“Food is vexing…” Writes David Kaplan, “It is not even clear what it is. It belongs simultaneously to the worlds of economics, ecology, and culture. It involves vegetables, chemists, and wholesalers; livestock, refrigerators, and cooks; fertilizer, fish, and grocers. The subject quickly becomes tied up in countless empirical and practical matters that frustrate attempts to think about its essential properties. It is very difficult to disentangle food from its web of production, distribution, and consumption. Or when it is considered in its various use and meaning contexts, it is too often stripped of its unique food qualities and instead seen as, for example, any contextualized object, social good, or part of nature.” (The Philosophy of Food, 2012)
Food is not just one of the basic things needed by all living things for survival (alongside air, water, shelter and habitat); it is nutrition, nature, culture, spirituality, social-good, desideratum, an aesthetic object and art. It is simultaneously the most social and intimate of activities, engaging our senses in a manner rarely achieved by any other aspect of our lives. Economically, U$8.7 trillion (around 10% of global GDP) is directly linked to food and agriculture; perhaps no surprise therefore that fortunes and wars have been fought, won and lost on the back of that (seemingly) simple factor, food.
To learn more about the role of food in our lives, I spoke to six of the world’s most successful Chefs and culinary minds; Vikas Khanna, Alain Ducasse, Heston Blumenthal, Dominique Crenn, Michel Roux Jr. and Ruth Reichl. We discuss everything from the social and cultural nature of food, the role of the chef, the science of gastronomy and the culinary arts.
[bios]James Beard Award Nominee and Michelin Star Chef Vikas Khanna is an internationally acclaimed Indian chef, award-winning author, poet and filmmaker. He is the recipient of Access to Freedom Award, Eleanor Roosevelt’s Shining Star Award, GQ Man of the Year and was featured as “10 Global Legendary Chefs who’ve revolutionized our eating habits” by Deutsche Welle.He is host of MasterChef India, Twist of Taste and National Geographic’s Mega Kitchens. He has been a guest on MasterChef Australia, Martha Stewart, Hell’s Kitchen, Beat Bobby Flay and many more shows. Gordon Ramsay featured him as “Top Indian Chef in New York City” on Kitchen Nightmares.
Khanna has established himself as a top authority on Indian Cuisine, hosting successful cooking shows and has written more than 25 cookbooks. His book Flavors First won the prestigious Benjamin Franklin Award. Khanna Sutra, My Great India and Savor Mumbai won Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.
UTSAV- A Culinary Epic of Indian Festivals has become the world’s most expensive cookbook. UTSAV was launched at 68th Cannes Film Festival and has been presented to President Obama, HH Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, PM Modi and most recently Khanna was invited to Buckingham Palace to present UTSAV to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
New York Times has called his “cooking style inventive” and New York Magazine quoted “an instinctive chef whose dishes just get it right” in a review.
Khanna was featured on the covers of Forbes Life, Good Housekeeping, Men’s Health, GQ and many more. He was recently awarded “Stardust Global Icon” and “Best TV Chef” by Indian Telly Awards.
His documentary series Holy Kitchens, which explores the bond between faith and food, has been showcased at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Oxford and many other Universities and Film Festivals. His documentary “Kitchens of Gratitude” was featured at Marche du Film during 69th Cannes Film Festival.
Khanna developed workshops “Vision of Palate”, to create awareness of favors and aromas for the visually impaired. He has honored with Proclamation from Mayor Bloomberg and Comptroller William Thompson of New York City. He was also the first Indian to be featured as New Yorker of the Week on NY1.
Khanna has been featured on Eyewitness, ABC News, NBC, Fox for his work with foundations like Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity, Red Cross and Smile Foundation through which he raises funds and awareness for hunger and education.
His initiatives through SAKIV have hosted fundraisers for South Asian Tsunami, Katrina, Haiti and many more with some of the most influential chefs including Daniel Boulud, Jean Georges and Alain Ducasse.
Khanna has been documenting Indian cuisine, rituals and customs for decades. His most ambitious project is opening in 2018 in Manipal (India) – “Museum of Culinary Arts at WGSHA”. It will be one of a kind institution, which showcases the rich Indian heritage, history and diversity through kitchen equipment. It is dedicated to his late father, Mr. Davinder Khanna.
