Panoramic Views, Lush Gardens and Michelin Stars at the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona

*This story was published on The Daily Meal.

Barcelona is a fascinating bustling metropolis on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Settled in Roman times it became a major international tourist destination after hosting the 1992 Olympic Games . Recognized as a center for culture and arts with numerous UNESCO World Heritage sights it has also earned a reputation in recent years as a major European hub for gastronomy. As in any large city there is an array of lodging options at every price point. However location is a primary consideration for most tourists to be able to conveniently explore the busy city. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, in a mid 20th century building  is conveniently located on the chic Passeig de Garcia. Set back from the street, a ramp leads into the sleek interior reception area. The public spaces and 120 rooms designed by Spanish Patricia Urquiola in contemporary style with oriental nuances are a study in refined elegance.

Set right  in the heart of the bustling city it’s an ideal place to spend a night or few and be pampered by the excellent service and amenities. The opulent yet minimalistic decor in soothing tones, the stellar spa in the basement, the shopping just out the door and the best of all the 360 degree view from the rooftop bar are some of the reasons it’s a no brainer for my annual pilgrimage to the food centric city. For architecture and history buffs Antonio Gaudi’s Casa Battlio is just a short hop across the street while the Plaza Mayor and the bustling Las Ramblas leading into the Gothic quarter and the La Boqueria Market are all within walking distance. When exhausted guests head back to the hotel after their forays what could be more welcome than bottle of cold water that the street level staff are so prompt to offer. Such  touches are so typical of the hospitality of the Mandarin hotel brand that elevates it above others.

The cruise season usually brings in tourists who stop in the city before or after embarking on the mega cruise ships at the Port de Barcelona. For such short visits the concierges seamlessly organize and arrange for city tours while the most visited attractions like the Sagrada Familia church or Gaudi’s Park Guell are just a short taxi ride away.

As a foodaholic, my trips to Barcelona are all about dining in the city with its internationally recognized restaurants, bars and patisseries. Other temples of haute cuisine outside the city are within a day trip by train or taxi if the concierges can wangle an elusive reservation. Some of them require a few months of preplanning but if not there are other options. The hotel itself has a well-curated selection of restaurants within its premises and in house guests can be assured of a reservation especially at the two Michelin-starred MOments by Chef Carme Ruscalleda. The acclaimed Spanish chef holds seven Michelin stars across her three restaurants in Barcelona and Tokyo. This chic restaurant with its soothing colors is helmed by her son chef Raul Balam Ruscalleda and has become one of the main attractions of the hotel for food lovers. The tasting menu appropriately named “The Tour” presents guests with a personalized passport for their journey of international flavors.

Since 2016 acclaimed Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio presents his Latin American flavors at Terrat bar on the rooftop in the evening and al fresco dining spot Mimosa Garden during the day where tantalizing barbecue flavors waft around the secluded gardens. The landscaped gardens are a secluded oasis surrounded by tall buildings and unbelievably serene just a few hundred meters off the busy Passeig de Garcia. The fashionable avenue is comparable to Champs Elysee in Paris or Fifth Avenue in New York and lined with stores represented every major luxury brand.

Spanish chef Angel Leon famous for his avant-garde seafood cuisine at two Michelin-starred Aponiente at the Cadiz, Spain Mandarin Oriental property showcases his signature dishes at BistrEau. The restaurant is in the main dining room which does double duty with a spectacular breakfast spread in the mornings (visions of plates of Serrano ham) and transforms at night into the candle lit snazzy restaurant with dishes like “seafood risotto” complemented by wines from Jerez.

The culinary hot spot is also home to the glamorous Bankers Bar where the glamorati of the city flock to especially when the seasonal Terrat is not operational. A stay at the hotel can coincide with special events like PDT (Please Don’t Tell), a pop up bar serving haute cuisine hot dogs created by top chefs such as Albert Adria, Joan Roca, Carme Ruscalleda, Gaston Acurio and Angel Leon. Guests then easily earn bragging rights to have tasted the cuisine of these top Spanish and international chefs!

This unique property where from some rooms the balcony opens to vistas of the lavender scented gardens for a quiet moment sipping green tea is my favorite home away from home.

Albert Adria: An Enigma for All, Barcelona, Spain

One of the world’s most celebrated cooks is surprisingly that unassuming guy in a black hoodie or t-shirt and jeans sprinting around the neighborhood that houses the Adria ElBarri collection of restaurants in Barcelona. Eating Suquet (a Catalan fish stew) with brother Ferran and Anthony Bourdain shooting for his next season is all a part of a day’s work for him. Disarmingly honest, even when on the stage at MAD or other venues around the world in sharing his dreams and reservations about his imaginative ventures it is impossible not to like him.

I have witnessed his innate curiosity while exploring a Spice market in Istanbul with him or trying out food at restaurants in Mexico or Peru or even at his own restaurants. He is understated and very low key contrary to the present culture of over glamorized egoistical chefs, considering he is the chef who changed the world of pastry forever. A super creative workaholic who has however learnt the hard way about the importance of down time. When we spoke about how he has changed in his last three decades in the industry he said, “I cannot exactly say but the young chef who started in this business three decades ago who had dreams of opening his own restaurant which took 26 years to materialize as Inopia has evolved. Though now I have years of experience I wouldn’t say I know everything but I have certainly learned a lot. There are some elements like fear and respect for the new that are still there. We are working and learning constantly but I have learnt to take a break, go on vacation and recharge. Self neglect is not beneficial and it is important to take care of yourself. No more fourteen hours daily all year round. It’s all about intensity and you can work ten hours with focus and good energy and still get good results.”

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Adria is the fun loving chef who ever since I have known him since his early days has spoken about opening a nightclub. That idea was realized in his 41 Degrees that closed to make way for his latest project Enigma with a bar station of course, as well as a Spanish style wine cellar.

When we spoke about the challenges of juggling multiple functioning projects, he said “I think it is going to be to find different languages for service.”

“What language are you referring to?”, I asked. “The way the servers communicate with the diners” replied Albert. “At Enigma it is all professional while at Tickets more friendly and more casual and at Bodega the waiters are likely to treat guests like family but with respect. At Pakta there is a more delicate and fine tuned service and the language is of slow movements and more Japanese and serene.”

We are also working with smells or aromas in the restaurants and at Pakta we have an incense like aroma. At Hoja Santa we have special candles for the Sam effect. We will have big team going forward to take care of all these aspects in all our projects. (At Pakta, chocolate flavored incense sticks are swung through the dining room in traditional incense burners.)

A portion of this conversation was published on The Daily Meal.

Chef Albert Adria

Chef Albert Adria

 

The Enigma of Albert Adria’s Enigma Concept in Barcelona, Spain

by Geeta Bansal

The Enigma Concept  has been one of the most talked about restaurant offering from the Adria brothers ElBarri group since it was announced two years ago. After closing the world’s most famous restaurant El Bulli in 2011 they have opened a series of super successful concept restaurants like Tickets Bar, the Peruvian-Japanese restaurant Pakta , Bodega 1900 across the street from Tickets, the two Mexican restaurants of which one is the gastronomic Hoja Santa and the other casual Nino Viejo. Their 41 Degrees Experience opened adjacent to Tickets Bar in 2011 first as a cocktail bar with just sixteen seats and blossomed into a dining space with a 50 course tasting menu paired with over a dozen cocktails. The unique dining experience was accompanied by an audio visual component and very quickly became one of the hottest dining destinations with food lovers  from all over the globe vying for the elusive reservations. It closed in 2014 to make way for yet another revolutionary concept from the Adria’s the Enigma restaurant unlike anything anywhere else in the world.

The former 41 Degrees location has since been transformed into a dessert bar accessed from Tickets into an Alice in Wonderland like space, its ceiling festooned with giant strawberries. The desserts, of course since it’s an Albert Adria (The World’s Best Pastry Chef) venture, are unlike any served elsewhere in taste or the wow factor.

Albert Adria, chef turned restaurateur has been holding onto to the name Enigma  since the days when he was in the El Bulli kitchen with his brother Ferran. After closing El Bulli Albert has taken over the active management of their six projects and counting, luckily all within sprinting distance of each other. Since last fall it is now possible to tour ElBarri a specially designed map in hand to visit these modern icons of Barcelona. Move over Gaudi! It’s ElBarri on the tourist (gastro) route now.

Over two years in the making it has certainly been an Enigma and in the interim a collaboration with Cirque du Soleil and the Adria brothers has resulted in Heart a mixed media experience on the jet setting island of Ibiza off the coast of Barcelona. When asked what was taking so long with the construction of Enigma Albert Adria said that it had morphed into a bigger venture overtime with money and time consuming details like the twenty five hundred LED lights embedded in the ceiling!

With costs running over 3 million Euros and counting and given Albert Adria’s propensity to perfection his maverick vision has resulted in a spectacular space. Weeks before the opening electrical engineers were still working on the controls to operate the lights imbedded in the cloud like ceiling. Enigma is a cavernous space of over 700 meters and entered  through a winding hallway into a series of stations. Albert wanted the effect to be similar to entering a cathedral – a cathedral of food in this instance.

Enigma is a magical space using lights, space and shadows to give an illusion of mystery behind each turn of the ramp leading inside. The expectations of diners are big as the space and during the soft opening in December there were already 2500 names on the interest list for the anticipated opening in January. The structural challenges of building this modern cathedral have been immense and challenging for the engineers and architects. Albert Adria says he didn’t want the culinary aspect to be overwhelmed by the theatrics or proportions and it has indeed been a balancing act. The project has been under a veil of secrecy during its construction phase before being unveiled to a huge response in order to preserve the “enigma” until the final reveal.

The test kitchen behind a hidden doorway is accessed through a private bar area which was already finished and stocked two months before the opening. This test kitchen is the core of the ElBarri projects and where Albert tests out his ideas and tweaks the work of his ElBarri kitchen team before it is presented to the diners in the six projects.

There are seven defined areas for the tasting journey for twenty four lucky guests at each seating and the diners can be seated or standing depending on the station. The seven different themed dining areas leading off the Japanese style reception include a Spanish wine cave, a teppanyaki/plancha style grilling station, a formal dining space, a cocktail bar as well as a kitchen counter. Albert Adria explained that since the sequence of the stations will vary at each service for repeat customers it would still be an unpredictable and unique experience each time. Added to that the fact that the menu is tweaked at each service as is the prerogative of any culinary genius the experience is unique to each diner. The twenty four guests journey from one section to another seated or standing for each magical experience none of them quite predictable so guests are advised to leave all foregone assumptions at home. Guests better be ready to mingle as at some stations the groups of eight each might be seated with other diners. Albert hopes it will inspire new friendships along with the new experience.

