In his last contribution to Eater, Ali Kurshat Altinsoy brought us inside Projects Night at Noma, in Copenhagen. Now the food writer reports about last month's Cook It Raw, the intimate annual event in which a group of the world's most renowned chefs spends a week in a foreign area, collaborating, learning about traditions, and exploring local ingredients. This year's edition took place in Japan with fifteen chefs, including David Chang, René Redzepi, Sean Brock, and Albert Adrià.[Photos: Cook It Raw]
On the 13th of November, sixteen chefs – nine of them repeats from the previous year's event – and an intimate group of others (Anthony Bourdain, Jeffrey Steingarten, Adam Sachs, and Lisa Abend among them) met in the Tokyo Four Seasons ballroom for an introductory press conference.
As the press event revealed, it was actually the tradition of Oku-noto no Aenokoto that first attracted the organizers of Cook It Raw to this region. Recognized as an intangible piece of world heritage by UNESCO, this is an ancient harvest ceremony performed at the start of winter, wherein the rice farmers of Ishikawa’s Noto Peninsula invite an invisible deity into their home in order to express their gratitude for the harvest; this is a land rich in cultural and rural heritage. Taking Raw to Japan also provided the opportunity to show everyone that the country, traumatized by natural disaster earlier this year, was safe and thriving.
A Week of Discoveries — And Sake and Sashimi
The following morning we were flown north, over the Honshu Alps, from the Bay of Tokyo to the Sea of Japan, to Noto. It was a busy first day. After a quick roadside kaiseki lunch, the assembled company were given a tour of some of the area’s sights, including the Shioyasu Shikki Kobo lacquer ware workshop, a terraced rice field upon the sea comprising one thousand paddies, as well as the Okunoto salt farm village, where we saw how the noted Suzu salt is made. These last two activities were designed to show the link between land and sea, or satoumi ("the way of sea"), that continues to play a major role in Ishikawa life.
That evening we ventured into Kanazawa, a city whose name is rooted in gastronomy. It comes from the story of Togoro the potato-digger, who, whilst looking for potatoes here, uncovered flakes of gold instead; literally translated, Kanazawa means "marsh of gold." It wasn’t for roots or tubers that we came here, but for sushi. We ate snow crabs, squid, lots of buri sashimi and endless assorted nigiri late into the evening.
Tuesday began with a sake breakfast at the Kano Shuzo brewery before a foraging expedition in the Kaga forests. Scouring the hills and valleys for mountain potato, myoga, wild wasabi, and the like was an opportunity to collect fresh ingredients for the climactic dinner that would follow, and it also allowed attendees to observe how the locals seek to preserve satoyama – the division between arable land and mountain.
Wednesday started earlier. It took two hours by coach to reach the sustainable Nanao fish market. The native fishermen have created a network of nets (six hundred meters of them) that trap only a fraction (around a third) of the fish that swim into it. The chef of Hosho-zushi, where we ate on Monday night, was also there, demonstrating the Japanese technique of ike jime, a manner of killing fish in which you induce immediate brain-death with a long, thin spike; many believe it better maintains the fish's quality. His demonstration was convincing: upon returning to Tokyo, several chefs went on to scour Tsukiji Market and Kappabashi for the relevant instruments.
That morning concluded with lunch at a local soba-ya, Uesugi, before a short tour of Kanazawa, where we visited Kenroku-en – one of the three great gardens of Japan – and enjoyed traditional matcha at Shigure-tei rest house.
An early morning did not get in the way of a late night. That evening was spent in yukata dress (the customary ryokan uniform) at the Araya Inn. This refined setting, once frequented by the area’s feudal lords, was that night a spectacle of unlimited food, unlimited sake, and Mexican waves around the sushi counter, as the Raw crowd got one last chance to unwind before the next day’s big push.
The Final Day
The final day was devoted to the culminating dinner. From morning until evening, the chefs and their assistants prepared a total of fifteen dishes for some fifty guests. The entire Amandan Villa was dominated by cooks and their mises en place. The kitchen, patio, storerooms, changing rooms – every empty, flat surface — was blanketed with vegetables and fruits, knives and cutting boards, pots and pans. Sean Brock took over the grill outside, first to cook everyone lunch and then to prep his meat; Magnus Nilsson meticulously cleaned, cut, dried, fried and did many more things with wild mushrooms in the pantry; meanwhile, Ben Shewry requisitioned an office that had good air conditioning so that he could clean and shell his fresh prawns.