He lives in New York City with his prized collection of thousands of cookbooks. He is a huge admirer of Petite Philips, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Tarla Dalal.Pink Floyd, Lata Mangeshkar, Simon and Garfunkel are on his playlist. His favorite place in the world is Golden Temple, Amritsar
Alain Ducasse, considered to be one of the most renowned chefs of his generation, is at the helm of three restaurants each awarded by three Michelin stars in Monaco (Le Louis XV-Alain Ducasse à l’Hôtel de Paris), Paris (Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée) and London (Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester).
Alain Ducasse, who hails from the Landes region in the Southwest of France, is known for his innovation, attention to detail and dedication to both quality and technique. His desire to pass on this knowledge lies at the heart of all his projects. With more than thirty restaurants in nine countries, from authentic bistros and casual brasseries to three Michelin starred restaurants, a network of more than 500 Hôtels & Restaurants in Europe called Les Collectionneurs, an international Education division in culinary and pastry arts in partnership with Sommet Education, handmade bean-to-bar chocolate shops, handmade bean-to-cup coffee shops, Alain Ducasse developed in thirty years a different vision of the food service and hospitality industry regrouped under Ducasse Paris, he founded in 1999. As a passionate leader, he is constantly searching to share his vast cultural awareness and curiosity with the rest of the world.
Heston Marc Blumenthal OBE is a British celebrity chef. He is the proprietor of The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, one of five restaurants in Great Britain to have three Michelin stars; it was voted No. 1 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2005.
Blumenthal owns the restaurant Dinner in London, which has two Michelin stars, and two pubs in Bray, The Crown at Bray and The Hinds Head, which has one Michelin star. He invented recipes for triple-cooked chips and soft-centred Scotch eggs.
He advocates scientific understanding in cooking, for which he has been awarded honorary degrees from Reading, Bristol and London universities and made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He is a pioneer of multi-sensory cooking, food pairing and flavour encapsulation. He has described his ideas in books, newspaper columns and a TV series.
Crenn’s parents had a strong influence on her interest and love for the culinary arts- she began her formal culinary training when she moved to San Francisco in 1988 to work at Stars, under luminaries Jeremiah Tower and Mark Franz.
As an active member of the international culinary community, Crenn promotes innovation, sustainability, and equality, through her collaboration with various panels and summits.
Dominque was voted Best Chef: West, James Beard Foundation, 2018. She is the First female chef in the US to receive three Michelin stars, for Atelier Crenn, 2018. She was voted the World’s Best Female Chef, The World’s 50 Best, 2016 and was the First female chef in the US to receive two Michelin stars, for Atelier Crenn, 2011.
Michel Roux Jr was born in 1960 in Pembury, Kent, where his father Albert Roux worked as a private chef for the Cazalet family. His earliest food memories are the smells of the Fairlawne kitchen – pastry, sugar caramelizing and stews – where he played under the table while his father and mother Monique prepared the meals.
After deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps, he left school at 16 for the first of several challenging apprenticeships at Maître Patissier, Hellegouarche in Paris from 1976 to 1979. He was then Commis de Cuisine at Alain Chapel’s signature restaurant at Mionay near Lyon, Michel’s biggest influence. His military service was spent in the kitchens at the Elysée Palace at the time of Presidents Giscard d’Estaing and François Mitterrand. He also spent time at Boucherie Lamartine and Charcuterie Mothu in Paris, and the Gavvers Restaurant in London.
After a stint at the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong he returned to London and worked at La Tante Claire before joining the family business. He took over running Le Gavroche in 1991, gradually changing the style of cooking to his own – classic French with a lighter, modern twist.
Michel opened Roux at Parliament Square in May 2010 with Restaurant Associates, part of the Compass Group UK and Ireland. And in November 2010, he opened Roux at The Landau at London’s prestigious luxury hotel, The Langham.
Michel is a judge and presenter on the BBC’s popular prime time show, MasterChef: The Professionals, and has been a presenter on all three series of ‘Great British Food Revival.’ Michel also recently fronted the highly anticipated return of BBC2’s ‘Food and Drink,’ and presented a documentary on Escoffier, whose revolutionary approach to fine cuisine has inspired Michel and many others.