The entry to Enigma does not come cheap with an initial €100 charge to reserve that is deducted from the the €230 tasting menu some cocktails and are included and additional wine pairing can be added for €90.

Adria has often spoken of overcoming his  fears every time he unveils another revolutionary concept. However it does not stop him from introducing new ideas like why not dessert  before savory courses or playing with unexpected flavors and ingredients. Out of the forty dishes that had been worked and painstakingly reworked over months not all made the final cut. Everything is in flux and what is at one service is probably not going to appear at the next or it might.

Questions:

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What should diners expect at Enigma?

The name says it all; It’s an enigma for all!

I have done a disservice by professing in earlier interviews that it will be the new El Bulli and because of that there are a lot of expectations and people will come with pre-conceived notions. However for me in some ways it is going to be a new El Bulli.

Are you excited that Enigma is finally open?

Yes, very happy though the whole process was very stressful as you have seen during construction. We have used stone that needed to be cut to fit the surfaces and stations, a very tedious and expensive process.  Getting the effect I wanted was not easy for the design team and engineers.

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What do you want your guests at Enigma to experience?

I want them to have fun, be surprised, to tickle their imagination. I create not food but an experience. Subsequently when the guests have a positive experience it transforms into a living art experience. I think it will surprise a lot of people that in the same restaurant we can deliver so many concepts. At the bodega station, we will serve a classical style Spanish cuisine, in the teppanyaki it will be more product oriented and the space in the middle is a fine dining experience.

How many seatings every night that you are open?

I would like to be able to accommodate more but the logistics limit the number of guests each evening to twenty-four. Eventually at every service groups of eight will move two or three times to different parts of the space. There is a teppanyaki or Spanish plancha station for example which could be a stop on one evening and not on another. I must point out that it’s not a thematic restaurant where you move continually.

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Is there a set seating time and do people arrive together?

Every forty-five minutes six people arrive and are received in the Japanese inspired Ryokan reception area with a welcome drink and then directed to the chosen station.

Pakta and Tickets are not a white table cloth fine dining concepts, so is this central space more formal?

Yes, it is more formal service because in our business now I am not only thinking about the concepts but also the revenue. Though all our present concepts bring in revenue though some more than others Enigma does need to do that to justify the operation.

Have the time and the cost overruns been a factor in this decision?

As you know I have had the space for three years and for one year I was undecided especially since the Heart project in Ibiza materialized. Then it was difficult to handle two big projects simultaneously. So, we put Enigma on hold for a while and it has been challenging.

Is fine dining still a viable concept, or is it on its way out?

Forty years ago the formal restaurants were always outside the cities and needed a special occasion and a whole day for the experience. It was expensive and not everyone could afford a few  hundred Euros and hours at the table and it was also boring for the diners. The numbers of tourists seeking special dining experiences has expanded exponentially in the last few years with people traveling just to eat. Barcelona is a gastronomic city and people land here with a list of places to dine at including fine dining places.

What kind of fine dining service can diners expect at Enigma? Assigned servers or chefs bringing dishes to the table?

More classic service and more serious and fine. We are planning for Enigma to be unconditionally one of the best restaurants in the world so no compromises. The expectations are high and I know it will take time to get there since it takes five to eight years to create something spectacular. Enigma will fulfill the job that Tickets is doing right now and it will be at the top tier of all our restaurants. Do you remember Inopia which you visited before Tickets? It was smaller and unlike Tickets, not serving three hundred people every day. For me though the six restaurants and other projects within ElBarri are all equally important.

What is next after Enigma, or are you going to take a break?

I have the idea to open a tea salon which we are exploring right now. I have been a pastry chef for so long and the dessert bar in the 41 Degrees space has fulfilled one of my biggest dreams. I have been very lucky because I have had the opportunity to see the world of gastronomy through the eyes of a pastry chef and now through the business and service vision.

Has it become easier over the years with so many successful projects under your belt to create new experiences for diners?

It has become easier only because my ideas have become more clear. For example, at Tickets even now the ideas in my mind for my guests are being expressed in new dishes all the time. This is actually true for all my restaurants but my team has become stronger. My former chef and sommelier from 41 Degrees and staff from Tickets are on the Enigma team. I am now working just like at El Bulli in my test kitchen or Taller which is within the Enigma project. It has changed my way of working and with the opening of Enigma the “taller” has become the central core from where we test for all the projects. It is where I work every afternoon with my entire team on new concepts and ideas. Not only cooks but all the service managers also join us.

You are super creative and a quick thinker so are you able to keep up with these constantly evolving ideas?

I have learned to live with this and realized that with time and patience things evolve on their own. I think every night that we are open we are learning and getting better. In 2017 all the restaurants will have progressed as I believe if you have confidence and passion then that is your strength.

Have you and your work evolved with time and maturity?

I have changed so much even in the last five years and am constantly evolving. Now I have a big team that I trust I delegate more and they have trust in me so it has made us stronger. Five years ago, we were all young and finding the way. I practically grew up in El Bulli as you know and it was the high point and central to all gastronomy. It was a dream though not the reality, but a wild ride for sure.

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What is coming next in Spanish gastronomy?

It’s impossible to answer it concisely but it’s going to be healthy, and product centric. The more that we learn the more wisely we will use our products and resources. Instead of consuming more chicken, pork or beef depending on the culture there will be more consumption of vegetable products while avoiding waste.

Are you going to use offal at Enigma as is the trend everywhere these days?

Offal is not something I like to use like liver, brain, pig feet etc. Since fifty percent of our customers are from different cultures and parts of the world I don’t want to serve dishes that everyone may not appreciate. Enigma might however be a place where you can use these products not for provocation but for the kind of diners who will come for the experience.

One of the plates I made recently with a modern aesthetic but a classical base for example is a torchon of foie-gras with smoked eel and nori and it’s delicious. The eel is inside the foie and charcoal outside. It will be a similar style of cuisine at Enigma that people don’t expect but I promise that my customers will have taste and flavor in every dish.

What products will appear on the Enigma menu this season?

We are working with jellyfish, with rabbit brain which is a take on a traditional stew which we will serve in a walnut shell since a walnut looks like a brain. The tableware we are using is very simple and the food will be the star. The light is perfect to show off the food and my cooks will be alert and making sure it’s a great experience. I don’t want it to be boring, or too long but definitely full of surprises.

Did the Heart project in Ibiza concept change in the last season, and why?

It is a seasonal project only through the summer season and of course we’re evaluate at the end of each season and after the closing this fall we are already working on the next season. For 2017 we are working to communicate more concisely what people can expect when they visit Heart. 2016 was a transitional year and it was more important to focus on the development of the project and fine tune it.

Has Heart been well received by the Ibiza community?

We have changed the opinions of the locals and we are recognized as a valuable addition to the community. We bring in customers and business to the island and are appreciated and I am very glad about that.

Massimo Bottura, Osteria Francescana, Modena, Italy: Signature of a Chef

Around Massimo Bottura, you sense the palpable energy of a man who is impatient to catch up with the constant ideas and visions flowing through his consciousness. Never at a loss for words he can carry on extensive conversations with whomever he ‘chooses’ to engage with. I often refer to him as him “Professor Chef” which he finds very amusing.
A few months ago, in a conversation about his team in Modena and I had asked how he kept the team intact over the years. Recently I witnessed the dynamic of the Osteria Francescana team away from the kitchen. All of fourteen people including Massimo, his lovely wife Lara and his two children had journeyed to Queretaro, Mexico. The occasion was the fun filled wedding celebrations of his Japanese sous chef Takahiko Konda of Osteria Francescana and Karime Lopez who had just left Central in Lima after a five-year run as a chef. Over the few days it was apparent that Massimo and Lara have created a special family in Modena with real affection, love and regard far beyond a working relationship, unlike anything I have seen before and I have been around quite a few kitchens.

At the wedding reception in a historic hacienda which resounded with music and the thunder of dancers on the floor Massimo and I took a break and conversed as the conga line snaked past us. A few former team members had also journeyed to Mexico and their connection with their former boss and their dynamic was really interesting. So of course, I had to know how he felt when people moved on. He said that there comes a time when people outgrew their roles and they needed to leave for self-growth. I realized then what he had said about the culture of stimulation he encouraged in his laboratory of ideas in Modena and his pride in the young people who carried his culture out into the world. “We chefs are changing how people view things and how they think and that is the most important work of a chef in my position.”

Then it was time for more tequila shots and joining the happy couple on the dance floor who will never forget this special guest at their wedding. Lara , the official decoder of his creative visions understands the  language he speaks and helps convey it to the rest of us. The morning after dancing the night away as she prepared breakfast tray for him to enjoy in bed and she said “someone has to take care of him.” And she certainly does! Not just him but everyone who comes into their lives.

A version of this ongoing conversation was published on The Daily Meal.

Chef Massimo Bottura

Chef Massimo Bottura

Chef Massimo Bottura: I Am an Artiere of Italian Cuisine

by Geeta Bansal

Where else would you meet with an avowed art lover and aficionado but in a museum. Massimo Bottura was spending some downtime the day before the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants awards gala in New York in his favored environment, surrounded by the work of artistes he reveres. Over lunch at Danny Myer’s Untitled restaurant at the Whitney Museum Bottura shared his unique perspective on the world of food. We have had many conversations over time in unusual locales, including a bacchanalian Gelinaz event in Lima when the detail oriented chef was worked up over the fact that his octopus dessert would have to hold until the wee hours of the morning before being served. The imaginative and creative chef whose mind races at warp speed is a fascinating conversationalist. Extremely intelligent, witty and well informed he can hold his own on any subject under the sun, especially art and music. The state of the art music system that blasts his kitchen is the envy of many and his passion for music even morphs into dishes such as “Tribute to Thelonious Monk “, the jazz pianist. Bottura’s love for Italy, Modenese cuisine, culture and history has also translated into iconic dishes like “An Eel Swimming Up the Po River”. The famous ‘Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart’ is a classic Bottura creation that is all about turning an imperfection into perfection, salty capers and all. The bearded, bespectacled and slight framed Bottura’s fourth book ‘Never Trust a Skinny Chef” published in 2013 narrates the back stories of many of his creations and in his words the multiple layers of meaning behind each one.

