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Cook It Raw Founder Alessandro Porcelli on His New Book and Creating a Community

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Alessandro Porcelli at The NoMad Library Bar in New York City.
Alessandro Porcelli at The NoMad Library Bar in New York City.
Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater.com

It is perhaps one of the great strengths and criticisms that participation in the culinary adventure that is Cook It Raw has been limited to a handful of chefs in each iteration. Some of the best-known names in food — Albert Adria, Alex Atala, Pascal Barbot, Massimo Bottura, David Chang, and René Redzepi among them — have been in (repeat) attendance at the event that founder Alessandro Porcelli says "creates intimacy and creates strength." Of course, that's an intimacy that leaves many others on the outside looking in.

In launching the Cook It Raw book this week (pre-order on Amazon), Porcelli aims to take the intimacy of the experience and share that with a larger audience. In this interview, he talks about what Cook It Raw has meant to its participants, how he chooses which chefs to bring together, and the future of the event.

You originally organized the event out of a reaction to the chefs congresses and festivals weren't quite enough.
That's correct. I started after my long traveling experience around the world. I landed in Copenhagen in the late 90s. [René Redzepi and I] became friends and I worked for Noma for a couple years. You went to all these conferences and they were talking about food, food was the main subject. It was the reason why you went there, but you couldn't smell the food. You couldn't taste the food. You could see the food on the screen, so you might as well [have] been back home watching Top Chef on TV. But what was very interesting is what happened behind the scenes. Chefs were getting together, sharing ideas, being excited about next projects. Really connecting. That for me was wow. This is so powerful. Why this is happening only as an intimate thing? So I started to think about how I should use this energy, facilitate this. But also where the context was right. It wasn't just friends getting together.

That's when I came up with the idea for Noma of Looking North, where we wanted to present to the chefs from all over the world about what you could find in the Nordic region in terms of raw materials and ingredients. And that was a great success. I started to collaborate with Copenhagen Cooking, the largest food festival we have in Scandinavia. So my name got out there in the [Danish government, which] contacted me and said the UN climate change summit is coming up. Why don't we find a way to create a sort of event that would link environmental issues with food? I needed to come up with a very catchy concept. After months and months of thinking, I went for a nap and I woke up with the answer: Cook it Raw. It was like the epiphany. Let's use [raw] as way to interpret what the future of gastronomy might be. Raw in English has different meanings. In here, let's use it as a reflection of nature.

How did you go about deciding which chefs to ask?
We'd been going around to food conferences for the last five or six years. You see the guys and the kind of personality. I'm a basketball player. I'm very much interested in teamwork. My partner, the guy that helped me out in recruiting the chefs, Andrea Petrini, he had a great knowledge of scouting for young talent for the last 20 years. So together, we started to select the chefs who we thought matched between themselves and were very authentic in the job they were doing. And we wanted to have also a nice blend of nationalities. These were the first guys that just came to us. But still we knew it was going to be something open also to newcomers. At the end of the day in the last five events we had 25 chefs joining in. It's very interesting to see how these guys work together.

And they clicked right away, right?
In Copenhagen, it was magic. Believe me, it was magic. Everyone there says we were floating in the room. We were so inspired, I said, "Why can't this be a movement?" I don't even know why I said it. Still, why not [let] this become a way for like-minded chefs to be together? It's a funny thing. While I was in the middle of thinking about how to bring this forward, Cook it Raw, I met Emilia Terragni of Phaidon in San Sebastien. He said, why not do a book about this event? It's been a long, grueling process to come up with this book, definitely. It's been an amazing journey.

How did you approach writing it?
It was difficult. We tried so many angles. One thing we were certain of was that we had great images and great content. But how to put it together? We tried, but it wasn't flowing correctly. We weren't getting the essence. You needed to spend more time with the chefs. We didn't want to do something just chronological. We needed to give a strong insight about what we did and keep it intimate, but also make it available for a larger audience. This is what the book is about. It exactly is about keeping an intimate gathering and how to divulge that to a larger community of people interested in food.

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[Photo: Paula Forbes/Eater.com]

You can tell from reading it how much it meant to the chefs to have that opportunity to connect.
It started a whole new ballgame, basically. Before, chefs were king of their own castle, they weren't sharing anything, not even with their staffs. Great talents, but not very clever in how to be together. And the importance of chefs sharing ideas, collaborating, and being together, it released such a strong energy that this can't really describe in words, you have to be there. I think that the greatness about this book is it does give this sense of energy we experienced by being together. Creating a platform, a playground, let's call it, for chefs to come there and feel comfortable and confident, to be amongst their peers, nobody's there to judge them. Give them an opportunity to learn from different cultures. How to delve into the very fabric into a country through food, this is basically what we do. Explore the world through the lens of food. It helps them to rethink about their cuisine. And also all the customers at the restaurants, they experience as a reflection the experience the growth of a chef.

