Have Superchefs Gotten Too Clubby?

The more these culinary titans hang out together, the less they're thinking about what people actually want to eat

  • Share
  • Read Later
Julio Moya / Cook It Raw

The Chefs at Cook it Raw 2012 in Poland.

You’ll be pleased to know that Cook It Raw was held recently. A global foraging-and-cooking event for avant-garde superchefs, this was the fifth such convocation, and was held this time around in Poland, of all places. You won’t actually ever go to Cook It Raw, or likely to any of its attendees’ restaurants, but that’s okay. They had a grand old time and furthered the boundaries of gastronomy. But the more they hang out with each other, the less they are actually cooking, or bothering about what people actually want to eat.

The rise of the World Superchef Collective is, I would suggest, not such a great thing.

(MORE: Gastrocrats Beware: Luxury Foods Aren’t Worth It)

Let’s get one qualification out of the way first: I mean no disrespect to the chefs, who are legitimately titans of their field. Why shouldn’t they get to pal around with each other at Madrid Fusion or on various Outward Bound-style foraging trips? Maybe food writers like me are just resentful because they don’t get invited.

My concern about the global World Superchef Collective is more for the diners. Cook It Raw isn’t a food festival; it’s a voyage of discovery to some exotic place that none of us will ever visit. The event, and other ones like it, is a supremely circumscribed happening, and it, like various other cheffy get-togethers, tends to have a uniting effect. But the clubbier and more insular their world becomes, and, I fear, the more they feel isolated from the actual restaurant business — which is to say, the tastes of their customers. (Here is a picture of the latest Cook It Raw gang collectively giving the world the finger.) They dance to their own tune, these superchefs, and under the spell of the great modernists — Adria, Achatz, Blumenthal, et al. — they decided that they needed to start dehydrating things with all possible speed. Now, in the wake of Redzepi and the Scandinavian foragers, they want everyone to eat marsh berries and dried lichen. I recently ate dried lichen in a New York City restaurant. It wasn’t good.

(MORE: Eat It, Or Else! The New Culture of Culinary Coercion)

Here’s another thing about global fraternization: every day these chefs spend abroad, or take part in leisurely colloquia, they are not in their kitchens. I wrote last week about the legacy of Henri Soule and other great French chefs who could be found every night in their kitchens, screaming at people. A chef is only partially a poet of the plate. He or she is also, and possibly primarily, a boss, a manager — the person with whom the buck stops and by whom the whip is wielded. Chefs may well have brilliant subordinates, but the subordinates are not the ones for whose work the public clamors, or for whom they are paying top dollar.

Then there is, to borrow a phrase from the literary critic Harold Bloom, “the anxiety of influence.” Bloom held that poets were held back from imaginative greatness by their awareness of other poets, the existence of whom poisoned their visions, making them derivative. Now, in one sense, you might find the exchange of ideas laudable, raising everyone’s skill set and keeping them from reinventing the same stuff. But the average diner in Thunder Bay or Atlantic City likely hasn’t been to the Basque countryside or rural Sweden; any borrowed idea he sees will strike him with wonder, which Samuel Johnson cynically defined as “the effect of novelty upon ignorance.”

(MORE: Talented, Young and Asian-American)

And there is a further perniciousness to these influences. They can end up contaminating the thing we currently hold most precious in our chefs: their regional cooking styles and use of local ingredients. To take one example, in recent years the genius of so-called “Lardcore” cookery, the rediscovery of southern flavors and foodways, has been a joy precisely because it was so wholly and organically itself; once the southern chefs go crazy with fish sauce, masalas, and other international superweapons, it will, I think, have lost a part of its soul.

Finally, and this may be my own bias, I can’t help but detect a certain nerdish contempt for the outside world in these Superchef gatherings, a sense of Olympian removal that is moral as well as aesthetic. Most of the chefs tend to be younger, owners of their own restaurants, with adoring audiences who dote on their every bowl of soup. Who could blame them for wanting only each other’s company?

MORE: Lichen and Reindeer: Cooking It Raw in Lapland