Osteria Francescana his restaurant in Modena in the heart of his beloved Emilio Romagna was the epicenter from where Bottura sent shock waves into Italian gastronomy by reimagining traditional dishes. In 2014 the region was in fact devastated by a powerful quake and Bottura played a pivotal role in aiding the Parmiggiano cheese industry to recuperate. He created a dish of course: The Cacio Pepe Risotto, served simultaneously at dinners around the globe utilizing the 360,000 smashed wheels of the cheese. A meal at Osteria Francescana is a revelation of possibilities; a journey in to a mythical Italy that exists in Bottura’s imagination. The food more often than not upending all preconceptions of Italian cuisine as we knew it pre Bottura. The small town of Modena, has become a requisite stop for food enthusiasts on gastro pilgrimages. It is certainly a unique experience that reverberates beyond the palate because Bottura manages to invade your mind and stamp it with his own visionary culture.

Massimo had spent time in early stages of his career in other exalted kitchens like those of Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo. However, it was Ferran Adria who during Massimo’s time at El Bulli gave him the impetus to cook his version of modernistic progressive Italian cuisine, something he has never stopped working on since. Culture, evolution, revolution, contemporary, confrontation are words that crop up frequently in conversation with Bottura. Many of his dishes have become iconic expressions of modernism in cuisine and yet the perfectionist that he is he frequently revisits them.

The Bottura Caesar Salad reappeared in a new iteration on his Instagram feed recently being plated with David Lee Roth’s ‘Just a Gigolo” playing in the background as a Salad de Mare. Bottura described it as the revolution of an evolution with new elements for the new season and the new year. When I asked at what point does he decide not to revisit a previously created dish he said “If it is not evolving that means that I have to stop serving it. After a point it is going to degenerate. Our everyday life is so strong and so obsessive that people get used to or conditioned to things. It’s like going to work in a factory and not in a creative space if you don’t continue to evolve.”

Bottura is indeed living a special time in his life right now with his restaurant at #1 on the World’s 50 Best restaurants list, and recognized as the best in Italy for 2016 with a 20/20 rating by the l’Expresso-Ristorante d’Italia food guide. Besides the uber successful three Michelin starred restaurant, he also has the informal Franceschetta 58 in Modena. It has been a tough road leading to this juncture for Bottura and his wife Lara Gilmore. He credits her for tirelessly encouraging and supporting him through the long period when his avant-garde cuisine was not welcomed by Italians.

The art obsessed couple share a unique bond even uncannily finishing each other’s each thoughts mid-sentence, while like any couple often agreeing to disagree. The first season of Netflix’s Chef’s Table in 2015 provides a glimpse of this synergy and their life in Modena with their two children. Last year 65 of his celebrity chef friends joined him in Milan at the Reffertorio Ambrosiano kitchens to transform the Milan Expo’s 15 tons of daily food waste into meals for the underprivileged. The Pope Francis approved initiative also led to the Reffertorio Gastromotiva soup kitchen during the Rio Olympics under the aegis of Bottura’s Food for Soul nonprofit.

Excerpts from an ongoing dialogue:

What is the connection between art, culture and cooking?

Art is the highest point of culture because artists have strength to do whatever they want. How do you recognize an artist? It is by their sign or signature style. You look at a painting by Chuck Lewis you know who it is, you look at Cindy Sherman you can’t miss it, you look at a plate by Ferran Adria you know right away that’s Ferran. So if you create your own thing and you put your own personality into what you create and as I like to say then you convey and compress your passion with each edible bite. Your creation then exists forever like my, Drop de la Montaigne, the ice cream bar with foie-gras, or the five different ages, textures and temperatures of parmigiana. These plates are icons and people come to Modena from all over the worlds to eat this food and absorb the culture. Even people from a different part of the world can recognize them and get a look into this culture. The one thing that separates a chef from an artist is that the artist is free to do whatever he wants; a chef however has to create good food. A chef is an artisan like the people who build Ferrari’s they are not artists even though they make the fastest and most beautiful cars in the world, they are artisans.

So are chefs artists?

There is a category between an artist and an artisan that is called an artiere in Italian. An artiere is an artisan or artigiano obsessed by quality. We chefs are like them, simply artisans obsessed in our minds with quality. It is not just about the quality of ingredients it is also the quality of ideas. Our ideas are at times extremely deep and match those of artists. Think about ‘Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart’ whereby we created in the most perfect way an imperfection.

Last year in a group showing of several artists in an art gallery in New York there was the lemon tart dish, inspired by a chef. That’s amazing, I didn’t ask for this they chose it and to me that means I am not following any trend but others are following what I am doing. If you follow everything I do and the actions you see that there is expression of the artist I love the most, especially a social artist like I Wei Wei or Joseph Beuys and the socialist culture. It’s about breaking a two-thousand-year old Ming vase and says I am not defeating my past but trying to reveal and rebuild the past in the contemporary mind.

That is the point of culture, that it creates knowledge which in turn impacts the consciousness which then leads to a sense of social responsibility. I have to say I couldn’t have done this without my restaurant Osteria Fransescana because that is where we create culture in our laboratory of ideas. It’s about new ideas while the social responsibility is in the soup kitchen in Milan and in Rio de Janeiro.

Is that soup kitchen a place in gastronomy where hunger meets generosity?

I don’t think it is a charity event in fact I think of it as a cultural event. Just like the grandmothers of centuries gone by we are creating a new tradition. Italian cuisine comes from the basics where from nothing we create something. We manage the ration, something the Japanese don’t even think about yet we do that very well and have always done it. If we are able to use this ‘ invisible ‘waste we are making the invisible ‘visible’ We use waste to create beautiful dishes, bright in flavor using what would be thrown away. A ripe banana, an ugly tomato or some bread crumbs are not waste and if you have the capability of transforming them there is so much you can do with that.

In the less developed economies or less fortunate societies every part of a plant or animal is used. That is why I have involved Brazilians, Peruvians and others from South America in this project because they have the history and knack of using products in this manner and we Italians do the same.

When you first opened your restaurant you were cooking in the kitchen while now you are not always there so does this affect the experience for your diners?

Even now nothing comes out of the kitchen without my thought in it. Davide is my right hand in the kitchen who has been with me for twelve years and the man who interprets my rationale in a perfect way. He understands exactly where I am going and like me loves art and music. It’s almost as if he is in my mind especially as I am dyslexic since I think too fast, and my mind is too quick to think. When people say oh you are away so who is cooking in your kitchen. I say it’s the same people who are cooking even when I am in the kitchen. We have forty people who are committed and devoted to the Osteria Francescana.

What are your thoughts on the progression of American gastronomy?

America has a very big potential because they have money, they are free to think and they have great schools. The Culinary Institute of America is one of the best schools I have ever seen in the world. There are many great chefs in America who are great examples for the young generation of chefs. The problem is everyone wants to be up there very fast and they don’t want to invest the time to learn. On the other side the French don’t put themselves into discussions of cuisine because they think they are already there. As a result, French cuisine is dropping so drastically and if you eat a meal with three courses then you need three days to digest them. I think that is why there is a renaissance of Italian cuisine because there are so many young Italian chefs who realize that terroir is an expression of food. They build relationships with the artisans who are the real heroes of cuisine. This factor is making Italian cuisine very interesting right now.

You have been a catalyst for change in the traditional Italian cuisine in the face of tough opposition and criticism. What motivated you to persevere and succeed?

I have to say I am very happy that I survived that period. You need faith on one side and someone close to you who believes in what you are doing and keeps pushing you on the other. Someone who generates self confidence in you because sometimes you have self-doubt and question yourself. If you have a spouse or a mentor or a strong team you can achieve this. My team was sending me messages on What’s App giving me encouragement about the 50 Best awards tomorrow. Many of them like our sommelier, maitre’d have been with us for fifteen years and Davide and Taka have been with me since 2004. We also have twin brothers who are our head wait staff and have been with us for seven years. Sometimes you question if you are working for the team or is the team working for you. I believe that the team is everything. Building the right team is difficult and if you are successful at it then they become your strength.

How do you keep the team intact over the years and have people stay on?

These people probably receive an offer every day from all over the world. I would say that it is our culture of stimulation that keeps them with us. If you stimulate them and let them express and try even if they make mistakes you encourage them. Taka keeps asking me how can he grow and I do my best to stimulate that growth and that is the secret of both the success and longevity of the team. For the past seven years we have been in the top five best restaurants in the world and it’s the best feeling ever for all of us.

How much autonomy do you give your team members?

A have to say both 100% and 0%. 100% because everyone can express themselves in different ways so we can get some good energy and ideas. Sometimes I give the team a task to make a plate in two days that could tell me who they are. This is very important for me to know and see. I can see the human being even though the flavor and shape is that of a ravioli with ricotta, sage and herbs made by an 18-year-old stagiare.

Is the cross-cultural contamination of cuisines beneficial for gastronomy?

It is possible to be contaminated in a wise way and not in a wild way because you should never lose consciousness of who you are and where you come from. Crossing is very difficult because take my example. I grew up biting Parmigiana Reggiano and when I taste Grana Padano, I can tell the difference. A mozzarella made three hours ago tastes of the buffalo, the animal because you take a bite of the animal and not just imbibe the milk or chew the cheese. When you are in a setting where the bar is set so high then if you don’t jump the right way you fall. Italians are so into flavors that if you don’t get this right and show especially the local Italian people then you can fail. For me to be able to do what I like I had to explain to them that I could draw like Rafaello (Raphael, the Italian Renaissance painter) and I could make the tagliatelle or tortellini better than their grandmother and even her grandmother. I had to get them to accept it before I could cook in abstract. You have to show the world before they believe in you.

Every chef from the category of the top five restaurants of the world becomes known or recognized by a signature style or dish and is that a good thing?

It’s a very good thing and it’s extremely important. If you don’t have that signature, then you are not recognized. Take the example of every single thing that comes from Noma it has the special signature. When I went to Noma Australia this year I was not eating Australian food or products but Rene’s mind so to say.

How important have these rating systems or lists become in recent years for you personally?

It is very important because it’s recognition for you, for the team, for the business. We are working for ourselves and I believe in what we are doing. In recent months there have been creative conferences, not related to food, in different parts of the world where people who influence the food that we are cooking right now got together. They were designers, architects, artists, musicians; all amazing people who understand the food I am creating much better than anyone else. They are so attuned to the creative process.

So you are appealing to an audience with a certain intellect?

(laughing) I think I appeal to gourmets because the first thing for me is to create good food and then if you go deeper you influence creative people with your creativity. To be able to open people’s minds to possibilities is extremely satisfying to me.

Are you happy with where you are in life right now?

