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Inside Cook It Raw 2012: Avant Garde Chefs Take Poland

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The group, fighting over crockery
The group, fighting over crockery

Today, Eater contributor and MAD Symposium director Ali Kurshat Altinsoy again reports about his experiences at Cook It Raw, the intimate annual event in which some of the world's most renowned chefs spends a week in a foreign area collaborating, learning about traditions, and exploring local ingredients (see last year's coverage). This year's edition took place in a remote area of eastern Poland with thirteen chefs, including Pascal Barbot, Mauro Colagreco, René Redzepi, Daniel Patterson, Ben Shewry, and Iñaki Aizpitarte.

[Photos: Ali Kurshat Altinsoy]

"Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish." The Italian monk St. Romauld (b.950, d.1025) composed this brief rule for his Camaldolese order. It is no wonder, then, that seven hundred years after Romauld, his followers ended up founding the eastern Polish village of Suwa?ki. This secluded area is called the "pole of cold," because it has the lowest average temperature in the whole of the country, excepting mountain resorts.

A further three centuries on, another slightly less devout "brotherhood" — that of Cook it Raw — sought out this same spot. Its organizers, the Italian Alessandro Porcelli and Andrea Petrini, wanted to take a dozen or so chefs and a dozen more cast somewhere separated and intimate, with a unique cultural identity and fertile natural landscape. And so, during the last week of August 2012, they made their ambition a reality, when thirteen of the most avant-garde, creative chefs from across the world collected in the Polish capital of Warsaw. The chefs were:

· Albert Adrià – 41°/ Tickets, Barcelona
· Iñaki Aizpitarte – le Chateuabriand, Paris
· Modest Amaro – Atelier Amaro, Warsaw
· Pascal Barbot – l'Astrance, Paris
· Claude Bosi – Hibiscus, London
· Mauro Colagreco – Mirazur, Menton
· Kobe Desramaults – In de Wulf, Dranouter
· Alexandre Gauthier – La Grenouillère, Montreuil-sur-Mer
· Magnus Nilsson – Faviken, Jarpen
· Daniel Patterson – Coi, San Francisco
· René Redzepi – Noma, Copenhagen
· Ana Roš – Hiša Franko, Kobarid
· Ben Shewry – Attica, Melbourne

Warsaw was just a stepping stone on our pilgrimage to Suwalki. The morning after our arrival from across three different continents, the entire crowd boarded the Cook it Raw big-bus-and-black-cars cavalcade for the march east. None of us expected the journey to last some seven hours — interrupted by only lunch and a pit stop at Tesco Extra. Actually, it was probably that lunch that saved us. Stopping at Nowogród – somewhere halfway on the way to nowhere — we sat down by a river to indulge in traditional Tatar fare such as very delicious pierekaczewnik, best described as a large and winding rich, savoury cake formed of several layers of thin pastry, interwoven with turkey meat.

The remainder of the road trip was uneventful save for the final few miles. Approaching Go?ciniec Jaczno — our Raw residence whilst away — our Polish driver stopped the bus and refused to go on. He was worried that if he continued along the undulating, narrow road to Jaczno that the small branches and leaves would scratch his bus. Practical people — as chefs are — several stepped out to repair the situation. René Redzepi and Daniel Patterson took it upon themselves to escort the convoy, trimming any renegade twigs that threatened our progress. We eventually reached our destination around seven that evening.

Once quickly settled, we were given Polish vodka before a homemade dinner highlighting various Polish staples — cabbage and pork — as well as a delicious tripe soup and another of fermented sourdough.

The first full day began with chefs and colleagues heading out on several excursions, exploring the beautiful scenery around Jaczno, whilst also searching out ingredients and ideas for the final dinner. Some went mushroom picking in Puszcza Rominska, others hunted wild ducks in neighbouring marshland, before all reunited for lunch at a ranch owned by Malgorzata, a lady famous for her dumplings — known as kolduny and kartacze. Here we were also formally introduced to the incoherent climate of eastern Poland: one minute fine, the next raining viciously, before turning so hot one needs to seek shade.

Back at Jaczno, the afternoon saw a beauty parade from farmers and producers take place, showing off the fruits and vegetables of the local land. This provoked a flurry of activity amongst the chefs as they sought out the ingredients that appealed most to them and started dividing up kitchen space. Albert took possession of all the cucumbers and tomatoes that he could find; Ben and Mauro jostled over who would use wild boar — the latter ceded and chose venison instead; Iñaki wanted the wild ducks. Each chef prepared a list of products he was still missing and the crowd dispersed to various points of the estate to mise en place.