He is involved with the Roux Experience courses at the ‘Cactus Kitchens’ cookery school, with the Executive producer of Saturday Kitchen, Amanda Ross. Cactus Kitchens offers people the opportunity to learn to cook within small intimate groups from some of the UK’s finest chefs, on site above the Saturday Kitchen studios.
Michel is a keen sportsman and he ran his nineteenth marathon in 2013, to raise funds for VICTA a charity supporting visually impaired children. He is also an honorary member of the Harlequins rugby club.
Ruth Reichl is the author of My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, a cookbook published in September 2015. She was Editor in Chief of Gourmet Magazine from 1999 to 2009. Before that she was the restaurant critic of both The New York Times (1993-1999) and the Los Angeles Times (1984-1993), where she was also named food editor. As co-owner of The Swallow Restaurant from 1974 to 1977, she played a part in the culinary revolution that took place in Berkeley, California. In the years that followed, she served as restaurant critic for New West and California magazines.
Ms. Reichl began writing about food in 1972, when she published Mmmmm: A Feastiary. Since then, she has authored the critically acclaimed, best-selling memoirs Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, Garlic and Sapphires, and For You Mom, Finally, which have been translated into 18 languages. In 2014 she published her first novel: Delicious!
Ms. Reichl hosted Eating Out Loud, three specials on Food Network, covering New York (2002), San Francisco (2003), and Miami (2003). She is the executive producer of Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie, public television’s 30-episode series, which debuted in October 2006 and Executive Producer and host of Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth, a 10-episode public television (2009.) She was also a judge on Top Chef Masters.
Ms. Reichl has been honored with 6 James Beard Awards (one for magazine feature writing and one for multimedia food journalism in 2009; two for restaurant criticism, in 1996 and 1998; one for journalism, in 1994; and Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, 1984. In 2007, she was named Adweek’s Editor of the Year. She received the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism, presented by the Missouri School of Journalism, in October 2007. Ms. Reichl received the 2008 Matrix Award for Magazines from New York Women in Communications, Inc., in April 2008. She holds a B.A. and an M.A. in the History of Art from the University of Michigan and lives in Upstate New York with her husband, Michael Singer, a television news producer.[/bios]
Q: How did a passion for food come into your life?
[Vikas Khanna]: One of the most important tenets in Sikhism is that people from different class systems need to come together and eat. I was born in a city with the most important Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple. I remember being in the Langar (community kitchen) – shelling peas, peeling garlic, cutting vegetables and making breads. I did not understand the ‘majesty’ of a kitchen, but I saw people being transformed in this one. People would come from England, America, Canada, Australia – they came from all backgrounds, and were humbled in community service. I would see people from the lowest class sitting next to some of the richest NRIs; everyone came together – not in prayers, but at the kitchen. It was rare, and it transformed my perspective. Imagine the power of food…. It helped people to resolve their differences over a commonality. This really appealed to me as a child (especially as one who as not sporty or academic). Everything about this experience appealed to that certain sense of how there is a table of grace…
[Alain Ducasse] I grew up on a farm, in the Southwest of France. My grandmother was cooking for the whole family. I still remember the smell and flavour of the chicken she used to prepare for Sundays’ lunches. She is for sure the one who gave me the passion for cooking. Moreover, this passion is also intricated with the experience of nature. To prepare the meals, my grandmother was often sending me in the kitchen-garden to pick up the ripe vegetables. It means that, from an early age, I understood something that I then have never forgotten: before cooking, there is nature.
[Dominique Crenn]: I grew up in a beautiful part of France where gastronomy and the culinary world were part of our DNA. I studied business and international business, and it was when I came to San Francisco that I realised that I needed to find a way to express myself, and my understanding. Food was a kind-of language from me… I said to my Mum, when I was just 9 or 12 that I wanted to be a Chef… but I also wanted to be a Photographer, a Policeman, and many other things…. San Francisco changed my perspective on gastronomy, it was very uplifting and allowed me to indulge my curiosity.
I was very lucky to be able to work with Jeremiah Tower. His approach to cooking was so different to typical cooking in France where it felt like high-end restaurants all shared the same recipe! His work was about creativity, the beauty of nature, the moment of creation, and celebrating that. He had a huge influence on me, and my choice of career.