After the universal exhibition (Expo Milano) we have had such a push of positive energy and I have even rejoined the church. I was not going to church but the new pope is amazing and who doesn’t like him. He is open to everyone and God is one whatever form you may give Him and He says who am I to judge. If it wasn’t for Pope Francis, I couldn’t have done the Reffertorio in Milan. The pope was so bright and quick to grasp the concept and move the focus from downtown Milan where we were initially concentrating. The Pope suggested that we should focus on the periphery of Milan because the periphery is always in the dark or shadows and it was so right and that is what we did.

Is it true that you acquire more confidence as a chef with age and experience and can take revolutionary steps while as a young chef you are scared to break away from the pack?

You realize that there are different values and most of the values you were carrying when you were twenty or twenty-five and a lot of ideas and instincts that you had from the beginning are still the same. What has changed a lot is the way of communicating them and the provocation. When you are younger it’s important to be provocative and it for me it was important to find myself. As I matured as a person I realized it becomes more interesting to slip something to someone without making it obvious. The provocation comes maybe not even by the way the plate looks but by the flavor or a memory you trigger. Working in that way the relationship with your diner or guest also changes. With maturity you don’t feel compelled to define yourself anymore in absolute terms and you leave yourself more gentle space. You don’t feel the need to control the experience and let everyone have their own space.

When as you are young you feel you must break everything like I Wei Wei broke the vase (I Wei Wei a Chinese conceptual artist broke a 2000-year-old Han Dynasty vase in a performance piece). However, the most difficult thing after breaking is rebuilding and to do that better than the past. If you do not rebuild it better than that gesture was wasted. With your contemporary mind you can accomplish that and then you will be recognized.

We use the word “contemporary” to define modern or relevant to the present, but how long does anything remain current or contemporary?

That is a very good point and sometimes what is contemporary for you is not the same for someone else. When we build something or arrive at a certain point, we all get there with varied reflections that bring us to that same juncture. To arrive at cooking sous vide the Roca brothers arrived one way while maybe me or someone else arrived in another way. It exemplifies a contemporary way of thinking from varied directions. This is what makes food so interesting right now that we are so focused on using different techniques but applied according to our history and in our own fashion. So the Roca’s put soccer player Messi into their dessert while Redzepi is discovering a new herb growing in the ocean and I am finding a way to evolve Balsamic vinegar. Sometimes you need time to figure out how contemporary something still is, it is the irony of time. Being contemporary means evolution like my Caesar salad. An abstraction of Caesars salad that we have changed five times (and counting) in the last ten years.

What are you working on now?

The idea of a Mediterranean soul or taking classic fish preparations that we all grew up with in Italy with like al cartoccio or en papilotte, or en sale or a la muniana, sautéed in olive oil with a touch of lemon and cream. Playing with the idea of these three preparations I have compressed them into one dish. I am playing with technique, irony and abstraction. The paper in en pappiote is made with salty water, like seawater that looks like a burnt piece of paper. This is how a classic preparation becomes contemporary because you are thinking about your own experience, your memories, techniques you acquired as a chef while questioning if they can be put together for a whole new experience. At the end of the day we named it ‘Mediterranean Soul’ because when you eat it you will have this sensation of being in a very specific part of the world, the Mediterranean. Under the burnt paper you will find all the elements of al cartoccio because there are black olives, lemon, tomato, capers in this dish.

You created this paper using sea water?

Yes, we dehydrated seawater with a lengthy technical process and beneath this seawater paper you will find the soul of Italian cuisine. The fish is turbot because it’s expression is in the Northern part of the Adriatic Sea and the flat fish like sole or the turbot are the best from there. Under it you will find a creamy sauce made not with cream but extra virgin olive oil, fish broth and a touch of lemon zest. We filter everything and create an appropriate density and pour on top because we are in the Mediterranean and not in France. This dish is like tasting Italy on a plate.

Our new tasting menu is called “Tutto” which means everything. This word comes from a postmodern artist Buetti who back in the 1970’s did a lot of work in games, logic and reason and was very forward in his thinking. He did a series of paintings in which he used stencils of random things he loved like a palm tree, a person riding a bicycle, or even a piece of cake. These were enormous drawings with many different colors that ended up looking like tapestries from a distance. When you got closer you saw he was trying to fit everything from his life into a painting. The beauty of it is that everything or ‘Tutto’ for him was a metaphor that art can express everything and it’s just a matter of perception.

When we created our new tasting menu we had many requests from diners who had seen the Chefs Table episode and read my book who wanted to taste some of those classics. Dishes like Oops I dropped the Lemon tart etc. that are normally on our a la carte menu are also on tasting the menu once in a while. We included them on the Tutto menu along with very contemporary dishes so those who have read or seen them can also experience them. It is fun because it keeps the kitchen working on their contemporary dishes while the generous menu allows the fifteen-year-old dishes like the Parmigiana dish to still be experienced. These dishes are still delicious and contemporary.

You have said that “The secret is leave a little space in your everyday life open for poetry in which you can jump in and imagine everything.” If your life was a poem what would it say?

Poets like Giovanni Pascole and others describe the big poetry of life but hmmm….

Right now in a world like this in which everything is passing by so quickly, everything is fueled by the hunger of eating chewing and spitting out everything quickly. We contemporary chefs are so exposed and in a very tough spot. Everything we create is chewed and spit out very quickly and then it’s on to the next. Everything is ephemeral and passes by in a flash.

So we feel like autumn leaves on a tree. (laughing) I guess it’s a little bit creepy.

 

Ron Finley: Saving The Garden That Inspired A Community

Ron Finley

Ron Finley

A few months ago on a cold stormy night in Copenhagen Ron Finley and I were having dinner in a roof top garden restaurant. As torrential rain pounded the glass greenhouse and lightening flashes illuminated the dark skies, the diners were fearful of being struck by lightning at any instant. Finley meanwhile was struck by  the beauty of the rain-soaked garden outside that was lit up by Mother Nature. As I sat getting soaked by a steady drip of rainwater  I realized that beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder especially for this crazy artist of the soil .

We first met at the MAD Food Symposium in Copenhagen many years ago where he shared his vision of “Save Your Food Save Your Life” with the movers and shakers of the world of food. I had heard and read about how one man sowed a seed in the heart of South Central LA that not only transformed the bleak litter strewn sidewalks of his neighborhood but changed lives and a community in the process. It was after getting to know him over time that I have realised how deep the passion and significance of these gardens are to him and his community.

I once asked him who is Ron Finley and he responded “I am an enigma to myself at times but I am just a black guy who planted a seed and all I want is to see positive change and beauty where there is none. I want to see opportunity and not just hope in deprived communities which I believe happens by design in the United States. Fuck hope because without opportunity hope means nothing.”

Finley, with his badass attitude and colorful language, has been anointed with many monikers including Gangsta Gardener, “The Renegade Gardener”, and “Guerilla Gardener” since the man took it upon himself to create a green breathing living space in the gritty litter strewn part of the city of Angels. His tag line has become “plant some shit “as he has done in the parkway outside his own property creating a communal garden. His TED talk a few years ago fired up a storm of publicity making him known as an activist on a mission for change.

Finley envisioned a space with the smell of flowers, jasmine, lavender where bees buzzed by and colorful butterflies visited where senses were assaulted by beauty of nature. His initial thought was if we can grow grass that is just weeds so why not food on the parkways. This idealism was soon crushed, resulting in citation followed by an arrest warrant that he gleefully says branded him a criminal and put a halt to the project. In his opinion, there is a distinction between the virtue and vice of obedience, so seven years later observing that no one complained about the condoms, couches, or other junk on the streets he sowed the seeds to the present garden. Finley’s reasoning behind it being the non-existence of healthy food in the neighborhood, where people would go food shopping in liquor stores that abounded, at gas station mini marts or the drive through fast food that swarmed the landscape. Finley realized that  you could buy all kinds of  food in the neighborhood but just not any healthy food. It was not just the drive by shootings that were killing people but also the drive throughs.

Parkway is for the most part the strip of dying grass, except in ritzy neighborhoods, that is between the street and private property. This no man’s land is public property but the city has jurisdiction over it and Finley decided to “plant some shit” on it. The future according to Finley is in redesigning communities so that they uplift people rather than keep them down. This garden where the neighbors worked to grow food created a whole community not just an urban garden with tomatoes on the vines or 12ft tall sunflowers standing guard over the rows of vegetables. Working to build and educate a community is gangsta to Finley. The garden planted by him and his neighbors brings more than food but also clean air, biodiversity in the soil, bees, butterflies while establishing an ecosystem to replace the littered unsightly spaces into beauty.

This beauty has resonated and awakened hope with opportunity to change the life of the man on the street. It has empowered a society to become self sufficient and take the power of freedom to change their community and themselves. It is a beautiful example of what is possible not only locally but globally. The significance of this message has been heard and valued by all those who visit this garden from school children to students from Harvard. Finley’s TED talk and the media noise about his venture brought a change in the Land Use law in 2014 and now it is no longer a crime to plant the parkways in LA.

Financial troubles have resulted in the property being repossessed  and the unique garden that is the catalyst to this historic change is going to be lost under layers of concrete. While Finley is no underdog but as he says “a super dog” and neither are the residents of this community. He took on the lawmakers for his community and now the community needs to rally behind him. Time is of the essence or else a piece of living history is going to be lost under the dust.

I spoke with Finley about his garden that is in imminent danger of being lost:

When did it all begin for you?

While I was growing up there were no food stores in my community and basically you ate what was around you. I actually woke up to a silent health crisis when I was in a grocery store in 2008 during the economic downturn. I saw a sign that said some of the tomatoes may be coated with shellac. I thought I am cool on that since who needs shellac that we used in our wood shop to preserve wood. Then I started looking around at kids with type 2 diabetes, obesity, amputations, people on dialysis and it wakes you up and that’s how I started with the garden.

What is your message?

My message is basically beauty in beauty out since when you put beauty into a place and take care and raise a seed with kindness, care, love and affection that is what you get out of it. It’s a very simple message as far as food goes. I feel we live in a world of food apartheid, food terrorism, food factories. We have places where they don’t even have access to water and we look at this pretty food on store shelves that is all uniform and beautiful but we don’t look further into where it came from or the oppression and the sorrow and pain behind getting it to look like that. I want to help people look at food and what’s happening.

How has it evolved over the years?

It has evolved from a random black guy planting a tomato on the streets of south central to a guy who has helped start a movement that has spread around the world. I have spoken from Qatar to Greece, parts of the U.K, Copenhagen to Stockholm and around the United States. It has magnified despite there being no algorithm to this evolution. It has gone all over the world and taken me to places where people have connected to this idea. I get contacted by people from Africa to Korea who have heard or viewed my TED talk which really propelled the message out there. This garden has been the catalyst for getting land use laws changed.  Now, since 2014, you can plant gardens and grow food on parkways anywhere in the city.

