inspiration: chef's table

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It’s off-peak season and we are in the midst of admin but dreaming of summer. Outside is a landscape of skeletal trees, dried grasses, a low sun. These cold winter months are sparse in comparison to the bounty of the other seasons, which make it hard, in a way. Very little is flowering yet. In the mornings I walk through the village and out into the open countryside, looking for any flower that I can find - aconite, oxlip, periwinkle, snowdrop, daffodil. Hazel branches of tasselled catkins that in a few months will be smothered with green cobnuts. There are occasional tokens of proof that spring is coming; the odd glimpse of a cloud of cherry plum blossom feels like surfacing from an icy pool to consoling sunlight. 

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I’ve written before about some of the affinities between cooking and arranging flowers. The artisanal craft and techniques, the importance of the quality and freshness of the natural ingredients used, where these ingredients are sourced, how both food and flowers share a power to stir complicated emotions within us, are sensually evocative and nostalgic. A few months ago I watched a Netflix series called Chef’s Table, that really stuck with me. Each episode is a short documentary film directed by David Gelb, focusing on a different chef. They describe their personal journey with food and the story of their careers, from the failures to the breakthroughs - how they gave up and persevered, juggled having children and the sacrifice this entailed, how they invented dishes and reinvented dishes and came up with new ways of sourcing their ingredients and new methods of cooking and how they developed their own philosophies. I love to watch people working, especially if it involves working with their hands, but what resonated with me was how each of these films dove deep, not only into the kitchens, but into the hearts and minds of these chefs as professionals and as human beings. It’s as though you are taken through their thought process over several years. If you haven’t seen this series, and are trying to make your mark, in any industry, but particularly as a creative, it’s a joy. As a founder of a new business I found it incredibly encouraging. 

Most importantly, and enigmatically, listening to these six chefs talk enforced my intuition that ingredients are always key, to keep persevering to discover new materials, better materials, to not be lazy about this. To go deeper. The flowers that I want to use are those that I can be knowledgeable about, excited about, that have a story that I can tell to our clients. I want to know the growers, to know their stories. We live in a time of voids, of global supermarkets, of so many middlemen, that there is such a disconnect between buyer and seller. So many layers and journeys and processes, and so many unknowns. In the future it’s our dream to have grown many of our own flowers, which of course is the most direct connection possible, and why we are starting this year to grow a choice selection of the flowers that we really love to use in abundance. I want to be able to say to our clients - your roses were grown and nurtured by us, your honeysuckle was foraged from this hedgerow, your cosmos were grown on this allotment, your apple-blossom branches grew on this farm, and this is where it is and this is what they are about there. This is where the energy is, for me - fostered relationships. The stories we tell of human endeavor and toil and growth.

When I re-played Chef’s Table again recently, I started taking notes, because I knew I’d want to use them sometime, somewhere. In the end I filled several pages because so many excerpts echoed how I feel about the work that we do, and the work that we want to do. Below are a few snippets from the films that particularly resonated.

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Massimo Bottura - Osteria Francescana, Modena, Italy

Bottura’s take on the classic Roman pasta dish cacio e pepe was developed after earthquakes devastated the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy in 2012. He devised a technique for making the dish that was used worldwide, utilising the nearly 1,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano that were damaged in the disaster.  “No-one lost their job. No cheese maker closed their doors. That was a recipe as a social gesture.”

“If you have success, if you live an incredible moment of happiness, the happiness is much, much more deep and big if you share it with others and you get to the point together. It’s like the happiness and feeling is exploding, it’s double, you know? This is the point.”

Dan Barber - Blue Hill Restaurant, Stone Barns and New York City, USA

“You are what you eat. But you are what you eat eats, too.”

“Every chef I know who has been successful has had a moment of really intense failure. Failure is very important. It introduces you to an idea that you don’t ever want to return to.”

“We are a nation of immigrants and when we came we had abundance like no-one had ever seen. Imagine the Garden of Eden; you’ve got everything you could dream of, why become a culture of cooking when you have the abundance to make steaks and tremendous amounts of meat? Most of the greatest cuisines of the world came out of hardship; they were all forced into a negotiation between peasants and a landscape and that landscape was not producing the abundance that we associate with American abundance - that was never a problem here - and so we did not adopt the different, less coveted cuts of meat or less coveted vegetables and grains, because we didn’t need to. That’s a real tragedy of our history and you have the recipe for what is American cuisine today, which isn’t really a cuisine. Not-great ingredients in large abundance. How do you get out of that? How do you get away from that?”