Is that why you keep the numbers limited?
Yeah. Because otherwise it will lose the intensity. The intimacy and the intensity. it would be a little bit too difficult. I always use the example of a school. When you're in a class, you're maximum 20 or 25 people. You can't have a classroom with 150 pupils. Everyone has to be feel part of it. If you expand it to a larger number, you will automatically tend to create micro-groups of people. And you don't want that, do you? I want Cook it Raw to be a unit, not several small units. We're all there together for the same idea. We're going there to discover together.

It's a process, Cook it Raw. You go to a country, you discover the land. As organizer, I go there, spend months, find out the right people, the right ingredients. Basically I create the atmosphere for them to go and be pampered by the experience.

I'd love to hear more about the research that you do going into an event.
A topic has to be interesting. Copenhagen, it was the beginning of the foraging everything, it was new, and I wanted to show [it] to all. And, of course, it was my own playground. In the beginning, it was very much linked to my work that I did for the government. After that, I wanted to create something unique. Being in the middle of winter, what can you do? The constraints of having to really dig deep in your thoughts and intuition, the way that you empathize with nature, I thought that was great. Also the aspect that struck me the most from the first event we did in Copenhagen was the social aspect. It was not just the chefs. It was us, the participants, we create altogether an atmosphere. A group feeling.

I remember just going into the country, I wanted my guests to experience this. Let's go to a country, let's see where the raw materials are growing, let's see my fishermen. That's why we went to Japan, the land of traditions. How they hunt ducks still in the old methods of 350 years ago, these guys who go at dawn with this long stick with this net. They duck down on top of a hill on top of a pond and they wait [for] exactly when the sun appears on the horizon, the ducks are flying up and they cast up these nets and just collect these ducks. For chefs to see this, to experience this, they bring home some small gems that will just enrich their experience. So this one for me was the most captivating things. Through the book, hopefully people will understand how important this is. Hopefully they will emulate this.

How do you respond to the criticism of the event in terms of the small group of chefs, sort of a clubby atmosphere?
We just said it. We want to do something that creates intimacy and creates strength. This is so simple. It doesn't work if you have 100 people there. This is very specific. I wanted to find a format where the participants bring something memorable back home. For me, it's something that will help them in their trade. The guys came back inspired. If they're inspired and they're happy and they feel that they are part of a community of like-minded chefs and people, they give strength. That is reflecting on their work with their teams and the customers that eat.

People are asking a lot of these chefs nowadays. "Okay, listen, I pay $400 for a meal, what do you give me?" They're scrutinized by you guys, by the customers that want to be happy. So if you don't create a playground, if you don't create a platform for these chefs to grow — this is exactly what Anthony Bourdain says in the book — they become trapped, they become slaves to their own signature dishes. So what Cook it Raw does is to help them get away from this slavery in a sense and give them the opportunity to think outside of the box.

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[Photo: Paula Forbes/Eater.com]

What are some new faces you'd love to see in future years?
I'd love to see a lot of beautiful people. I don't have something concrete in mind. More than chefs, I see nations. I would like to be able to embrace as many chefs as possible. This is actually what we're going to do in Canada [at the Terroir Symposium], sit down with 25 chefs and see how we can work together, how we can inspire each other. It doesn't have to necessarily be Cook it Raw. It could be just a network of like-minded people that feel that through food you can tell beautiful story, important stories for the people who come and eat at your restaurant and also for your kids. We have a lot of responsibility now toward our land, toward the customers, toward ourselves and toward the planet in general. I think food is a great way of tackling some of these issues.

So yeah there's not anybody in particular. I'm talking with a lot of people. People send me mail. I got this guy from Germany, a two Michelin star [chef], he says, "Listen, in Germany we don't really have a strong network of like-minded chefs like you put together, so how can I be part of this?" So okay, contact us. Let Cook it Raw be an open platform. I'm very much open. I don't have the right recipe. I don't even want to have it. I want to hear what's out there, how people feel nowadays. I did a small event. It's been successful because it was the right event at the right time. It was the right chefs. It was a combination of all these things. And now, okay, what is next? Let's talk about it guys.

In America, for instance, I can see you're still so young concerning the way that you organize, the way you promote yourself. It's not very structured yet. I think that would be a great conversation to hear how you want to do it. I think nowadays it's not anymore about one single figure. It's become much more democratic, the panorama of chef communities.

Have you gotten a lot of outreach from female chefs looking to be involved? I know you had one in Poland, but I couldn't help noticing there were not any in the book.
Yes. I never close doors to anybody. You know better than me it's a world where it's very stressful and it's many, many hours and there are not that many women out there, I'm afraid. We invited Ana Ros. Now I hear about a lot of great women out there doing some great work. So my antennas are 100 percent in there and, again, there's never been a closed door to anybody, "No, this will be a man's world." Not at all. We are very much open-minded. So let's hope that we can have more and more of the women's world in there. I love women.

And where are you with the next edition of Cook it Raw? Would you ever do multiple events?
We're just going to stick with an annual gathering, and after that see if we can find other things to connect with it. But it will lose the intensity. Right now we're focusing very much on the book's launch and basically evaluating all possibilities. I have many different countries that are interested. Some are more serious than others. It's a very organic process.

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