What does this garden represent to the community?

My garden today represents freedom, inspiration, beauty, and opportunity. People can see how a piece of dirt in front of our houses can be turned into their own oasis just waiting to happen. Like artists paint on canvas or sculpt, I see the garden as art that is beautifying our community. It has changed the landscape so that now people go out of their way to walk by the garden for what it has come to represent to them. It’s the joy they get from the colors, the aromas, flowers and beauty and it’s opened their eyes and minds to what is possible. A lot of people have started growing their own food after seeing what I am growing on the street. I want people to experience it, feel it, smell it, and look as a garden as art, be exposed to taste, touch and smell it. I am an artist of the soil and that is where life springs from.

Why is it important to save this living message?

It’s important to save this living message for the community since it shows the opportunity to do something to change the environment around them and their relationship to food. Not just in LA but in other parts of the country or the world since food is a problem everywhere. This exemplifies that you can grow food while beautifying your surroundings  clean the air, save water, eat healthy. Life grows on soil, it’s an education especially for kids who we are basically dumbing down by putting them in classrooms all day and we should put them and the school in a garden not just a garden at the school. There are many lessons to be learned in a garden.

How has the community embraced your message?

A woman down the street has been inspired to plant a garden, started eating healthier and has lost a 100 lbs since changing her diet. Kids come by who never knew before where food comes from and then they pull a carrot out of the ground or see a banana growing hanging on a tree in the heart of this neighborhood. It’s also an education in that money does grow on trees unlike what we were taught all our lives. It a lesson in appreciating what a tree can do, what soil can do. I have people leave seeds at my door, and thank you notes or $1 or $5 in my mailbox because they picked some food off the parkway. The bottom line is that this garden is inspiring people to change their lives and people realize that we can grow food in our neighborhoods.

How can the community get involved to preserve this and how urgent is this situation?

It’s threatened and to save it we need funds in order to make it a permanent fixture and an example of what is possible in underprivileged neighborhoods. This transformation is possible and the man on the street can do it himself. This garden represents life , evolution, and the power of freedom to make it.

It needs help immediately since this very important symbol not only for South Central LA but for such neighborhoods around the world and is in imminent danger of being lost. This will turn into another piece of concrete and lot of people will lose this life changing inspiration and the desire to change by example. This is the only example I have and though there are other gardens this is  is unique with its  variety of trees and plants, and the water catchment system. The garden is 9ft by 150 ft and we also have the garden that is in the property which is inside a swimming pool that we have converted into a garden. It will be a travesty to lose it and I am appealing for help to keep the chain of culture going. We are changing the culture by agriculture while changing the culture of how people interact with each other.

How do people get involved?

They can visit www.ronfinley.com

Chef Michael Tusk, Quince, Cotogna, San Francisco: A Seat At The Three Michelin-Starred Table

A few weeks ago I saw Chef Michael Tusk being celebrated at the Michelin Gala in New York for his restaurant Quince being awarded its third Michelin star. As I watched the photographers shuffle the three-starred chefs on the stage for a group photo, I realized that the handsome, blue eyed Tusk was one of the tallest chefs as well. The evening was the culmination of years of hard work and striving for excellence by the chef chosen as The Best Chef: Pacific by the James Beard Foundation in 2011. The New Jersey transplant has been part of the city’s fine dining scene since he opened Quince at its previous location in 2003. It was no surprise to his diners and fans that he was nominated for Outstanding Chef of the Year while his restaurant was nominated for Outstanding Service  by the JBF for 2016.

I first visited Quince at its Octavia St location the year it had first opened and it was a standout experience amongst many others in the city. The restaurant named Quince after the fruit was a warm space enlivened with prints of its namesake  while the present iteration is a soigne, polished space with rich color on the walls lit not only by the chandelier overhead but an eye catching art collection that is the pride of its owners  Over the years it has established itself as a world class dining experience and what stands out is not only the fabulous cuisine but also the level of hospitality extended to the guests. In many formal restaurants the service staff can be aloof and stiff but at Quince the personable service puts guests at ease adding to the experience. When Michael Tusk and his lovely wife and partner Lindsey speak about welcoming guests as if into their home it they really do manage to impart that experience. The restaurant has chosen to serve a seasonal tasting menu since 2015 and in this case there is no better choice as the chef really does bring the best of the seasonal to the table.

The affable, down to earth couple are a pleasure to communicate with and recently moved to their new home in Sausalito. Tusk happily shared that he loved driving over the Golden Gate Bridge to work being able to view the city that he loves while appreciating the short commute. For me the colors on the plates, the tastes that linger on my palate are matched by the many colorful stories that they shared with me.

A version of this story was published in The Daily Meal.

Michael Tusk: Three Michelin Stars for Quince, San Francisco

A few weeks ago an ecstatic team at Quince along with Chef Michael Tusk welcomed news of his restaurant in San Francisco being the recipient of a prestigious third Michelin star for San Francisco Bay Area & Wine Country 2017. When we met a few months ago it had been three years since the second Michelin star and Tusk was hopeful this year as he and his wife Lindsey had completed another refurbishment of the California Italian/French fine dining establishment. It was validation at last with the distinction of being the only restaurant in the country to gain a third star this year bringing San Francisco on par with New York in the star count. Now Quince is one of 118 such fine dining establishments around the world and Tusk finally has a seat at the three Michelin-starred table.

In the late 80’s Tusk, with an art history degree from Tulane in hand and after graduating from the CIA in New York, took off for Europe to explore its culinary traditions while working and staging at Michelin-starred restaurants. It was the Barbaresco region of north Italy that won his heart and a lifelong passion for fine Italian cuisine ensued. Tusk a consummate story teller has been sharing his stories on plates since he began his career stateside at Jeremiah Tower’s Star restaurant in 1988. A year later he joined Alice Waters Chez Panisse in Berkeley and while there for four years he imbibed the product centric philosophy which he credits for helping develop his own personal style before moving onto Oliveto for six years. Respect for Waters and his time there was evident as we chatted about Alice Waters upcoming travel to Spain, a country he is very fond of; he quipped that he would be happy to go along even if only to carry her hat!

Quince opened in 2003 and was relocated in 2009 from Octavia St to its larger quarters in Jackson Square in San Francisco. In 2010 the informal Cotogna opened next door, both restaurants inspired by the seasonal produce of the Bay Area and more recently their own dedicated farm. Many accolades and recognitions had been awarded over the years and its exemplary food and stellar service has made Quince one of the city’s top tables. In the elegant dining room lit by spectacular Murano glass chandelier artfully plated creations tantalize the palates of its well-heeled guests. The arrival of a champagne cart at the table signals that this tasting menu only dining Mecca might be a special occasion destination for many. Guests are welcome to tour the kitchen and served a small bite as they watch the efficient kitchen brigade go about its business.

dsc02675A dining experience at the elegant restaurant with its well-curated wine selection to match never fails to impress with stunning presentation and complexity of its contemporary cuisine. An indulgent creamy avocado soup set off with reserve caviar might be followed with freshly dug potatoes harvested on a staff field trip to the farm paired with oysters or a tagliolini with squid and geoduck while the sweet ending might be a Bing cherry dessert in season. Quince a distinguished member of the Relais & Chateax global fellowship of luxury restaurants and hotels around the world is definitely worth a detour to the city by the bay.

A shared love for travel, cuisine, art and architecture prompt the couple to journey around the world especially Spain, Italy, France and Japan. After being celebrated at the recent Michelin Gala in New York for the US restaurants, the couple took off for Japan on another dining odyssey, the last having been to experience Noma Japan while exploring other fine kitchens. Disarmingly down to earth Tusk enjoys engaging with guests at his restaurants and is a great conversationalist. It is refreshing to come across a chef of his stature with two extremely successful restaurants, who is just as much in awe of culinary stars as any of us.

One afternoon while the staff bustled about to set up dining room for the evening he shared an amusing story from his last visit to San Sebastián Spain. “On my last day in Spain during my visit to San Sebastián this year I decided that it was time for some good fish, somewhere right by the ocean, so we headed to ElKano in Getaria. When I walked in I noticed that on the small raised platform on the left there was a large table full of people having what sounded like a really good time. As I am seated at my table I see a gentleman go by me towards the bathrooms and I pointed him out to my wife and said ‘Guess what? Carlo Petrini just went by.’ To catch his attention I walked over to the host stand that was on his way back to his table trying to look nonchalant while I waited for him to come out. I have known Carlo for years from my time at Chez Panisse.”

“So when he went by I hailed him by his name and he immediately recognized me and said ‘Michelo, let me introduce you to my friends’ and I look over and see it’s that big party wondering who it was. He said it was a slow food gathering so we went over, me with my mediocre Italian, while my Spanish is even worse and who do I see at that table. The first person is Juan Mari Arzak, along with Ferran and Albert Adria, the Roca brothers, on each side of the table were the most well regarded chefs in the world as well as people from the Basque Culinary foundation. I was in a state of shock because I thought I was just going over to say hello to some Italians companions of Carlo never imagining who I would see. Just that morning while at lunch at another restaurant I had seen another gentleman and asked my wife if that was who I thought it was and she said ‘Yes, that is King Juan Carlos.’ So it was an amazing day seeing the King of Spain that morning while at night I saw the kings of gastronomy.”

The Daily Meal:

Your story about that wonderful day and seeing the camaraderie between these people from the industry brings to mind the question: Are we missing this spirit in our food culture in the United States?

No we don’t see that here, though sometimes it’s evident in small clichés but for the most part everyone is just doing their thing. Everyone is too busy and I don’t want to say that they are looking out for themselves, their businesses and families but I agree that it would be nice to see that spirit and awaken it.

Is our food culture more competitive stateside and more about money making than about the art and the craft?

I think part of this comes from the real estate component of our industry for example in cities like New York rents are going up exponentially. There are also other pockets in the country where this is occurring, maybe not to the extent in places such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago but still occurring. There are however some interesting food communities all over the country. I recently visited Nashville, Charleston, Portland and Maine where they are not uber competitive like in the big cities.

When I travel to places like Italy I see a lot of chefs who own their places and don’t need to turn over tables many times during the course of an evening. They don’t need to do a 120 or so covers every night to cover their expenses while others have no choice. I had a conversation recently at a farming conference about restaurants that are passed on in families The top five organic farmers/ chefs discussed why they couldn’t go on farming the land as none of their children wanted to carry on the family farm but wanted to be in tech or medicine etc. In the restaurant business it a similar story while in Europe it a more natural, human story of restaurants being passed down in families, in the US there is that constant pressure.