Most headed to the "test kitchen" that had been set up for the chefs. Here, René began selecting and preparing the berries that had been gathered in the surrounding forests; Claude cleaned his pike and crayfish; and Alex experimented with some shellfish that he was considering using. Others' needs dictated that they set up their stations somewhere else, like Ben, who wanted to make a traditional New Zealand hungi and needed enough space to dig a large hole, fill it with hot rocks, and start a few fires.

The next day was dedicated to mise en place and worrying about whether the requested ingredients would arrive —disrupted only by random kayak rides and extended conversations.

The morning saw Ben finish digging his hole, having enlisted the help of the unsuspecting Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying; Iñaki called in the Swedish cavalry to de-feather nine stubborn ducks; whilst Alex abandoned his shellfish in favour of an un-yet chosen vegetable. The work was time-consuming, but the atmosphere in the kitchen was terrific. Everyone had arrived in good spirits and the banter — alternating between English, French, and Spanish, was hilarious. Time passed swiftly until a seafood lunch was served, prepared by a local chef, Bogusia, who had come to Jaczno just to cook for us. The afternoon saw a continuation of earlier work, before dinner at the estate of a celebrated local artist, Rafau. Upon his grounds, the Raw folks were allowed to set up a small bonfire over which we roasted Polish sausages, chicken and beef, whilst Alessandro himself prepared risotto.

The final day was the day of the big dinner. It was spent finalizing recipes, finishing off preparations, and hunting for any last-minute ingredients that were to be added to dishes. A couple of chefs had urgent worries, including Albert, who, having already decimated the cucumber and tomato reserves of Jaczno, was unsatisfied and required more of both. And there was Iñaki, who missed dinner the previous night due to the demands of his ducks and still had to stuff, string, and cook them.

Lunch proved mental respite for manual work. Tor Norretranders — a Danish author and philosopher — had also been invited to Raw and chaired a "bubble" discussion over food and drink about creativity and about collaboration. Once eating and conversation were over, there remained just a few hours until dinner — set for eight — and suspense and excitement began to grow. The chefs gathered to decide on who would use what crockery and discuss their game plan for the night. A running order was agreed upon, and the crowd dispersed again.

By 7 PM, the open kitchen adjacent to where the Raw dinner would occur was full of chefs. Only Iñaki — waiting in another building at an open fireplace where he had hung his ducks to slowly roast — was absent. Three makeshift passes had been set up, and dishes were already being plated. Fifty guests were set to arrive any minute.

The audience consisted of local dignitaries and officials, event sponsors, and residents of the area that had helped make Cook it Raw Poland possible, as well as the international set of writers that accompanied the chefs since Warsaw. The excited crowd finally sat down close to 9 PM and dinner was able to commence (this was actually the first time attending Raw that I hadn't sat down to eat, helping during service instead.) Therefore, it is difficult to comment on each dish, not having tried many of them. Therefore, I will simply include the menu ironically titled "Tonight's Specials":

· Daniel Patterson, Cold Fish
· René Redzepi, Piotr Trzopek
· Mauro Colagreco, Bambi
· Albert Adrià, Gaspacho Polakko
· Ana Rôs, The Iron Curtain
· Claude Bosi, Le Père Bise
· Kobe Desramaults, Recyclage
· Modest Amaro, Forrest Gump
· Alexandre Gauthier, Smoked Celeriac, an Heresy
· Inaki Aizpitarte, Le Canard à la Ficelle aux Saveurs Régionales
· Ben Shewry, I Don't Want to Be Buried In a Pet Cemetery
· Magnus Nilsson, Vagina Delices

The spirit was remarkable, with many guests barely able to remain in their seats, and all of them seemingly aware that they were experiencing something special. The night finished understandably late. Cook it Raw Poland certainly compared well with previous editions, with Lapland and Japan being the two most recent ones. Everyone arrived in a great mood and seemed intent on enjoying the time spent with each other. These emotions translated well during the preparation and execution of the dinner. It was also an opportunity to visit a piece of the world most of us would never have seen otherwise. We met hospitable people and tasted some unforgettable cuisine specific to that land.

—Ali Kurshat Altinsoy

· Cook it Raw [Official Site]
· All Cook It Raw Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Snapshots Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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