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How High-Profile Food Events Impact Lesser-Known Chefs

Why Gelinaz!’s 2015 "chef shuffle" might represent a shift in its philosophy — from chef performance art to a more collaborative model of inquiry.

When Claude Bosi arrived in San Francisco earlier this month, he headed directly to Dominique Crenn's apartment. Bosi, who is the chef of Hibiscus in London, had never met the chef of Atelier Crenn, though both are French expatriates with two Michelin stars. Meanwhile, Mugaritz chef Andoni Luis Aduriz was preparing to cook at Coi and settling into chef Daniel Patterson's Oakland home with Patterson's wife and kids. At the southern edge of the Bay Area, Australian chef Jock Zonfrillo had just eaten dinner at Manresa and struggled to sleep with David Kinch's cat meowing outside his bedroom door.

Earlier this month, 37 chefs had agreed to trade places as part of a "chef shuffle" organized by Gelinaz!, a loose collective of international culinary superstars. The rules of the shuffle were simple: Each chef would travel alone, with no ingredients, recipes, or staff; each chef would live in another chef's home while soaking up local inspiration and preparing a dinner at which his (or in a few cases her) identity would be revealed. To ease the culture shock, each chef would be assigned a local journalist who would serve as an "ambassador" responsible for helping the visitor navigate the new environment. (I was Bosi's ambassador to Atelier Crenn.)

The chef shuffle represents both the culmination of the international chef conference and a reaction against it.

Since its formation in 2013, Gelinaz! has raised questions and eyebrows. At its first event, which featured topless female servers and 25 chefs "remixing" a 19th-century recipe, all but one of the chefs were male. A quarter of the 28 chefs who converged on WD~50 last year for a Gelinaz! surprise party were women, but the 2015 chef shuffle was 92 percent male. Asked about the gender imbalance, Gelinaz! organizers Andrea Petrini and Alexandra Swenden told Eater that "we don't want to feel socially pressured about this question," noting that "the chefs that are part of Gelinaz! are part of it because they all share a same culinary language, a way of seeing things, an essential human spirit. It's not a competition, it's not a festival, it's a family place. And you don't choose your friends and family by their gender at first."

Such descriptions make the chef shuffle sound like yet-another highly exclusive in-group bonding exercise for top-tier chefs. But the event may actually signal a substantial shift in the Gelinaz! philosophy, from chef-centric performance art to a more collaborative model of inquiry. Given the shuffle's structure, the participating chefs spent more time with the chefs de cuisine, line cooks, and pastry chefs at their host restaurants than they did with one another. As Atelier Crenn's chef de cuisine, Rodney Wages, said afterward, the shuffle differed from other high-profile events because "it's not really chefs hanging out with each other; it's chefs hanging out with the other kitchen. It's a little more personal."

In this sense, the Gelinaz! chef shuffle represents both the culmination of the international chef conference trend and a reaction against it. While the event depends on the celebrity of its marquee participants, the experience revealed what might be the true value of high-profile special events — offering a real resource for lesser-known cooks.

According to Gelinaz! organizers Petrini and Swenden, chef Blaine Wetzel, of Washington's the Willows Inn and a member of the core group of Gelinaz! chefs, first proposed the shuffle as a way to make the group's events more inclusive. At the Gelinaz! "spiritual retreat" in Tuscany last summer, Wetzel acknowledged that he had started to feel guilty about leaving his restaurant for cooking events. "I almost didn't want to tell my friends — the people I worked with — about it because it wasn't a shared experience," he says. "And while I was doing this, they had to work extra hard. This is what I came up with, so that it was not just affecting 30 or 40 chefs and maybe 100 diners, but many more cooks and many more diners in many more regions."

At the Willows Inn, at least, Wetzel's dream seems to have been fulfilled. When he asked his staff how things went with visiting chef Daniel Patterson, Wetzel recalled, "Everybody was saying that he was a badass, that his food was really good, that he was a nice guy, good in the kitchen, a good leader. They were just so thankful to have had the opportunity to cook with Daniel Patterson." Patterson added that Willows' "staff was great," and Wetzel came to the same conclusion when he returned home. "It really made me appreciate the team that's here, because the restaurant I went to [Mirazur] was number 11 in the world," Wetzel said. "I felt like, 'Yeah, we hold our own against anybody.' It was really encouraging."

"It wasn’t a shared experience, and while I was doing this, they had to work extra hard."

Forms of collaboration between visiting chef and host staff varied across the Bay Area. At Patterson's own restaurant, Coi, the biggest challenge was the language barrier with visiting chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, who speaks practically no English. But that challenge became a source of satisfaction for Coi chef de cuisine Andrew Miller. "I really enjoyed being able to almost communicate non-verbally," Miller said. "Being a cook, you get that. You understand certain techniques and what he's trying to achieve. We had a translator most of the time, but when it was just him and I, it was non-verbal communication." Or, as Crenn told me before leaving town for the shuffle: "Language is one thing, but I think food is a language, so you can connect with people."

Aduriz had arrived with some ideas that he'd sketched on his flight from Spain, but Miller found him open to staff suggestions. In one case, Aduriz had envisioned a crab dish, but Miller explained that the local crab was not ideal at this time of year. "So I showed him some anchovies that we're getting locally and he was excited about it," he said. "I think he came with somewhat of a vision but once here, he was very open to anything that might make the meal better."