San Francisco has become an extremely hard city to run a restaurant and a lot of people want to come here but when they experience the cost of doing business here they realize it’s hard just like in LA and other parts of California. I have been here for 29 years and I have adapted to it but like anything else in life you have to make adjustments. There is a lot more pressure these days right from the beginning as earlier there were only magazines or newspaper reviews that gave the ability to work out some kinks when you just opened like we did cross town at the original location. We spent ten thousand dollars on that kitchen since that was all the money I had. Fourteen years later things are so different and we were able to get to a different level and the cooking and some of the clientele has changed over the years. At this stage we didn’t have that pressure from day one to take off from the moment you open the doors. Nowadays when you open a new place the younger chefs face immediate pressure since there are people blogging or taking pictures right away. I am glad I didn’t come from that generation where it’s kind of scary since everything is out there in the open. You don’t really have the time to work through issues that were unexpected.

dsc02638You are a veteran in the business with two extremely successful operations, so what is your take on the impact of social media on the restaurant industry?

You just have to be open to it all just like when cameras first became prevalent in dining rooms. It was the tripods, then recordings and so on. So you can’t really shy away from it but just go on and do your thing and take it with a grain of salt. These days everyone has a device of some sort and anything can be posted whether it’s true or not and we all have to deal with it. I understand why some restaurants don’t want you to take pictures. However I feel at a certain point it’s all about ensuring that the guests are happy, that you are happy with the job you and your staff are doing and that is enough for me. I used to get worked up about stuff earlier when someone would bring out a tripod and would annoy the guests next to them but these days the phones are more unobtrusive and quick and I don’t think any more about them.

I admit when I travel I take pictures too because I like to remember something or show them to friends. Twenty years ago I could remember what I ate at a restaurant if it was that good and now sometimes you need a little help to remember. Also for inspiration or show the staff when you are impressed by something. It could be a bottle of wine or a restaurant I want to go back to, the architecture or design.

Why are more chefs like yourself becoming interested in having either dedicated or their own farms?

A lot of it has to do with education and as the owner of a restaurant my wife and I feel we owe it to our employees and guests to know where things are coming from. Twenty years ago it was exciting to go to a market and buy boxes of stuff, since there was a sense of immediacy those days. Then I thought if I could work with Peter our farm supplier on his farm I could encourage maybe one person from our staff here to go into farming, since this generation is falling off farming. At the end of the day we could share what we are using in the restaurant to let people know what is on the plates and what they are eating, since for me it is a sign of the quality of products. Many cooks or front of house who have gone to school didn’t get many opportunities as is the norm to go to work in farms and get that first hand education. Recently one of our field trips to the farm resulted in our creating a potato dish on the fall menu. One an earlier visit ground oyster shells were added to the soil and what they brought to potatoes in taste and strength to the soil is the inspiration behind that dish. Peter is a great teacher and we all planted potatoes and then we harvested them together to create the dish that they will never forget along with the experience. For me it is a perfect and honest story that we can tell in our food.

How helpful is it to have a spouse, like in your case your wife, or a partner in this business who is supportive in order to stay in the long run?

It’s pretty crucial and to get to where we are after starting in a 40-seater restaurant, then moving across town and opening two restaurants and getting other projects like the farm we couldn’t have done it without the support of each other. My wife was working in the industry when we met and since then we have been working together and it’s been the best way to spend time together. We both have a mutual interest in the design, the art being from an art background, art history for me while she comes from a design family and we combined our interests together in our work. Coming here is like going to someone’s house who collects art or cookbooks, cookware and we collect them here in the restaurant and also at home. For us it’s eventually all about being around the table and hospitality and we want to make our guests feel comfortable as if they are in our home.

There is a keen interest by chefs in social causes these days. Is this coming from a genuine desire to make a change?

Chefs are constantly asked to support various causes and it is tough to say no especially if I have asked a chef friend to support me then I have to be willing to support them. As long as it’s something new that I am able to learn about and educate the staff about then I am open to it. If I don’t agree with a cause then I choose not to participate. The role of a chef has changed in recent years and we have more of a platform not only to share our views about different causes but to actively participate in many different ways. As a chef I think we now have a greater social responsibility but when you are a young chef you end up agreeing to be part of more events. As you get older and more comfortable in your own skin you narrow your focus and choose where you want to devote your time and resources. Then your efforts are not diluted and you are able to make an impact in one cause. That is what we have done with the farm since its agricultural land and has been deeded by Peter, our farmer partner and his family so it will always remain farmland. It’s something we believe in and so have supported it.

dsc02649Is educating diners about ingredients, sourcing responsibly, and sustainability also part of a chef’s job these days? If so, how much information should be shared?

I feel you should give them as much as they ask for without being preachy. We invite everyone into the kitchen and so they get an opportunity to see what we do. If they ask for information about following our example in their own kitchen, or have questions about equipment like Pacojets, combo ovens or products, we are glad to share it with them. It’s the same when I am at the table talking to guests and if someone is engaging me I can go on all night about what they are interested in. It could be where things come from, though it’s become standard to share this information on menus.

I like the element of surprise in food when your palate tells you that there is something interesting. In that case guests might have questions about where the plate came from, where the product came from or how the dish was developed. I find that majority of guests are genuinely curious about everything from the art work, our collection of large format photography which is probably the largest in any restaurant in the world and incites a lot of interest. It is part of my personal collection and some from galleries in San Francisco so that makes it interesting for our guests to have these visual clues around. A lot of it comes from my own background of art history. You also have to respect the ones who don’t want information but just have a relaxing experience.

dsc02656You mentioned your visits to Italy and to Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. Is modern Italian cuisine becoming more the norm now?

There was a time when you wouldn’t see a lot of interaction between the regions except if say the father of the family was Piedmontese while the mother was from Napoli etc. Now you can see both tradition and innovation on menus in Italy. You can see traditional shaped tortellini along with tortellini in a capsule form which is really fascinating.

How important are the lists and Michelin awards personally to you as a chef, and are they entirely good for business?

There is some part of me that realizes that being part of a group like this is important. At the end of the day I am more concerned about what the guests experience is at my restaurant over anything else. It is a conflicting reaction and I would be lying if I said it’s not important. The third star is what everyone wants to achieve. This is what pushes people to excel.

dsc02665Is the stress of maintaining the stars or the spot on the Best Of lists worth it?

Well there is already enough stress in this job to begin with so I say bring on a little bit more. It is always stressful and I have been through a lot during my time in the industry. I remember that I didn’t get to travel a lot in the early years of having my own restaurant and spent all my time in the small kitchen at the old location. Over the years I have evolved and learned to accept this stress. I visit plenty of restaurants around the world that don’t have these accolades yet are wonderful experiences. It’s great when that passion and commitment gets recognized and rewarded as it’s well deserved in the case of restaurants like Extebarri in a remote village in Spain, where even our taxi driver got lost getting us there. This is especially true when they don’t have the resources to get recognition or press while some which are not such great experiences yet are on those lists.

 

Travel Tales from Spain, France, Italy and More

With Albert Adria

With Albert Adria

I have figured out that the best way to deal with jet lag is go for overlapping jet lag. Quite accustomed to this routine now, I set off for Barcelona a few weeks ago to visit friends and engage in wonderful conversations and enjoy spectacular meals. A trip to El Celler de Can Roca, Girona to meet with Joan Roca for an interview, and an amazing dining experience was first on the agenda, next an evening catching up with Albert Adria at Tickets and hearing all about the plans for his soon to open Enigma. The next day before tasting some of the dishes to be introduced at Enigma Albert Adria took me on a personal tour of the premises still under construction which I had so far only seen on Skype and it’s going to be another original concept. A late night dinner at Angel Leon’s (aka Chef Del Mar) BistroEau at the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona reminded me of his six hands dinner at Azurmendi with Eneko Atxa and Jordi Roca a couple of years ago. That seaweed risotto and the lacy chickpea tortilla with tiny Andalusian prawns were just as good this time around.

I am a huge fan of Carme Ruscalleda and always visit her at her three Michelin starred Sant Pau restaurant but we met in Barcelona at her restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental first for another conversation to be published soon. A visit to her restaurant with its scenic views of the sea is like a mini vacation within a vacation in Barcelona but this time I also had the opportunity to take a food trip around the world at her restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental. At MOments, the two Michelin star restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental with her son Raul Balam Ruscalleda, at the helm and with a playful passport in hand it was a veritable dining experience from Paris to Tokyo, Milan, New York, Jakarta, Marakkesh, Bodrum and more  with an unbelievably authentic taste and flavor in each bite. I have become a huge fan of this young thirty two year old chef and can predict great things for him ahead. We had a most enlightening conversation to come up soon and I actually can’t wait to go back to see what he does next.

The Mandarin Oriental is a peaceful oasis in the bustling city of Barcelona with friendly service and a spa that is out of this world. For a fan of Gaudi’s architecture, it’s ideally located across from Casa Batllo and when a room with a balcony overlooking the garden oasis and Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio’s daytime Mimosa Garden was not enough the pool side roof top Terrat restaurant also by Acurio was my go to spot. The nighttime views of the city’s skyline, cocktail in hand are one of my favorite memories from this visit.

Waking up at an ungodly hour in order to catch an early flight to one of my favorite places in the whole world, San Sebastián was worth it. One of my favorite hotels, the Maria Cristina, is one of the last truly elegant hotels with old world charm and a staff who over the years have become like old friends. I cannot imagine staying anywhere else since for me it is the heart of San Sebastián. The first day began with a visit to Elena and Juan Mari Arzak and another beautiful meal cooked by Elena herself. The Arzak kitchens were a hot bed of activity since Anthony Bourdain and his crew were shooting a show for a couple of days and the next day I met Bourdain after they had wrapped up and he was leaving for the next location.

El Celler de Can Roca

El Celler de Can Roca

I love visiting Mugaritz in the day time and this time around I had a peaceful conversation with Andoni Aduriz before a sensational lunch where many known faces had popped in to visit their friend such as Brazilian chef Alex Atala. The San Sebastián Gastronomika was to open the next morning so the town was overflowing with big name chefs, especially the hotel where at breakfast you could run into chef Narisawa, Gaston Acurio or Carme Ruscalleda. An interview with Chef Narisawa conveniently in the sun lit lounge of the hotel was a welcome interlude from the congress at the Kursal literally across the river from the hotel. The opening night gala for the Gastronomika at Museo San Telmo was jam packed and most people escaped to pinxto bars for gin and tonics hanging out with friends till the wee hours of the morning.

