second phase has also brought husband Kyle Webster and a cocktail bar operation into her life. The success of their two operations have motivated the couple to consider a Japanese-inspired third operation this year.

Recognition first came for Pomeroy when Food & Wine Magazine named her as one of the top ten chefs in the country in 2010, and her subsequent nomination for the JBF Best Chef Northwest award four years in a row was no surprise. Around that time there was conversation about the relevance of her restaurant in context of its having opened so long ago (all of seven years!) that can only happen in the present food culture that is about the “moment” and what’s new. Her win led to international travels and adventures to Hong Kong with the American Culinary diplomacy program, Japan, cooking at the JBF restaurant at the Milan Expo in 2015 with a few visits to the White House in between. Pomeroy is now ready to launch her new cook book, “Taste & Techniques” a labor of love for the past year which took her out of the kitchen to spend time writing instead of cooking.

The free-spirited, French-inspired chef has always been her own boss as she has never worked in someone else’s kitchen. Our conversation was all about the profession and what chef owners like her are concerned about in the industry right now and what she is up to next.

Do you enjoy participating in chef events?

It depends on the event, and if it is well-organized and that  makes it easy on the chefs. Some ask for more than others; the All Star Chefs Classic is one that I am always happy to come to. LA is always a fun place since there are always exciting restaurants opening and I have family and friends here. I recently did another fun event in Hawaii put on by Seamus Mullen with four  chefs Hugh Acheson, Jonathan Waxman, Seamus Mullen.

Since the win at the Bocuse d’Or with the U.S. team at the podium for the silver has the image of American cuisine been enhanced internationally and even in our own country?

It’s interesting especially since I am good friends with Gavin Kaysen who helps to lead that team and was recently on the cover of the food section of New York Times with his grandmothers pot roast. So I do think American food is changing and becoming very diverse. Compared to other cuisines around the world it’s fairly new.

There are other cuisine like Peruvian cuisine or Nordic cuisine which as recently as fifteen years ago had never been heard of, so why is American cuisine still not taken seriously?

It’s probably because it’s been known more for meat and potatoes, hamburgers, and quick fast food. That is all changing dramatically and an interesting phenomenon I am seeing is this shift towards fast, casual healthier food. I am referring to chefs and not big brands doing these fast, casual concepts utilizing excellent ingredients and products and getting food out faster to the tables. There are so many different things happening and definitely the perception of American  food is changing pretty rapidly. There is a whole resurgence happening in many downtown areas and things are changing fast. The development of these areas  are encouraging chefs to be in these spots since rents are lower.

Is that why younger chefs are going into these fringe areas to open mid-range restaurants?

I think it’s happening everywhere and for me Portland comes to mind, especially in context of the economics of the city. There is a reason why it is a haven for chefs, other than the fact that food grown in responsible way is available and we are surrounded by farmers and producers to supply our kitchens. Portland is accessible to young chefs since property is not so expensive and it enables chefs to open a small restaurant and turn a profit relatively quickly. These factors also create a lot of chef owners whereas in a large city like New York or San Francisco it is difficult because of the economy of scale. The rents are high , costs  of liquor licenses are prohibitive and there is no choice but to go in with affluent backers and investors which in turn regulates what you do. So you end up with large menus and have to cater to people’s expectations and notions. Then there are destination restaurants in more obscure and out of the city locations which most chef-owners are now choosing to do.

How will the wage hikes, changes in tipping, and other changes in the industry affect the chef and restaurateurs bottom line and the growth of this industry?

We are going to have to address these collectively and one chef who is always ahead of the pack is Danny Myers who has addressed these service issues along with many other chefs. I am opening a new place and we are talking about all these issues and if like at Beast we can include gratuity in our charges. I have had conversations with chef friends like Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo about such issues. The minimum wage has been approved at $15/hr which will affect us all, though I am a huge advocate for people making enough money at their jobs. We are going to have to figure out a solution for the front of the house in the form of restaurateurs becoming advocates and getting together to discuss these issues. The solutions have to work for all of us and we have to make a platform at the state or national level to address these issues. The set of rules that work for all of us need to be established within these parameters. Most people don’t understand how things work especially in high end restaurants and while laws are designed for the majority we need to figure out how to make some exceptions. It will not be feasible for most of us to be functional.

Do you agree with the perception that American cuisine is very trend driven?

For sure; you see that in one year it’s about fermented black garlic, then it could be artichoke the next year. I think however that the scope is really widening now and for instance can you call Asian influenced bar food a trend? You can put whatever words you want to it but we chefs want to please people at the core level. Maybe some of these trends are profit driven but I think maybe it’s coming because we chefs are almost dysfunctional in our desire to please people.

Is that why you chose to be in this business, to please?

Definitely, 100%! I am a caretaker and at a basic level I do this job to please myself since I am happiest making other people happy. It’s something I learnt very early in life that giving a gift is more fun than receiving one. My work is a constant reinvention of that sentiment.

