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Q&A: David Chang, Daniel Patterson, and Massimo Bottura Talk Cook It Raw and Creativity

From left: Daniel Patterson, Massimo Bottura, David Chang
From left: Daniel Patterson, Massimo Bottura, David Chang
Photo: Eater

Last night at the New York Public Library, chefs David Chang, Daniel Patterson, and Massimo Bottura came together to talk about the culinary adventure that is Cook It Raw with founder Alessandro Porcelli and journalist Lisa Abend. Held to celebrate the launch of Phaidon's Cook It Raw book, the event found the chefs reminiscing about foraging and cooking experiences of Raws past. While the memories shared ranged from moving (Bottura staying up all night to figuring out how to cook reindeer tongue) to comical (Chang being the first person at Cook It Raw to lose his temper when a fellow Raw chef burns their fish course), the discussion made it clear that Cook It Raw has succeeded in its mission to challenge some of the world's best chefs to think openly and creatively about cuisine.

Porcelli also mentioned that he is planning to spend a few months in South Carolina, and hinted that's where the next Cook It Raw will be. (There has not been an official announcement yet, and there's no information about the 2013 program on the website or the new Cook It Raw Tumblr). Porcelli mentioned that he's looking forward to spending time with chefs Sean Brock and April Bloomfield who, incidentally, are the focus of the second season of Anthony Bourdain's The Mind of a Chef. So do keep an eye out for Brock and Bloomfield to be joining the roster of chefs going fon the Raw adventure this year, possibly in South Carolina. Eater had the chance to chat with the chefs in the greenroom at the NYPL, here's what they had to say:

Cook It Raw is known for being a chef's kind of food event. What does Cook It Raw offer you that other events don't but should?
David Chang: It was the first time that you could get together and not have to just do a big demo for like a thousand people ... The first one with René Redzepi and Noma set the tone for sort of an intimacy of just cooking. Really with these other conferences, at the time, it was hard to exchange ideas and to hang out with each other. For better or worse, because there certainly can be criticisms said about [Cook It Raw], there was this bond that was born. I think that this type of atmosphere really allowed for cross-pollination of ideas.

Cook It Raw gives chefs the opportunities to encounter and work with foreign cuisines and ingredients. You've also had the experience of opening restaurants in other countries. How do you go about putting your food in the context of unfamiliar places?
DC: It's hard. [At Cook It Raw] I think there's a certain amount nervousness that you've never felt before because you look around and like, one of my heroes and maybe the greatest cook ever Albert Adrià is right there and you look to your left and Pascal Barbot is prepping mackerel and you look to your right and there's René [Redzepi] and [Yoshihiro] Narisawa and Alex Atala. It's just insane. And my goal, the first priority is to not fuck it up. You want to make something that's delicious. You want to make something that's true. People are cooking food that is personal, there's a story to tell ... Because you have this new ingredient, you're going to try to figure a way to make those ingredients personal and a way that you can tell a story that you can relate to those ingredients. No matter how foreign they may be, regardless of what they may be, they still taste like something and you can use that as the base platform to build upon different techniques and flavors.

Aside from the Cook It Raw book, you have your own book coming out soon from Phaidon. You've also written for the New York Times and Lucky Peach. How would you compare the creative process of writing a book or story to creating a dish?
Daniel Patterson: The process of creating something is very similar across disciplines. I think in particular writing and cooking are similar in that they're both crafts. So you need to put the work in to learn the functional way to turn raw ingredients into finished dishes the same way you need to put time into learning how to take words and put them into sentences and paragraphs ... I think in both cases the common thread, the underlying commonality, is the desire to say or do something true and to express something that has meaning to someone else. Because if you only want to cook for yourself you don't cook in a restaurant and if you only want to write for yourself you don't publish it. So as long as your working in a public medium, then your bedrock understanding is that you're doing it for people. So there's a sense of, there should be a sense of, generosity. A sense of caring about the people that you're cooking or writing for.

Part of the mission of Cook It Raw is to inspire creativity. Where, for you, does that creativity come from?
DP: Some people have an urge to be creative, where its a part of their DNA, their basic core. It's a compulsion, it's not a desire. It's true for me and it's true for the other guys in the group, and for writers, and artists, and musicians. I think where it comes from is very complex but I think what is true for most people who are creative is that when you do something, those rare rare moments when you do something good, it is a feeling that is so extraordinary, so earth-shattering that you'll endure endless trudging through mindless tasks and repetition and failing constantly in order to find that one moment of transcendence. And then you have it, and it is so amazing, and even though it's gone instantly, the next thing you want is to try to find it again.

You've participated in many of the major food events around the world. What do events like Cook It Raw offer you that keeps you participating?
Massimo Bottura: Actually, Cook It Raw was a totally different way to participate in a food event. It was more a way to get together. In Copenhagen [at the first Cook It Raw], we got to know each other, break the ice, and work as a team. We all felt like we were making something that went beyond just making a dinner for journalists. It was about the dinner, but it was also about the moment, letting go of our personal egos for the group. In Lapland ... we were reminded of the value of taking risks ... Each Cook It Raw forced us to put ourselves on the line to express an idea, however mad or marvelous there was no rules or judge or limits ... It's different than going on stage and explaining your idea and influence thousands of people ... But Raw was different. We built a group ... It's about finding that moment that is not full of obsession, a moment into which you can jump, a moment full of poetry. It's like a flash in the dark, you catch that flash and you do it.

Your restaurant has just moved up on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. Do you find the list to be a meaningful way to judge your restaurant's success?
MB: You know, I'm always taking all these prizes as something I have to be proud of, but I realize that they're not just for me. They're for the team, Emilia[-Romagna], Italy. I think the approach I have to this kind of award is the right approach: Keep your feet on earth, always, but your mind has to dream. You need three ingredients in your life if you are a recognized chef. You have to have humility, passion, and dreams ... Humility means live your life with your feet on earth. Dream means let your mind fly away and find the poetry in everyday life. So, in the end, it's important for you to know that people recognize you and appreciate what you do. I remember when I got my third Michelin star, it's a dream for every Italian (you know, Italy and France, we don't get along). That moment I realized I had to do something ... at that moment I decided to rebuild the whole restaurant ... It's totally different. A whole new energy was flowing in Osteria Francescana ... Those decisions can be very hard and totally wrong. But you have to follow your feeling and you have to do it. It's very important for young chefs who might not get recognized early on, maybe they have ideas that are too avant-garde. If it's a smart idea, sooner or later you will get recognized. That's my experience. It's not easy.

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