The San Sebastián Gastronomika is always an exceptional experience where the presenters outdo each other with their demos, videos, and films and I got to taste some of the most outré dishes which as usual will show up on plates in some form or the other around the world. The featured countries were Turkey, Hungary, Singapore as well as chefs from South Africa, Australia and other parts of the world. The two Michelin-starred chef Helene Darroze was in temporary residence at the Maria Cristina with a one month long pop up restaurant. A meal at the restaurant proved beyond doubt that she was a contender in the fine dining Mecca of San Sebastián with its own formidable line up of Michelin starred establishments. Three days with some of the biggest names, old and new friends and some wonderful interviews as well as a chef dinner at the Basque Culinary Center ended pretty soon. It was time to head to France for my dear friend Mauro Colagreco’s 40th birthday celebrations. Hopping from Biarritz to Paris I finally arrived in Nice. The first night in Menton was exceptional with guest chef Sebastián Bras at Mirazur that night. It was a night to remember that never ended going instead onto the birthday celebrations in Italy the next day. It was a wonderful celebration for Mauro with his parents, siblings, close friends, rivers of Billecart-Salmon and great food and music. A lovely trip to Italy for some divine food and spectacular vistas from the wine country overlooking the Mediterranean and an absolute must visit to Ventimiglia market and then it was time to go home.

Many, many conversations to be posted soon after I return from Chile and Peru, where I am headed next. The Grand Gelinaz Chef Shuffle at Rodolfo Guzman’s Borago is going to be fun but I am super excited to finally experience his own cuisine as w

Chef Gaston Acurio, Lima, Peru: It’s Time To Focus on Peru

Gaston Acurio is an interesting conversationalist and I always discover a new aspect of his persona every time we meet. He is a public figure no doubt as I have seen at congresses, food events including a crazy Gelinaz tribute to him or 50 Best Restaurant awards and more recently in Spain at San Sebastián Gastronomika. Definitely not an attention seeker and usually somewhat reticent, I saw him beaming with joy when his wife received the best Pastry Chef of the year award at Latin America’s 50 Best restaurants in Mexico City last year.

I have also seen him overcome with emotion once in Lima when I congratulated him on his menu that told the story of an Italian immigrants journey to Lima and back. “You got it” he said, and as an immigrant myself I told him that it was easy to relate to. There was an instance when at a press conference at Mistura I asked why there were not more female presenters on stage to the consternation of the audience, mostly local press and journalists and the somewhat surprised Acurio said that it was an oversight and they would work to correct it. We have an easy camaraderie since and I admire him for having followed his heart to take on challenging projects to improve the lot of his countrymen. His peers look up to him and when we met earlier this year in Los Angeles he was all praise for his former chef Diego Munoz who had left Astrid y Gaston earlier in the year to pursue other interests and asked if I had visited his restaurant in Miami yet.  A few years ago when one of his former chefs (Virgilio Martinez) and now biggest competitor’s restaurant (Central) was shut down due to zoning regulations Gaston joined the petition to reopen it. The restaurant went on to edge his own from the top of the World’s 50 Best list for Latin America two years later but Acurio is genuinely proud of his protégés accomplishment and was seen dancing at his wedding a few years ago.

An unedited version of our conversation (a part of it was published in The Daily Meal) is posted below:

Gaston Acurio: Peruvian Food Revolution for Peruvians

by Geeta Bansal

The charisma of this 48 year old Peruvian chef who has led the charge to popularize Peruvian cuisine is evident from his rock star status in his homeland. Probably one of the first chefs to earn such mass adulation he handles it with admirable humility, responsibility and sometimes emotion. Over the years the celebrity chef, author, restauranteur, TV personality and speaker at international food events has become a familiar face around the world for propelling Peruvian cuisine as the vanguard of international gastronomy. Acurio’s food based initiatives for his countrymen have made him one of the most liked public figures in the country as evident by the crowds that tail him at food events like Mistura one of Latin America’s largest annual food events.  There was even conjecture that he would contest for the premier post in Peru but when asked about it in our conversation he put that rumor to rest once for all.

Born in a wealthy family in Lima his life was pre charted for him and he was sent off to study law in Madrid but the chef in him rebelled and off he went to France to learn the culinary arts against his family’s wishes. While in Europe he met Astrid Gutche his wife, a pastry chef with whom he opened his eponymous restaurant in Lima in 1994 originally as a French restaurant that has since morphed into a temple of haute Peruvian cuisine. Astrid y Gaston restaurant in 2016 is placed at #7 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants List and 30 in the World’s 50 Best restaurants list released annually by the Restaurant Magazine.

Recently he was honored with a tribute at the San Sebastián Gastronomika congress in Spain, one of many accolades he has earned since opened the doors to his Astrid y Gaston restaurant in Lima 22 years ago. The restaurant relocated from its old location in Miraflores into spacious new quarters at Casa Moreyra a stately old hacienda in the San Isidro neighborhood in 2014. Acurio currently has 33 restaurants spanning several continents and 12 countries. The brands now include Tanta, Panchita, La Mar Cebicheria, Los Bachiche, Chicha and Madam Tusan. Manko-Paris his first Parisian venture opened its doors in the city of lights realizing what had seemed as an impossible dream when he trained at the Cordon Bleau years ago. Lately he has turned his focus inwards on his own country and people actively assisting  farmers to maintain the cornucopia of bio diversity, driving the charge to ban GMO’s in Peru, even going into the manufacture of indigenous chocolate and tackling the problem of child malnutrition in the still-developing country.

We have had numerous conversations over the years in many different parts of the world and it is apparent that his social initiatives are powered by a genuine passion and close to his heart.

Our latest exchange began with this question:

Looking back at the time when you changed the cuisine at Astrid y Gaston from French to your own Peruvian cuisine did you foresee that you will be the catalyst for all these big changes in your cuisine or country?

Of course! Though at that time it was a frustration inside of us. Why are we cooking French food? Why are we representing other cultures in our country? Why are we importing and using ingredients from abroad like frozen mushrooms from France or raspberries from somewhere, while we have so many ingredients in the Amazon. These were questions we had all the time but we were afraid of losing our customers if we changed our direction. Customers those days were looking for French food and not Peruvian food and fine dining for them was European while Peruvian was for family meals at home. We felt nobody would like our culture so tried to put some ceviches in the middle of a terrine de foie gras menu!

One day it all changed just like stories in the history of the world when certain conditions or circumstances happen at the same time changing everything. We were a generation of chefs trained in France making the same cuisine everyday while our country was developing economically. The world of cuisine was looking for diversity and they discovered Peru as the country with the most diversity. People wanted to taste what we have in Peru and it was then we decided to become a movement for this change and after a couple of years we came up with a strategy. We decided we will cook as Peruvians to put a value on our own ingredients, culture, traditions.

Then came the realization that it could be an important weapon to promote our country, our ingredients in the world especially as a tourist destination. We had fear of losing our identity, our multi-cultural society and instead of competing amongst ourselves we realized that period is over and done with. Peruvian since has become an international brand and there are Peruvian restaurants opened by Peruvians and others around the world that have become our embassies and now there are four/five Peruvian restaurants opening somewhere in the world every day. We need to now put a value on our ingredients like quinoa, avocado, limes, etc. which are in demand all over the world. Lima has become a food tourism destination but we are in the middle of a new period now. We have done the job internationally now we need to look inside our house.

Now we have to figure out how to take this amazing food to every single family in Peru. We need to take these recipes, ingredients to remote territories inside our country. 40% of the kids are malnourished so we have to use the power of Peruvian cuisine for them, for the protection of the farmers in the Amazon whose livelihood is endangered by illegal activities like mining, lumbering etc. We need to start working now simply to bring all the happiness that Peruvian food can provide to Peruvians themselves now. We need to concentrate on this effort for the next ten years so our farmers are well paid, improve infrastructure be able to provide these amazing ingredients at a price that every family can afford.

The ceviche that is the topic of conversation everywhere in the world could be a treasure that every family can afford once a week. It is not only for those with the budget so we need to build a more democratic and better economy in our own country and I think if we concentrate as we did internationally we can do this.

Do you predict that more changes are coming in Peruvian gastronomy within the country in the next five years?

Yes, I hope I am going to convince the newly elected government that we really do have an opportunity without major investment to create the proper chains of nourishment and production in everything, from the farm, to the ocean to the table. If the government believes in this, then four million kids in public schools could have menus picked by their mothers with ingredients bought locally from local farmers instead of from large companies. It’s not an easy task because the diversity in our country gives the opportunity to do 2000 different menus every day since the products differ everywhere. These big endeavors are not easy but are doable.

We also want the kids to be involved in cooking and want the government to understand that they have a huge weapon in cooking because it touches every life since we all eat, cook and consume food. It is an opportunity to solve many of the problems in our country. Internationally we have a new generation of chefs that are getting involved and should focus on these issues in the coming years. In my case I need to focus on my country now.

There is conjecture about your entering the political arena. Any truth in that?

No, not at all. That would be the wrong way to do this. It is more important to do things that give us more power to convince politicians to see our point of view. It is important to follow our own beliefs and do things the right way for our country. This is not the job of chefs but of the politicians.

Chefs have so many roles now. Is social activism also a part of their job?

Yes but always through food. Chefs are related to these diverse fields and issues but only through food. They communicate through food for example ceviche represents a lot of elements. It’s not just a delicious dish but much more. It’s the work of the fisherman who worked all night for that fish, and instead of asking him to charge less you can pay more so he can continue to fish. Maybe you can put his name on the menu next to the fish he brought in for your ceviche and give him pride in his work. The same would apply for the chili and lime producers since they all contribute to make the ceviche dish. It’s a cultural thing, a way by which we Peruvians can provoke the world to love us, make our country part of their dreams while giving it more value. This also gives recognition to the other products that come from Peru. As a chef you have a choice to just cook but I feel then you are missing the opportunity to do much more.

img_6226The most amazing thing about Peru is how different cultures coexist and mesh into each other. What makes this beautiful assimilation of people possible?