At my restaurant Beast we have an open kitchen and one of things I enjoy most about it is dispelling the myth that chefs are not normal people and I tell my chefs to go and taste food in front of guests. In earlier or more formal kitchens you would duck under the table or taste while pretending not to be eating. I want to show people that tasting while cooking, which the one thing home cooks don’t do enough, is important to cook good food. It’s funny but you should not be hungry by the end of service. I like to bring out this humanity behind our work and if some urgent situation like my towel catching fire occurs I don’t want to pretend that it didn’t happen and if I burn myself I am going to say “Oh shit!” and that is ok and people enjoy that.

Do you take criticism well, especially since with an open kitchen you can observe people’s reactions?

Thank god it’s only happened twice in nine years that we have been open when someone wanted their lamb chop well done or something was too salty. Dealing with critique as a chef is hard since your primary goal is to be a people-pleaser. It’s all a matter of opinion really, and personality and experience. I loved turning forty and feeling free and can’t wait to turn 50 to deliver myself from the evil of concern about what other people think. Every year I notice that it gets better and I don’t pay much attention to reviews, I stopped maybe five six years ago. You stop worrying so much and realize that people are still coming in and while some may call it the greatest meal of their lives others might not. I tell my team that your perfectionism is for you to be able to go home and sleep without regret. It’s important to continue to improve every day, never resting on your laurels.

There is talk about women not getting their due in the industry but do women help other women?

I think so and Dominique Crenn recently responded to a British male chef who made some misogynistic remarks about women in the industry. I totally agreed with her on how tired we all are of this subject of the gender issue and we want to be referred to as chefs, period.

Are you in favor of awards like the Best Female Chef of the year by World 50 Best?

No I am not totally because at some level these awards are divisive. For me the reason it’s still important to talk about this issue is because there are still aspects we need to focus on. What I like about them is that it’s very inspiring for girls growing up to see women in positions of power and leadership. This is true for any industry to give attention to women. I think women have some skills that men don’t have, it’s scientifically proven that women are superior at multitasking. I spoke recently about how women have higher threshold for pain than men. This is a hard job regardless of gender and though there is a lot of hazing, etc. the situation is changing.

How much autonomy do you give chefs working under you and who has the last word?

I see even in my own business that top down mentality is changing and we are starting to work as a community and chefs are leaning on chefs de cuisine and sous chef for their creativity and ideas whether man or woman. It’s all about team work and more we dispel the myth about the man behind the curtain the better it is.

I hire people based on merit and a few years ago I had all female cooks because that was who was coming for jobs. Now I have a male chef de cuisine who tends to attract more men in the kitchen. I don’t care about their gender as long as they are talented, hard working, generous and driven people.

Recently I have been working at developing relationships with people who work with me and put my mark on their ideas so they are still authentic to my food. It has brought in a freshness and newness from the younger team members. I feel that I have my style and I have done it but to keep people coming back for our set menu of six courses we need to constantly evolve. I have turned some of the nuts and bolts over to other people.

Has this delegation been easy?

Oh my God no! I am learning it gradually since for seven years I was in the restaurant every night and now even though the creative juices are still going I can now do so many other things such as writing and traveling. I have started trusting people more and it was scary in the beginning. Now they know that I will do the best for them  and they know I will stand by them. I consider myself as an editor and there is no power struggle. It’s about making the best food and taking care of our customers. If a server or cook has a good idea I am always ready to consider it and they feel connected and have a reason to stay.

Taste & Technique

Taste & Technique

Has your cuisine changed over the years, and which direction are you heading in now?

I am not professionally trained and I started cooking because once you have the bug and the passion you can’t shake it. It’s going to come out somewhere, either your family is going to eat very well or you will figure out how to turn it into a business. I originally developed a passion for cooking when I traveled, even as a little girl with my mother and grandmother. I was in India for a year for a college project on cooking and then I traveled to Southeast Asia after graduating from college. So yes, my food has evolved from the days when I had my catering company after my travels and at that time I had a lot of flavors from those places.

Then I started to develop and learn more French techniques that my mom with her years in France used when I was growing up. I was reading and learning from Jacque Pepin and Julia Child’s classics and used them as a guide to help create the food at Beast. I can’t say I am really cooking the way French masters would but it’s my own theory of classic cooking. We make all of our sauces and condiments by hand including mayonnaise. My cooking changed more recently when I opened my cocktail bar across the street from Beast. I have a lot of food there that harkens back to the flavors from India and Southeast Asia, even in our cocktails.

I have recently been traveling to Japan a lot and my next project will be based on that cuisine. It will focus more of the Japanese foods that you don’t see much here. We see more sushi and ramen everywhere but I will be concentrating on Japanese curry and cold soba. So I am playing more now after a nine year run at Beast. My chef de cuisine is doing a great job of running the restaurant and he is younger, with a great eye for things like plating.