As the chefs labored on, we were introduced to the artists from Utatsuyama Kogei Kobo — an artisanal dojo — that had produced the crockery that the dishes would be served on. Some three months earlier, every craftsman had chosen a different material – including glass, earthenware, porcelain, paper, clay, cloth and wood – with which to work and, through discussions with a chef, they went on to create a unique plate. Each artist had to make a total of seventy-five handmade plates.
It was really at this moment that the gravitas of the event hit home. This wasn’t simply a week-long jolly to Japan, an excuse to eat some cool food — an isolated occurrence whose impact was essentially limited to those directly involved. There were consequences. Fifteen men and women had spent three months of their lives working towards this, producing something for it.?
In the run-up to dinner, the chefs drew up their battle plan, decided the running order, and dished-out duties. The kitchen wasn’t large enough for the chefs to be able to plate more than a single course at a time, so service alternated between pass, corridor, and lounge. David Chang-san expedited.
First out was Claude Bosi's "Lick The Monk!" The dish was a play on a classic Hibiscus recipe, but in this case, foie gras ice cream was replaced with monkfish liver. Next, Mauro Colagreco matched nashi pear and oyster on an eye-catching plate that he and designer Ihinaga Tomomi had clearly worked closely on together; it should make a fine addition to his restaurant Mirazur’s collection, with its brilliant hues that mirrored the azure sky and sparkling sea outside the restaurant’s windows. Daniel Patterson impressed with "Counterculture," delicate tofu with pickled vegetables and yuzu. Deceptively simple and delectable, it was followed by Alex Atala's raw, diced squid with smoky charcoal oil sitting atop a perfect cube of ice.
Perhaps the most memorable presentation was Yoshihiro Narisawa’s. To serve a lit candlewick embedded in salsify is one thing, but when that candle is daringly wrapped within a large ball of Japanese paper, it’s – putting it mildly – something else. Albert Adrià decided to surprise everyone with a savory course, "Frustrated mackerel." The conceit here was to create something that could be taken as Spanish or Japanese just as easily. Alexandre Gauthier made a dichromatic study of black and white with black radish and sea snails, and Yoji Tokuyoshi, representing Osteria Francescana in Massimo Bottura's absence, gave us "strange fruit," a multi-colored assortment of mixed fruit and vegetables coupled with colorful mochi/gnocchi.
The two Australians followed. Melbourne versus Sydney. Ben Shewry reunited raw shrimp with their deep blue roe in an excellent shitake dashi that was littered with chamomile leaves and wasabi flowers. Mark Best used Conami Aoki’s long, wooden tray to deliver a deconstruction of egg, mushroom, and seaweed that delightfully included some koji from the sake brewery we had visited two days earlier. If there was a winner, maybe it was Melbourne – but only as I had been roped into spending most of the day shelling Shewry's prawns and picking individual petals of chamomile.
"No soup, please!" was Nilsson's witty take on being given a cloth to plate on. His different preparations of mushroom with some vinegar Chantilly seemed straight out of the kaiseki drawing book. This was, arguably, the most aesthetically Japanese of all the dishes. For David Chang and Matt Rudofker (Momofuku Ssam Bar), Mayumi Miyawaki had constructed a bowl lined with deep, sharp ridges that could prove challenging to work with. But they responded very cleverly: the dish arrived with some hamachi sashimi resting on its rim, tataki hidden underneath, and a single kabu, sitting in the middle. Another smaller vessel held tasty, complex stock, to be poured only after the diner had done their part: the bowl also served as a rough and ready mortar with which to grate the turnip.
Kondo Takahiko found inspiration in a story about how sunflowers helped heal the soil after the disaster at Fukushima months before. He used Jerusalem artichoke (both plants are of the same species), transforming the tuber’s skins to resemble bark, and encasing shellfish between two pieces of it.
A delivery of disappointing ducks led to a last-minute menu change for Sean Brock, who, having to settle for pork instead, named his course "If Pigs Had Wings." René Redzepi rounded off the meal with "Saké Saké," a deliciously cheeky jeu de mots comprising milk crisps, yuzu, sake and sake ice cream, but only after a last-second crisis caused by the freezers automatically switching into a defrost cycle. ?
Collect the world’s best chefs, find them some great ingredients, and give them a few days to work. It sounds like a simple recipe for success. However, rarely with these things are the results as enjoyable or transcendent as they should be. This dinner was an exception. How often does one get the chance to spend a week somewhere like this, somewhere that they’ve never before been and likely will never return, and get to experience all of it with good friends from different corners of the world? Hardly ever. That's Raw.
—Ali Kurshat Altinsoy