Now that I am actively back in my kitchen in Lima for the first menu the we designed  a bed, not a beautiful one but an ugly one because when you come to Lima you see a family where the mother is from China, the father from Africa, whose own family might be from Italy or the Arab world. Sometimes a mother is Arab and father Eurasian, or of Incan descent like my wife is from Germany and my father is from Machu Pichu. How did this happen? How people fall in love with someone so different? There are families where grandparents are from Japan, or from Italy and of course they were afraid when their children fell in love, maybe they hid it initially fearing acceptance. I designed a bed for the menu where there are Italian, Arab elements and others like a celebration of love with five different cultural contributions. It’s like my own life from Inca, German heritage or my chefs from Italy, northern Peru all represented in our Peruvian celebration of love. Peru is a true melting pot and is proof that we don’t have to be afraid of our differences. It’s proof that when we are bound together we can do bigger and lovely things instead of war. That is why in Peru you won’t find neighborhoods like little Africa or little Italy. For example my attorney is from Canton but his last name is Perez from the Andes while a friend’s first name is Mufarish from Lebanon and his last name is Vertego, Italian. As you know all of us are like that and once a week at home we will eat chifa or Chinese fried rice, or a Peruvian spaghetti al pesto the next because that is Peruvian home cooking. We are an example of co-existence.

What is the story behind your chocolate manufacturing venture?

The main idea behind this operation is to bring forth the story from the past into the present. Countries that produces cacao or grow cacao are poor while every country that produces chocolate the final product from cacao is wealthy or rich. Why that happened in the case of cacao beans is because our farmers and cacao growers were not being paid a fair price for their products. That is why when you go to the Andes and Amazon and you discover cacao beans you also see the poor economic condition of the cacao farmers.

Compare that to chocolate manufacturing, which is a flourishing industry. This picture is totally unfair so we created this company to change that picture and to change the lives of cacao bean farmers. We travel to the remote areas in the jungle or hours by boat on the Amazon River to get to the farmers in order to help them not only to recover the beans but to learn the next few steps in the process. We help them learn to make cacao bean paste which has more value, to do the fermentation and other processes themselves. I hope this is going to change the market and if we buy this amazing product by paying fair price, making amazing chocolate we will provoke other companies from Switzerland, France etc. to buy this product by paying even more than what we are paying which will be great for me since it means that I have done my job. By using this great product I am provoking others into needing that chocolate themselves and instead of paying $2 to pay $12 instead to the producers. It’s a very emotional job that we are doing.

img_6124The stories on your plates and your social endeavors are very reflective of the emotional part of your personality. So are you a very emotional person?

Cooking is about emotions and not about competition, marketing, being recognized on TV, or gracing magazine covers. Cooking is about sharing, the love of a mother for her children, feeding them the best she can, it’s about celebration, learning to love other cultures. It’s when you go to visit a friend from another culture and discover new tastes. I remember when I was eight years old I met a Korean friend on the street near my house and he brought me to his home where everybody was dressed in the same outfit. It was all very strange for me and I had lunch there and discovered kimchi and Mandu a Korean dumpling. It was a couple of years later that I discovered that the house I had visited was actually the North Korean embassy!

At present the world of gastronomy is more about competitiveness and ego is at play. You have achieved so much in your work and life at a fairly young age. How do you stay humble and mindful of your place in the world?

I am 48 years old and have been cooking professionally for twenty five years or more. I remember when I was twenty years old and had trained to be a chef I went out with a girl on a date. At the end of the meal she told me that she would never go out with me again and when I asked why she said that the whole night you tried to show off how much you know about food and cooking. She said I was critical of the food and the service all night and right there I learnt an important lesson. Up until then  I thought that I knew everything about food and could teach others because I had trained in Europe. For me it was that one day when life incidentally explains or reveals to you what is your true role in this world as a chef, and especially a Peruvian chef in my own country.

It’s about looking in the mirror every day and not paying attention to the vanity and ego which we all have inside but looking at what you can achieve further. Sometimes that ego and vanity comes from fear, you are afraid to lose what you have achieved and sometimes it’s a way to defend yourself. You need to put this vanity and ego to sleep every day because it’s the worst thing for you and cooking delicious food.

img_6122Are young chefs delving into the history of cuisine and understanding the foundations laid by others who went before them?

Yes though you will find some confused chefs there are some wonderful young chefs around who are doing amazing work. Chefs of my generation learned all the history on our journey but when we trained nobody talked about sustainability, social responsibility, even nutrition. It was all flavor, technique, customer service, professionalism, precision and that was it. The young generation of chefs has all these values inside of them and I am sure that they are going to do many more important things in life through food than we have been trying to do till now.

This is very important because right now we have three big issues in the world hunger, sustainability and peace. In those three areas food could do a lot. Imagine if every single family in the world starts cooking the right way, meaning following the seasons, not throwing anything away, buying mainly local ingredients and celebrating cultures. If you learn to love other cultures and what they are and professional chefs start working this way they can convince families around the world to change lives by cooking. Its small things like not looking for the perfect apple but looking for small, shy apple that can also provide the same balance in your diet. Eat meat only once a week and more vegetables on others to prove that the GMO way is not the only way to provide food for everyone. If we cook in the right way it will benefit the farmer, the environment, health, local economy while changing the world of intolerance by building a world of tolerance. I am very optimistic about what young chefs will do regarding these issues in the future.

img_6118So you stand behind the concept of food with a social conscience?

For food lovers the good news is that there will be more delicious food. It’s not about political movements or protests on the street it’s about change through your food, finding deep flavors that express this new way of looking at beauty. Food is emotional and cultural and by trying to build this new food environment we can change what customers experience in restaurants. It has to be more than Oh! This is delicious!

The market is much better for this change now since earlier it was vertical. It was all fine dining restaurants that very few people could afford these and then there was street food, regional food etc. Now it’s horizontal and you can have a fine dining experience for $20 in a small place by a chef who didn’t have the budget for a fine dining restaurant but is doing amazing food. This is all possible because millions of customers are connected to information about this food. This is another reason why it’s impossible to go to all restaurants in any city because there are so many great options at every price point. The market has adapted to consumers and food lovers, not only for the wealthy but for everyone and that is a great thing.

You held back GMO’s for ten years in 2011 and are you working towards what will happen when that period expires?

The other day I was traveling with some farmers who are exporting products from Peru around the world. One of them told me that in the beginning he was very angry with me because he thought I was hampering the higher production capabilities possible by using such technologies but now after five years he finally understood it. He was now selling Peruvian blue corn and plantains all over the world and every buyer has now asked for a certificate stating that it is free of GMO’s. This is what the market is asking now and our country is in an advantageous position because this country is free of GMO’s.

This is not an environmental issue, but an economical issue which is a matter of pride in our diverse country with so many products. We are ahead in this aspect in our country since the worldwide market is looking for these products while at the same time we can feed our people while staying away from soy GMO, yellow corn GMO, wheats that were planted in the fields everywhere. It was the pressure exerted by big companies that was responsible and not because they didn’t want to plant purple corn or because of the environment. The big companies needed a lot of land because they couldn’t have big profits otherwise. As a commodity it is a cheap thing but the good thing is that there is no demand in the market for such products.

Now we have a better and argument as a political policy of state in Peru to defend our position of not allowing GMO crops on our lands. Two years ago was a difficult phase because big companies were pressuring the government and the congress. During recent elections when we explained this to the candidates they immediately understood. We informed them that every single product exported from Peru needs a GMO free certificate and it simply means that this is the market now. At the beginning everyone said as a country we will lose a lot of money if we don’t export soy, yellow corn etc. but now we can prove that in the balance it is much, much more profitable for our country to be GMO free.

You had multiple international operations already so why another in Paris?

Sometimes in life you need to have a dream, for example your dream for your own restaurant as a young chef. The most import thing to understand is when is it the right moment to do that else you will just become a statistic of the pioneers and close whereas two years later the same idea can be very successful. On the other hand maybe it’s too late and you missed the opportunity. We arrived at Avenue Montaigne in Paris, a most prized location and most expensive at the right moment. Parisians are open to value a foreign culture with generosity and that is what happened.

Did this dream emerge when you were training at the Cordon Bleu many years ago?

(Laughing) In those days I didn’t even dare to walk on that avenue because in thought I might get charged with something. It was so expensive and I was just a student scared of being caught by the police who might think I was there to steal something. At that time it was not the luxury environment for a young Peruvian to be in.

For me to put the name of the first Inca, Manku not Gucci, Armani or Prada that abound on that avenue was an amazing moment. I used to think what would happen if an Inca family had won the war instead of losing it and what would the world be like. They owned all the gold in the world and now they could have been the owners of Avenue Montaigne!

You have this huge empire of restaurants around the world. What are the challenges of taking Peruvian cuisine overseas in terms of ingredients, maintaining authenticity, etc.?

It more simple than you would think because you need five ingredients for a foreign culture restaurant anywhere and keep the authenticity of flavor. For Japanese it may be wasabi, soy sauce, seaweed, mirin, katsuobushi and local fish and produce. The same applies to Chinese, Italian and also Peruvian. You need aji Amarillo, rocoto etc. The second principle is that you need to respect the authenticity of Peruvian cuisine. When people experience it they don’t want reinterpretation and they don’t want you to adapt the flavor to the local community but keep it original. You can not bring local traditions that will be unacceptable culturally like us serving the guinea pig (cuy) in Paris where it is a popular pet. And how we manage to run so many in different cities is by giving young chefs the chance to run them. We keep the main idea of there being only one owner of all the restaurants. We are not opening chains but embassies to promote our country. These embassies must have a local ambassador not just a name behind them.

How do you pick people for these jobs?

For example when Diego Munoz was working with me I didn’t need to say anything to him as he did a great job on his own. He knew not only what to do in the kitchen but what do do with farmers, with the team or even on TV. We just need to keep training young chefs preparing them to lead. Of course some of them will use my name more than others or email me constantly or ask me to support them with any problems or issues.

I hire people with a good heart and not just ambitious or well trained. If they have a good heart they will understand the need to make a local community with local farmers. The first thing I tell them is when they get there even a hotel like Mandarin Oriental is to invite all the other Peruvian restaurateurs in town to make them understand you are coming there to support them not compete.

What do you appreciate most about your new location in Lima since it’s been over a year since you moved?

I don’t care for possessions, they bother me so when I do a job I love the idea of designing it, making it work but when it complete for me it’s over. I need to move onto to the next thing. The new house has all the bells and whistles that any chef could dream of, with young chefs in the kitchen who are dreaming to be Rene Redzepi or Virgilio Martinez and me telling them to abandon that dream and just cook for love, for people, the farmers the kids. I tell them you don’t need to prove to anyone that you are good, the best only make the people who eat your food happy.

You have school kids visit the gardens once a week and eat lunch and how is that going?
They have a great time and they are curious and happy. We invite them to help them to understand the relation with farming, cooking to improve the structure of their lives in the future. My dream is that this could happen in every single public school with kids going to one of the thousands of great restaurants we have in Peru.