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Cook It Raw: Top Chefs in Japan

food,trends,collage

Photo: Ali Kurshat Altinsoy, Erik Olsson, Adam Sachs

“Toro! toro!” the chefs are shouting. It’s the middle of the night in the middle of Japan. Location: an old and formerly serene ryokan in a sleepy coastal town somewhere south of Kanazawa. Built for a Meiji-period emperor’s visit, this wood-framed room has welcomed its share of distinguished travelers over the past century or so. Never, though, have so many of the world’s celebrated chefs padded across its tatami mats in their tabi toe-socks, a glittering constellation of Michelin-anointed stars gathered around the diminutive sushi bar, cinching their yukata robes with one hand, reaching out for fatty-tuna rolls with the other.

Fifteen chefs have descended on green, beautiful Ishikawa prefecture for a four-day, invitation-only culinary happening called Cook It Raw. The annual event—part sensitive cultural exchange and field study, part Boy’s Own adventure complete with duck-trapping expeditions and cookouts and after-hours onsen hot-spring bonding opportunities—culminates in a splashy dinner party. Dinner is a big production and it’s fun to witness these chefs working with Japanese traditions and the ingredients at hand, filtering them through their various outsider takes. René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma unshackles himself from the strictures of Nordic regionalism, going native for a night with a beautiful dessert of sake ice cream and a sauce with wild ginger and sorrel. And—hey!—here’s David Chang of the expanding Momofuku mini-empire playing expediter in the kitchen and sending out a bowl of raw buri with grate-your-own kabu turnip.

The whole thing is impressive, expertly executed, and, in the best way possible, ever-so-slightly beside the point. What is important (if you’re someone who gives thought to such peculiar concerns as the future of food) happened in the days preceding the dinner. Now heading toward its fifth edition and roaming each year from country to country, Cook It Raw is an annual, evolving experiment in What If? What if you convinced the best-in-class young chefs to step away from their stoves, flew them to some leafy, far-off place, plied them with alcohol and coffee, and encouraged them to trade ideas? Think of it as a conference without panels, a culinary festival with no cooking demos or autograph-seekers. Nothing, really, but chefs talking to other chefs. The point of assembling this international super-league of cool-dude chefs (and it is very much a dudeocracy, there having been no female chefs invited to date) is this ad hoc hanging-out time, the casual exchange of ideas within this clique of some of the most inventive and influential cooks and restaurateurs in the world.

From such unstructured interactions, so the thinking goes, the flame of creativity might be sparked—a spark that might be carried home and fanned by experimentation until it lights the way forward to a new way of thinking about food.

Sound grandiose enough? Hell, yes. With a silver-plated dish of half-baked pretension on the side. But if you like to eat, then Cook It Raw is the kind of high-minded, just-shy-of-bullshit-sounding experiment you should be happy exists. It’s like the Fresh Air Fund for working cooks.

Make a list of all the restaurants in the world you’re dying to try. Now cross off any hoary old palaces of haute cuisine, anything too formal or this-is-how-we’ve- always-done-things traditional. Skip the spots known for the pretty view and focus on where you really want to eat. Circle the places where young chefs are reinterpreting old ways, foraging in the fields, and coming up with truly personal styles of cooking. What you’ll get is a kind of Venn diagram of all that’s new and exciting in food right now. It blends many varied strains, from the elemental, back-to-nature primitivism of the Nordic purists to the just-make-it-delicious borderless eclecticism of the Momofuku style. But there’s a commonality here, a likeness of purpose across the spectrum of the current dining scene.

Mauro Colagreco, a L’Arpège-trained Argentine in the Côte d’Azur, creates vegetable-driven menus from a terraced hillside garden overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. On the other side of the Atlantic, in Charleston, South Carolina, Sean Brock is busy conjuring the antebellum culinary glory of the American South from forgotten varieties of Jimmy Red corn and heritage pigs. What connects these two, what binds together this group huddled at the sushi bar and makes them able representatives of a new breed of chef dudes, is a shared determination to move good restaurants out of the realm of the fussy, boringly tradition-bound temples of gastronomy. There’s something going on with restaurants these days: they’re getting more relaxed, celebrating not just the purity of their ingredients but also the quality of the dining experience. They’re pushing ambition, lowering the pretension. Ben Shewry, of Melbourne’s Attica, laments that fine dining has been driven for too long by luxury for luxury’s sake. “We’ve been hoodwinked, tricked, really,” he says. “All these six-million-dollar kitchens but no heart and soul there.”

