Into the woods
Photography: ERIK OLSSON
"Everybody who isn't a f***ing chef get out of the f***ing kitchen!" Not the standard image of the serene Japanese kitchen, but when Cook It Raw takes over, things change. That's David Chang doing the yelling, the Momofuku chef acting as expediter for tonight's dinner while 14 of his fellows, a who's who of contemporary cooking, rock out their dishes, hustling for time with the dehydrator and trading quips in four languages as they butcher fish and clean mountain herbs. And this year that who's who for the first time includes representatives from Australia in the form of Sydney's Mark Best and Kiwi-born honorary Australian Ben Shewry.
The dinner is the culmination of a week the chefs have spent in Ishikawa prefecture on the island of Honshu. They've been dropped here by the Cook It Raw organisers for an event that's part art installation, part private food festival and part electric Kool-Aid acid-test. The first Cook It Raw, held in Copenhagen in 2009, had a clear onus, making a tasty environmental statement to tie in with the World Business Summit being held at the same time. Over the course of subsequent events in northern Italy and way, way northern Lapland, the focus of the brief has wandered. In some ways, simply agreeing to appear in Japan and cook in 2011 in the wake of the March tsunami and radiation leak returns some agency to the adventure, though it must be noted that several Cook It Raw regulars opted out. The rather lofty official line from the organisers is that "the brotherhood of the raw", "the most forward-thinking members of contemporary cooking", are here as part of a culinary think-tank, "tackling pressing global concerns and asking us to rethink the simple act of feeding ourselves".
Some of the more memorable moments of cultural exchange included the time the Spanish-speakers of the contingent broke out in a Mexican wave at the ad-hoc sushi bar set up at the Araya Totoan ryokan, in delighted response to the sushi master's inventions. And the way Virginia native Sean Brock taught René Redzepi the nuances of the patois south of the Mason-Dixon. Then there was the way the Australians managed to sneak tiny, frosty cans of Asahi into the ryokans' thermal pools - quite a feat considering towels the size of face-washers were their only attire.
So it's like food reality TV with a socially responsible twist? Yes and no. The digs are five-star, with the chefs lodging in ryokans, the traditional inns with onsen baths for which Ishikawa is famed, and though the schedule is fairly brutal, the adventures they're engaging in are all pretty civilised. Hunting for ducks in the Kaga hills, say, using nets in the traditional, sustainable manner (sustainable, presumably, because throwing nets at ducks turns out to be not nearly so effective as shooting them with guns), or visiting a fish market at Nanao on the Noto Peninsula to learn about fixed-net yellowtail fishery and ike-jime fish-spiking. The assembled cooks visited traditional salt farms and a local sake brewery with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but they turned out in force for a forage in the rain-laden hills.
Nameko fungi, glistening on rotting logs, made fine prizes, as did myoga, ginger's woodsy cousin, and edible mosses and tiny wild mukago yams. Yoshihiro Narisawa and Brazil's Alex Atala trod delicately around stream-beds plucking wild wasabi with ease, while Magnus Nilsson, who forages daily in the wilderness around Fäviken in Sweden, was in his element, filling his basket with hoba, the leaves of a magnolia much prized in Japan for cooking, and violently purple berries that he insisted aren't nearly so toxic as they might seem.
The idea that each dish of this evening's dinner is an ode to Japan inspired by the week spent in residence is undercut fairly significantly by the fact that most of the chefs' dishes were conceived well before they hit the ground, some chefs even bringing preparations with them from home. Less an ode to the country itself, perhaps, than to a long-distance phone-call idea of the country.
The Australians are among those who take the challenge at face value. The wild wasabi leaves join raw sweet local prawns with striking blue roe, raw peanuts, spring onion bulbs and chrysanthemum petals, all bathed at the table in a hot shiitake and kombu broth in Ben Shewry's Dry Your Eyes Sweetheart, a dish inspired by local produce, but dedicated to the memory of Shewry's fish supplier, a friend back in Melbourne who had died only days before. Mark Best finds inspiration from the local tradition of cooking eggs in their shells in the hot springs (onsen tamago being the ancient forerunners of the 63-degree eggs of modernist cuisine), presenting slow-cooked guinea fowl eggs with chestnut, mushroom, crisp autumnal dried brassica leaves and pine oil. He titles this Norwegian Wood, partly in reference to the Murakami novel, but mostly because he has to find a way to plate it on a two-foot-wide board of Japanese cypress.
The twist with this particular Cook It Raw, you see, is the participation of artists from the Utatsuyama Craft Workshop, a Kanazawa studio specialising in contemporary wares made using traditional techniques. Each chef was assigned an artist and had to design their food around what that artist had devised for them, with varying degrees of difficulty. Mauro Colagreco's dazzling combination of oyster and pear is all the more delicious for the ceramic island crafted by Tomomi Ishinaga, René Redzepi's sorrel- and wasabi-inflected dessert of rice crisps and sake lees that much more radiant in its exquisitely fragile nacreous glass bowl created by Shohei Yokoyama. Nilsson takes the name of his dish, No Soup Please!, a bosky arrangement of mushrooms, those purple berries and mostly foraged ingredients laid on a rock, from an email exchange with artist Nahoko Yamazaki, in which she revealed that his "plates" were going to be squares of fabric.
It's chef Narisawa, though, who most thoroughly nails the union of utility and artistry. As the dining room goes dark and falls under a hush, a line of lanterns bobs into view, borne by the chefs. Narisawa's dish is called Inori, and each of these "prayers" of buttery, citrus-tinged crab and shiitake contained in clouds of Japanese paper is lit from within by edible lamps of rapeseed oil in hollowed-out burdock roots. You can all but hear the collective "amen" under the chefs' applause as they're laid out before the assembled officials, sponsors and press.
What's the point of it all? It depends whom you ask. "A terrible beauty, that's what Cook It Raw should be," says co-organiser Andrea Petrini. The Japanese government sponsors speak of cultural exchange, but also of a show of faith from the international community after "the events of March". But ask the chefs why they've made time to fly all the way here, and the answer is consistent: they're here to get into the kitchen together and cook. Certainly Japan itself holds a unique appeal for almost every one of these culinary trailblazers. Albert Adrià calls it Disneyland for chefs, saying, "I'm here to play, and I'm here to learn."
And what of the engagement with the manifesto, the bigger questions? René Redzepi firmly believes that trends pioneered by the pointy end of the restaurant business trickle down to make a bricks-and-mortar, dollars-and-cents contribution to the rest of the world. "If chefs want something, farmers will start putting different plants into the ground, which contributes to greater agricultural diversity. The food that we cook inevitably touches more people than just the few who can afford to spend money in our restaurants."
It's in a teahouse in Kanazawa, in Kenrokuen, the "Garden of the Six Sublimities", that the whole thing gels for me. The tea master is talking about the ritual of the meeting, about how tea is just a small part of the ceremony, and about the care with which the host selects everything from the vase and flowers to the wares for the tea itself, and how each choice is freighted with meaning. It's about interactions between humans, but also between people and things, he says. "When things of beauty are drawn together they inspire each other, and create something new," he says. Like artists, chefs (at this end of the business, at least) are charged with turning beauty, an abstract notion, into concrete things and Cook It Raw, at its finest, creates an atmosphere of heightened curiosity, a sharpening of the senses that fosters this process. Now get the f*** out of the kitchen.
For more information, see cookitraw.org.