“I believe strongly that good cooking is physical. It demands a kind of conditioning. Because of the drudgery and the hours and the exhaustion that this kind of work demands, it does attract people who are attracted to a certain kind of abuse. It’s exhilarating and the challenge is how much of it you can stand."

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Francis Mallmann - El Restaurante Patagonia Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

“I am a cook that uses cooking to send a message of a way of living. I am always cooking in remote places, in the wild, with fires. So my message is to get out of your chair, of your sofa, of your office, and go out.”

“My big draw in life since very young was freedom. Freedom of believing only in myself, and not letting myself be, sort of, lead by anybody. I wanted to be my own. I wanted to do whatever I wanted.”

“I arrived in Patagonia aged seven and I fell in love with it. It’s a land that you learn to love very slowly. You start to understand its winds, the storms, the solitude. And once you understand how she is, you learn to love her.”

“When you cook with fires, when you build fire, it is a bit like making love. It could be huge, strong, or it could go very slowly, in ashes and little coals. And that is the biggest beauty of fire – it goes from zero to ten in strength. In between zero and ten you have all these different peaks and ways of cooking with it, and it’s very tender and very fragile.”

“For the last thirty years, I take an average of four or five planes a week, so I’m sitting on a plane, changing locations, probably every two days. It’s like a drug for me; I need these constant changes of structures, of people, of ambience, of languages. They are very inspiring; they are very romantic. They make me breathe, they make me tremble; they make me live.”

Niki Nakayama - N/Naka Restaurant, Los Angeles, CA, USA

“Kaiseki is using the best ingredients available, presenting them without ruining their texture and flavours, and using different cooking methods to enhance that ingredient. Everything has to be connected to one another and has to flow.”

“The philosophy of kaiseki is that we’re supposed to represent the area that we’re living in. When I was working in the countryside, we took from what was close to us, making the best use of what the season has to offer.”

“I was so in love with the idea that I put a farm-like garden in the back of my house… After having this garden, to see it from seed, to watch it grow little by little, to watch the process, to see it struggle, to see it survive, there’s this whole level of appreciation that everything takes time, everything takes the right amount of nurturing, everything deserves effort because it’s making an effort. This little tomato took three months to grow, and just to toss it, or to waste it, or to take it so lightly; we’re not doing our best to appreciate what nature is truly offering, what the lessons of life that are all around us are trying to teach us."

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Ben Shewry - Attica Restaurant, Melbourne, Australia

“We’re not trying to replicate our mothers' cuisine, but there’s something that is soulful and is fulfilling - that’s what I’m trying to get at. I’m trying to take people back to times in their life when people who loved them cooked for them, in a way that was really meaningful, and really satisfying for them.”

“There’s a romantic story that says that creative people are creative because that’s what they like to do, and they just go around all the time, creating. Which is kind of ridiculous, in a way. Sometimes people create out of pure necessity.”

“Food shouldn’t be some kind of artistic torture. It’s got to be something uplifting and fulfilling and delicious. And it should invigorate people. If you’re not happy with your life, then how can you possibly achieve that? People can’t create anything truly significant in food unless they are happy when they do it.”

Magnus Nilsson - Fäviken, Järpen, Sweden

“To create true understanding of produce and technique, it’s a long process. And most chefs don’t even think about that as the chef’s job. And that is not very constructive. It’s actually very lazy.”

“New is not always better, as with anything. But what is interesting in food culture, and also a little bit scary, is that when you stop practicing, it tends to die out really quickly. After one generation, you will have no-one left who knows how to do something with their hand, and after three generations, the only thing that’s left is your photos or something like that, and you can’t go back and understand how someone did something a thousand years ago.”

“I sometimes get the question whether our cooking is seasonal and I think that is really interesting because what is seasonal here in February? Nothing, nothing grows here. But we have a lot of vegetables on the menu still and they’re not fresh, they’re from last autumn and they’ve been stored in some way, and that adds layers of complexity to the dishes… In a way, it’s about defeating the seasons.”

“Anyone can learn to replicate a technique. But that is not creative expression.”

“The dish will never be better than the produce."

Photos from a visit to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens in February. The pelargonium glasshouse is one of the most magical places to be at twilight.