Can food spark debate about environmental issues such as climate change, pollution and preservation of our natural resources?
Alessandro Porcelli, founder of the avant-garde Cook It Raw movement, believes it can. In Toronto for the Canadian launch of Cook it Raw, an anthology chronicling four philosophically rooted food retreats, he speaks with uninhibited passion about the ability of food to shift our perspectives. Cook It Raw is like an elite boot camp where chefs are dropped into different cultures, teamed with local producers and asked to cook far from the safety of their own kitchens.
A kind of high-minded potluck dinner, it takes on weighty challenges. The first gathering, in Copenhagen in 2009, coincided with the United Nations conference on climate change and the chefs' task was to cook with minimum energy. It featured 11 of the world's best chefs, including Noma's René Redzepi and Momofuko's David Chang. Since then, Porcelli has organized four other events, in Lapland, Italy, Japan and Poland, tackling challenges such as cooking in the wild and foraging in the winter.
The very nature of the movement is exclusive and I wondered how I'd connect to a book that sounded like the equivalent of someone else's envy-inducing holiday album. But the ideas in the book are thought-provoking while the playfulness of the participants is refreshing. This combination is illustrated by Italian chef Massimo Bottura's use of bait fish in a beautiful yet stark course he titled Pollution, drawing attention to the loss of large fish in our polluted waters.
The Globe and Mail asked Porcelli about the importance of food as a forum for exchanging ideas.
Do you think the book can be of interest to people who may not have heard of these chefs?
The chefs are part of it, but it's not the chefs, it's the project, it's the stories. Food is a way to connect us to where we are and who we are. It could have been music, it could have been art. It just happened to be a love of food.
How do you define "raw"?
Raw is nature. Raw means unfinished, raw means savage. So I said, "Why don't we try to use raw as a way to look into the future of gastronomy." I wanted to create something unique, something that spoke about community, culture, and about exploring the world. I explore and travel all the time, I think it keeps you young and avoids stereotyping your brain and the way you think. It keeps your brain fresh.
In Copenhagen, how did you challenge the chefs to create a statement about climate change through food?
There literally was no usage of electricity. That was the constraint used to amplify the creativity. We humans are funny creatures when we have a task that is bigger than life – we're like a plant that when you put the roots in hot water, all the leaves come out. For this event, I wanted the chefs to dig down into who they are as people, and as people in a collaborative environment.
You say the chefs who participate – some of the most influential in the world – need to feel safe enough to take risks or to fail. Why?
It is important that the chefs feel healthily challenged because without challenges, without the stimulus that comes from challenge, there is no life, is there? You can't move on, you follow a path and why? Look around at what we ended up with. This is a way to plant small seeds in people's mind – get them out of the regular mindset.
Part of Cook It Raw is working closely with local producers and learning traditional techniques. What is the impact on them and the region after the event?
With the media being there, they get a lot of spotlight on that region. But more than that, you also focus on things locals take for granted. Poland pops into my mind. In this remote area of Poland [Suwalki], I did some research and could see that they have some of the greatest bread makers, distillers, cold cuts, but all the producers are sparse and separated. I like to say Cook It Raw provides a gelling effect, a kind of a catalyst. Because of this occasion, you are bringing people together. I see from the chefs that the memories that they're gathering from these experiences – it is reflected in their cuisine and it is passed on to the good people who work with them and it is passed on to the customers, so you have this kind of trickle-down effect.
Have you seen the impact of your movement on the bigger picture of food culture?
I think this is something you can maybe measure in 10 years' time, not something you can see from one day to another. You know, trends are not happening in two days. That's why I started to send tweets only from Poland [the fifth event] because I wanted to be sure about where I was going. I wanted it to brew like a beautiful coffee or a beautifully aged wine.
This interview has been condensed and edited.