“Too small to eat,” Narisawa-san says, tossing a nubbly runt of a wasabi rhizome back into the gurgling creek. Location: somewhere in a shady, damp forest near the foothills of Mount Hakusan. For non-Japanese chefs, the simple fact of wild wasabi sprouting plentifully just off the forest path is a thrilling discovery no matter the size. Yoshihiro Narisawa, a dapper, swaggeringly avant-garde Tokyo chef, digs his spade into the mud, pulls up a more impressive specimen, washes it clean in the stream. Magnus Nilsson, seasoned forager of Fäviken, a remarkable 12-seat restaurant in Sweden, nibbles the root, bites off a mouthful of its spicy leaves, and passes it around for others to try. The Brazilian chef Alex Atala of São Paulos D.O.M.—tall, chisel-chinned, and looking very much like a red-bearded 1970’s G.I. Joe action figure—jumps into the stream looking for more wasabi.

Back on the bus, we eat white-chocolate-and-wasabi Kit Kat bars, cycling through the continuum from pure to plastic in a way that seems to exemplify everything confounding and beautiful about Japan.

So what does it all add up to? What will the chefs take home from Japan other than some nice memories of a boondoggle among friends and the gift of a finely engraved knife from Narisawa-san that had sweet Ben Shewry nearly weeping with gratitude? It’s not as simple as returning to the kitchen and incorporating some Japanese techniques on your menu. What strikes me about this gathering of chefs is that each is engaged in an explicit effort to extend a community, to strengthen the ties between what Atala calls “the spirit of the brigade, a brotherhood.”

One evening, the group joins a traditional duck hunt. Sakaami ryo, as the technique is known, requires quick hands and enduring patience. The hunters, mostly older men with decades of practice, crouch on a ledge in silence as the day’s light fades and winds shift. We wait motionless beside them until, finally, a screaming, jetlike blast of air above our heads announces the ducks’ departure. The hunters hurl their handmade nets up into the darkness. The nets fall back empty. The hunters are stoic, sanguine, quite possibly vegetarian.

This whole elaborate business of not catching ducks seems a Japanese lesson of some kind, though I’m not sure about what. When I ask the chefs why they left their businesses and families behind for a feral romp in the woods of Ishikawa, the answers strike a similar note: the final dinner isn’t the point. As Daniel Patterson, of Coi, in San Francisco, says, “The process is the point.” The point, like the best kind of curious, wandering travel, is simply to get out into the world and be inspired by it.

At dinner one night Brock and Redzepi are talking corn. The Dane asks the Southerner about the variety he uses for grits. “I’ll show you on my arm,” Brock says. And he does, pulling up his sleeve to reveal an elaborate wrist-to-shoulder tattoo of his favorite vegetables and grains. For all the attention these guys get, they’re food nerds at heart. Earnest, obsessive, not terribly interested in strutting or showing off. In a world that is overloaded with celebrity chefs, these guys want to be in the kitchen, inventing, making stuff better. Unscripted, away from the cameras: chefs talking shop, bouncing around ideas that will eventually make it onto their menus.

That conversation can wait for tomorrow. For the moment we’re enjoying this ryokan, buoyed on a sea of sake. Steadied by an ocean of uni and pink-hued buri. Brock leads the move to Japanese whiskey. In addition to his belted yukata, he’s mounted a small video camera belonging to Anthony Bourdain’s TV crew onto his head, facing backward, and is laughing his ass off. Some Americans are trying to teach Redzepi how to say shrimp in a Deep South accent. “Shreeyyammps,” sings the Dane in a commendable Bayou twang, and Brock giggles infectiously. Albert Adrià is doing the wave. Ferran’s younger brother and behind-the-scenes coconspirator of the El Bulli genius, Adrià leaps up from his seat at the sushi bar. And down the row, one by one, the dream team throw their hands up, chanting “Toro! Toro!

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