[Michel Roux Jr]: From day one of my life, I was in a kitchen. My mother went into labour as she was helping my father cook professionally…. I was very nearly born in a kitchen! So, from babyhood I was in a professional kitchen; imbued with the sounds of cooking, and the smells of food.
Being brought up as a French child in rural Kent, it was perhaps perfect that I would become a chef. Food was our life, not always expensive, extravagant food, but food we would forage and cook. My Dad raised chickens, pigeons and rabbits for the table – food has always been my life, from being a young child till today.
[Ruth Reichl]: My mother was literally taste blind. This sounds like a joke, but it is very serious – she could not tell the difference between food that was spoiled or not. From a very early age, I started tasting very carefully, just out of self-protection! When you start doing that from the age of 2? You become very focused on flavour.
My mother was a frightening cook, some of my earliest memories are watching her go through the refrigerator, scraping the blue stuff off the top of things and saying, ‘a little mould never hurt anyone…’ I was probably about 6 when I started cooking, pushing her away from the stove….
When you’re cooking, at the age of 6, everyone thinks its adorable – no matter how bad your food is… everyone tells you it’s great. You get lots of support, and you keep cooking! I was an only child of older parents too, and that made me kinda’ lonely… my world was reading and cooking, two things I loved.
Add to this the fact that I grew up in New York’s East Village, which was filled with all the Italian stores, and was near China Town. My father would take me to experience all these different flavours and cuisines, and it really just happened.
Q: Do people still understand the social significance of dining together?
[Vikas Khanna]: In America for example, the community only comes together for political rallies, sports games… those are the biggest ritual experiences. Even watching movies together is dissolving as people experience this at home, not together. For me though, institutions that bring people together to eat matter. Especially in a country that has so much poverty and hunger such as India, where I am now, there are still institutions that come together to feed each other without selfish motives; and that’s so important.
Q: What is the role of the chef?
[Alain Ducasse] The chef is basically a go-between. He or she takes what the nature may offer here and then, and, thanks to the culinary technics he or she knows, transforms it into food. Therefore, the chef has a great responsibility. Cooking is sending a message to eaters, a message about nature yet also a message about their health. Nowadays, this role is vital: the chefs must alert people about the consequences of their food choices upon the Planet as well as their health.
Q: What does it take to be a great chef?
[Alain Ducasse] I’m not very comfortable with this notion of great chef. There are a lot of excellent chefs all over the world, some being very popular and some less known. Anyway, in cooking like probably in other industries, the first secret is to work more, quicker and better than the other. Then, it is absolutely essential to find one’s own truth, to work according to one’s own vision. I’d also add that what is difficult is not to appear on the radars of the food critics but to stay and last, year after year.
[Michel Roux Jr]: Like any other industry, it’s only the very few that make it to the top and that comes from dedication, hard-work, natural skills, nurture, the right mentors and – of course – luck. Just because you can cook well, it does not make you a good chef, it takes much more than that.
Q: To what extent do chefs need to be CEOs?
[Michel Roux Jr]: A lot of restaurants go bust because they can’t make ends meet – they’re mismanaged, and chefs are notoriously bad businessmen… they need help! I needed help at the beginning, so did my father when he started his business. You need to get the right people around you and never be afraid to ask questions, you can’t do everything….
My father sent me on a course in accounting… initially I was very dismissive, I didn’t want to learn accounting, I thought it was a ridiculous waste of time, I wanted to be a chef! It was actually a really good move, I now know the language of accounting, I can understand accounting statements, make budgets, and run a business!
Q: What is the role of food journalism?
[Ruth Reichl]: I grew-up in an America that didn’t care about food at all. In the 1960s, American Food was terrible. We ate bland American cuisine; hot dogs and hamburgers. For my generation, there was a sense that food was more important than that – it came in many ways out of political feeling. We were the generation that stopped the Vietnam War, we felt everything was possible, and wanted America to be better, for me – that meant focussing on food. Even in the 1970s, we understood climate change was happening – we saw the vertical integration of agribusiness, and the increasing industrialisation of American food, and it was frightening, you could clearly see that our food was going to a bad place and that was the siren call that made me want to take action and pay attention. We were creating a two-tier food system where the rich could eat whatever they wanted, and the poor ate food that was basically killing them!
