Why this man wants the world's best chefs to stay in their own restaurants next week
28 Nov 2019
Andrea Petrini, perhaps the most influential food journalist in the world, is calling bullshit on the restaurant industry.
“Do you think an association that puts numbers to faces and restaurants really needs to organise talks around the world?”
Unprompted – it was, evidently, a rhetorical question – he continues: “We were not born yesterday. I mean, chefs going on stage and being obliged to share views that are very ecumenical, not confrontational, not political – how long can we keep doing this? You know that it’s fake, guests know that it’s fake, the sponsors know that it’s fake because they organise it. The food industry to me has become a big, huge [piece of] fake news.”
Petrini is one of the most influential food journalists in the world.
This anti-establishment nature led the Lyon-based Petrini – once referred to as France’s ‘culinary starmaker’ by Time magazine, and ‘the God of food’ by Vogue Italia – to create, around a decade ago, Gelinaz, an ever-evolving platform that challenges chefs, as well as diners, to step outside their comfort zones through performative and provocative food events.
Petrini describes Gelinaz as ‘the most experimental possible playground.’ “For diners, it should be challenging and fun and inspirational,” he says. “For the chef, it should be confrontational.” But these ideas go beyond the plate. “It doesn’t mean that every time the food must be extremely cutting-edge or experimental. It’s also behaviourally experimental. We don’t need just great cooks – if you are not a good human being, we don’t need you. We find good, conspiratorial human beings who accept being put into situations out of their comfort zone.”
Gelinaz’ signature Shuffle series, which has taken place twice since 2015, is a global chef swap which sees some of the biggest names in the food world perform stealth takeovers of other kitchens for one night only – in the 2016 edition, for example, Alex Atala of São Paulo fine diner D.O.M. held court at Sydney’s Momofuko Seiobo, while the year before, Mission Chinese Food’s Danny Bowien transformed Noma into a Cantonese banquet hall, complete with pink tablecloths and neons.
Vicky Cheng recently took Petrini on a tour of the Wan Chai wet markets – and cooked a fresh seafood lunch.
Being the provocateur that he is though, Petrini couldn’t just do the same thing for the next edition of Gelinaz: next Tuesday (3 December), the Gelinaz Stay In Tour will see 148 chefs from 38 countries and 72 cities – including six from Hong Kong – take part in what is arguably the world’s biggest and most ambitious dinner, all without stepping foot outside their own kitchens.
This time though, it’s the recipes that are being swapped, rather than the chefs. Some months ago, each chef submitted a ‘matrix’ of eight never-before-presented recipes or concepts. These matrixes went into a lottery, with each landing, anonymously, in a different kitchen one month ago. Each chef has prepared their own spin on their assigned matrix, creating a ‘remix’ that aligns with not only their personality, but, perhaps more pertinently, the ingredients available to them. At the end of the dinner, chefs and diners will learn concurrently whose recipes they have been experiencing, adding an extra theatrical touch to the evening.
The idea of the Stay In Tour was conceived out of practicality, while also cutting out the need for sponsors (“So we could do it our way,” Petrini says.). Almost as a bonus, this format ended up being a statement on how the restaurant ecosystem currently operates.
“Everybody’s running around doing the same pop-ups, the same four-hands dinners,” says Petrini. “And for what? To climb up the rankings. You see all around the world when chefs travel, they do the same thing, they repeat the same things – it becomes so banalised. We need to swim against the tide. Of course it’s a joke, of course it’s a provocation, this ‘Stay In’ tour. It’s not that we’re saying ‘Stay in your kitchen for life’ – you still need to travel. But here, ideas are travelling.”
With the restaurant industry talking increasingly more openly about health, there are wellbeing considerations for the chefs staying home, too: “One of the reasons we’re doing this is because we know the chefs are tired,” Petrini says. “They have been going from place to place for 10 years doing pop-ups and four-hands dinners – they are breathless.”
The chefs themselves – the Hong Kong contingent comprises Angelo Aglianó (Tosca di Angelo, The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong), David Thompson (Aaharn), Jowett Yu (Ho Lee Fook), May Chow (Happy Paradise), Vicky Cheng (VEA), and Vicky Lau (Tate Dining Room) – seem to be excited about the challenge that lies ahead. Indeed, Aglianó sees it as ‘a challenging yet fun opportunity – almost a mystical experience’.
Petrini has turned food into performance art through his Gelinaz platform.
Of course, the challenge comes in using ingredients that might be completely foreign to a chef – Aglianó’s matrix, which he suspects has come from a Mexican kitchen, includes mussel powder and mezcal, neither of which he has used in a recipe before, as well as cod throat, which is not readily available in Hong Kong. He did have one not-so-secret weapon at his disposal, however: “I sought some help from Oscar Mena, bar manager of Ozone, who is Mexican.”
For Cheng, the challenges around participation were a little more academic: “Our challenge was coming up with a considerate matrix, as our cuisine is ‘Chinese x French’ – not every ingredient we use is available around the world. But I wanted to make sure I still kept our philosophy.” On the flipside, he hopes that he can remain faithful to the matrix he has received. “We hope we can present the dishes as they are supposed to be, but with some implementations as we are in a different place, and without changing the philosophy of each dish.”
Yu, on the other hand, looks at it with a typically rock-and-roll analogy: “It’s like a band playing a cover of someone else’s songs for one night only,” the Ho Lee Fook chef says. “Being part of something like Gelinaz encourages chefs to push themselves, to try new things or even revive a technique or flavour they haven’t used in a while. When we continue to challenge each other and bring new experiences to our guests, we open dialogues not only about cuisines we already love, but about how we approach our craft.”
The Lyon-based writer challenges the world's best chefs to push their own limits.
Perhaps, though, Gelinaz speaks to something more fundamentally human. “I think being bored is one of the dangers we all live with,” says Petrini. “A chef knows the techniques, the products, even the clients. And he could do his job day after day, but it could be boring. What keeps me going is the feeling, the desire, the illusion, that somewhere, somehow, something interesting is happening or is going to happen – so maybe we should go there. So [that’s why] Gelinaz doesn’t just cook you dinner, Gelinaz is a performance. Expect the unexpected.”
The Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle Stay In Tour takes place globally on Tuesday, 3 December 2019. To read more about it, see the full line-up, and purchase tickets, see the Gelinaz website.