Photo: Courtesy Karen Leibowitz

And Aduriz taught Miller something about local ingredients, as well. While foraging together near Miller's home in Oakland, Aduriz collected some redwood leaves that pleasantly surprised the chef de cuisine. Aduriz also asked Coi pastry chef Nick Muncy to design a dessert that looked like "a gay flag" with maple bubbles but let him work out the details, including the flavors for the rainbow's colors. Muncy admitted that the dish called for many more ingredients than he would usually put into a dessert, but he appreciated the challenge. Aduriz's approach was "a lot more conceptual, more going for a look versus a flavor profile," Muncy said, "but together it all tasted great." Aduriz helped Muncy create the bubbles, which according to Muncy, made it "nice to learn from the guy how to do his technique."

Jock Zonfrillo, who is known for his use of native Australian ingredients at Restaurant Orana and Street in Adelaide, explored local ingredients with Manresa's chef de cuisine Mitch Lienhard and pastry chef Stephanie Prida. The two devoted their day off to accompanying Zonfrillo to Love Apple Farms in Scotts Valley, the Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley, and more. Later, Prida said she hoped the shuffle would be a recurring event and that Manresa would be involved again. "It was such a great change of pace for not only me and Mitch but our entire staff," Prida said. "I think Jock really took advantage of what the restaurant and California had to offer: everything from foraging for seaweed at 8 a.m. on Tuesday morning to changing our music playlist to his own playlist."

"It’s amazing because you get to work with different chefs, still keep your job, learn something new, and build a network."

Several cooks mentioned they hoped the shuffle would become a recurring event. The shuffle managed to "shake the cage in terms of shifting our schedules and our daily routines," said Atelier Crenn pastry chef Juan Contreras. Separately, Atelier Crenn chef de partie Lucas Daipra relished the idea of learning from different chefs while committing to one restaurant. "Sure, you can get another job at another Michelin-starred restaurant, but I like the loyalty of the job," Daipra said. "So if [the shuffle] happens once a year, it's amazing because you get to work with different chefs, still keep your job, learn something new, and build a network."

At Atelier Crenn, the staff worked not only with Bosi but also with Ian Scaramuzza, head chef of Hibiscus, who came along for the shuffle and is planning to spend a few months in San Francisco staging at Benu this winter. Throughout the week, Scaramuzza marveled at the "laid back" atmosphere in the kitchen, but Wages told me that Atelier Crenn works on "silent expectation," and remarked that all high-performing restaurants are intense. "It's the same wherever you go in a kitchen that's at that caliber — two-Michelin, three-Michelin — everyone has that common expectation."

In spite of a shared sense of purpose, however, some cultural differences did emerge: While Scaramuzza managed to squelch his instincts to yell in the kitchen, Bosi asked a member of the front of house staff if he was "fucking retarded" and later wondered aloud if that kind of comment was allowed in the States.

The close proximity of Atelier Crenn, Coi, and Manresa did allow for a bit of chef-to-chef socializing. At a dinner for the visiting chefs, Bosi and Zonfrillo engaged in a spirited debate after Zonfrillo revealed his plan to serve a locally sourced bacteria as part of his menu. Perhaps unsurprisingly, food offered the most meaningful form of interaction among the shuffle's name-brand chefs, with many presenting an improvisational menu that responded to their host restaurants. At Atelier Crenn, Bosi asked pastry chef Contreras to retool the restaurant's signature amuse of a spherical Kir Breton, only with hibiscus tea — shifting the culinary reference from Crenn's Brittany roots to Bosi's own establishment in London.

At the outset of the week, Scaramuzza compared Crenn's food with Bosi's, remarking that Crenn's food is beautiful, delicate, and highly technical, whereas "Claude's dishes hit you like a punch in the mouth." For Bosi, that means his cooking is "not bullshit; it's straight food" and that he focuses on juxtaposing a few components in surprising ways. After the shuffle, Atelier Crenn's staff said they'd learned the most from Bosi's flavor profiles. Contreras was still thinking about raspberries with tuna. Wages was impressed by the beef with watermelon. Daipra was struck by the lobster with coffee and blueberries, and the novelty of the combination made him reflective. "The people that [Bosi] is used to cooking for in England, they grew up eating different vegetables and things, and seeing a chef that's used to working with those products over there — that's why cooking interests me so much," Daipra said. "It's not just about products or recipes; it's also geography and climates. You go to another country and taste things that you would never even think about."

Wages’ staff put in a 17-hour day to prepare for Bosi’s dinner, then had to turn around and serve their regular tasting menu the next day.

Truth be told, the chef shuffle was a lot of work for cooks whose names will never appear on the Gelinaz! website. As Wages pointed out, his staff put in a 17-hour day to prepare for Bosi's dinner, then had to turn around and serve their regular tasting menu the next day. Leading up to the shuffle, Wages spent a lot of time with Bosi, steering him to the best vendors at the farmer's markets, preparing detailed notes for the cooks, consulting on everything from seafood seasonality to dishware to the organization of the line in Atelier Crenn's narrow kitchen.

In three days of preparation, Wages was hardly seen to crack a smile until 15 minutes before service, when he tasted the Wagyu beef-compressed watermelon-anchoïade dish for the first time and burst into a grin. "It is stressful," Wages said later. But "after it's done, you say, ‘Whoa, that was intense, but it was worth it.'"