Hasn’t the plating gotten too fancy in the last few years?

Yes; it used to be basic and its  lesson that I learnt from watching my dad, who is a jeweler and how at a certain point few years ago  his work got dated . He is very talented and his technique is very refined but at a point his designs got stuck in a certain period. We chefs tend to do this too as we get older and keep doing what we know. It’s important to break out of the box.

Are you excited about being at the Beard awards in Chicago this year?
I won the last year the awards were in New York and I have not been to the event in Chicago and so I am really looking forward to going. I am going to cook that night and the theme this year is food in television and we had to pick a TV character and food related to them. I picked Sam the butcher from the Brady Bunch, and my Chef de Cuisine was like, “What?, Who?”, he is probably too young to know that show. We are doing a pork meatloaf from that famous episode on the show when they went to Hawaii. It’s going to have a delicious pineapple salsa/chutney on it.

Have you considering doing your own show on television?

There is talk of my hosting a show since I really enjoy working on television. I have been doing it for so many years and I don’t care so much about the bad rap about chefs doing TV shows, especially since I turned forty. I don’t watch much television myself but I enjoy the process and the opportunity to meet and get to know people you are on the show with. When I did the Taste I got to hang out with Anthony Bourdain and Nigella Lawson and it was great and besides it doesn’t hurt to promote the restaurant. So there is built in free advertising and I love public speaking and being in front of cameras.

Anything about restaurant menus that you find annoying?

One thing that annoys me is seeing something used twice during a meal. If I have an appetizer with say a certain dough and then it appears in another course, the repetition bothers me. I like all the courses to have different flavors and ingredients. Sometimes chefs get too obsessed with certain things and that borrowing from another dish or using the same product.

Social media in our industry?

I was just lamenting over the fact that my teenage daughter is growing up in an era with so much social media and everything looks so glamorous. Nobody posts real stuff and it’s sad this perception gets passed on to young people who don’t see the reality  of chefdom. Any chef who reaches that celebrity chef position has come from the deepest and hardest work and the vulnerability that comes from presenting people your heart and soul and then having them judge you. Getting through that and being able to sleep at night was a process for me from the beginning.

Maya Angelou famously spoke about the imposter syndrome and realizing everyone goes through it made it easier for me to get through it. I still have that since there is tons of stuff I don’t know.

What kind of stuff are you referring to?

Sous vide, cryo-vacking, etc. I never knew till I learnt from going to all these cooking events. As a single mom for a long time and then owning my own restaurant I was just focused on work and bringing in a dollar. So I don’t have much experience with these things living in my insular world. Going to events and learning from people has inspired me to do new stuff. The strongest part of any leadership role is deciding which part is not your forte and letting someone else take it over. I have never worked on huge lines or done 300 covers a night, but even then, man I am a fucking good cook!

It’s my genuine self expression through taste and flavor. That’s all.

Once you reach a certain level of success or celebrity is there a fear of losing that place or recognition?

There is that question about how to stay relevant but I wouldn’t describe it as a fear; at least for me it’s a motivating factor. It doesn’t feel daunting but more of a place that I want to rise up to. The cool thing is every time I start to feel that way something really cool happens to me like for instance getting invited to go to Hong Kong with the State Department or I get invited to the White House.

Why do American restaurants stay relevant for a shorter period of time compared to other food cultures?

One of the more obvious reasons for that is our society. Culturally Americans like to move on from one thing to the next and it’s getting worse. We don’t have a very patient attitude and people don’t bother to make very deep connections on a soulful level. The is a mentality to try everything just once and they miss making a real connection to a chef or restaurant. In Japan for example, there is a gratitude exchange between the chef and the customers that is very satisfying for both parties.

How was your experience cooking at the JBF restaurant at the Milan Expo last year?

That was so cool especially being able to go on a trip to Italy. It was a short trip but I took time to visit some Balsamic producers I really like in San Giacomo. I enjoy cultural exchange on any level and it’s also a chance to educate myself.

What is an optimal size for a restaurant, as Beast has just 24 seats?

For us it’s a good size for what we do at Beast and I don’t have experience at larger places. A chef like Andrew Carmellini who has more experience can answer that. My next project will be more approachable and more fast casual like David Chang has done. He has also spoken about how chefs need to diversify their portfolios. I have a high end, a cocktail bar and my next one will have a wider feel. People’s expectations for what they can get at a certain price point are super out of control. People can complain for coming to Per Se for $300 and it’s outrageous because the level of service they expect and the food that is served at a place like that takes a lot of work. David Chang has said if he charged as much as he should for his ramen bowl it would be $27 a bowl.

This whole conversation is shifting on a massive scale, and though change hasn’t happened yet it’s coming and restaurant owners know it. Everyone needs to make a living in this business and Americans are going to have to pay more for it. We seem to have unrealistically low expectation of how much we should pay for food.