Cooking is the one thing that separates us from animals, we cook, they don’t. Even scientists argue that cooking is literally what made us human, that our big brains developed because we learned to make and use fire to change the way we ate so we didn’t have to spend all that time foraging – thus, we could turn our attention to ideas and culture.
This was also a time when food journalism was very different. Today, restaurants and critics are kind-of-enemies – but then? We were all in it together, we were getting people to pay attention to their own hunger, appetite, and that of others – it wasn’t adversarial. Today’s restaurant critic is more consumer reporting, it’s about where you spend your money – and back then, it was more about teaching people to eat well.
Q: How has the media changed the nature of what it means to be a chef?
[Ruth Reichl]: There’s no question that Instagram and other platforms like it are producing food that looks good in a snapshot rather than food that tastes good. More importantly however was the big food revolution that started with the Television Food Network. it changed who chefs are! When I first started writing about food, Chefs were blue collar workers, often uneducated. It was in the 1970s when I first began interviewing these young, college educated chefs… Their parents were horrified because being a Chef was considered a horrible job, with horrible conditions…. Suddenly, television made chefs into celebrities – and you saw these articulate, educated, smart individuals who have changed the role of the chef in the world. Today, we have activist chefs like José Andres and Massimo Bottura who are really trying to change the world, and doing a great job of it.
It’s really hard to be a great chef if you don’t have a generous soul, and that means that eventually when you’re involved in the elite end of food, you have to recognise that hunger is our main issue – and for the food industry, it’s our issue. It behoves all of us to think about hunger, waste and all the issues around it. José Andres literally said that the government couldn’t fix hunger… so he flew down to Puerto Rico with his credit card, got to work, and built an incredible organisation to address hunger. Then you have Massimo Bottura who uses international movements and events to teach people how to reduce waste and how to feed the poor, it’s extraordinary. I saw Massimo a couple of weeks ago and he said he’d just gotten a phone call from the anti-Mafia prosecutor in Sicily – he said ‘I didn’t know him! he called me up and I thought ‘oh my god, what have I done wrong?’, and the prosecutor said to him that there is a restaurant in the Vucciria, the big market in Palermo, that the mafia keeps burning down. The prosecutor said ‘I want you to take it over, because the mafia doesn’t like publicity, and if you take it over and they burn it down it will make headlines all over the world. So will you do this?’. And just like that, he was on his way to Palermo to talk about taking over this restaurant. I mean, this is the kind of role that chefs have never played before.
Q: What is the relationship between art and food?
[Ruth Reichl]: I have a Masters in the History of Art but left it behind, because it seemed to me that food was a better medium for making people understand the world. We all eat, we do it every day, we take it for granted, but we make judgements every single day around the quality and nature of what we’re eating.
For me, art gives a sense of joy, a sense of purpose and appreciation for the world; food does the same thing… especially when you really open yourself to it, and pay attention to what you’re cooking, the colours, the sights, the aromas… the grace and joy of your kitchen, and the process. If you peel a peach for example, there’s a colour you see – like a sunset – it’s a colour you never see if you just bite into a peach or slice it. It’s something you only see if you peel it. It’s those moments, being open to those moments that gives you a reason to love being alive, food really can do that.
It’s so easy to be in despair all the time – the world is full of horrible things, but we all can find happiness, joy, grace – and it seems to me that a lot of those moments come through food.
In the age of the internet, I feel this has become increasingly important. We now spend enormous amounts of time alone, in a virtual world – and because of that – sitting at the table is increasingly important. You can’t eat virtually, and you need to be open to the experiences of food – but more importantly, you realise that food makes us stop, slow down, and appreciate conversation, appreciate each other in a real way… we are all looking for real experiences and a real connection.
Q: How did you develop your own style and aesthetic as a chef?
[Dominique Crenn]: I’ve always believed that when we put food in our mouths, we communicate with nature. Everything we eat is part of nature, it’s beautiful, it’s been given to us, we have to celebrate it, respect it… it’s poetic.
When I started working in restaurants, I had to follow other people’s instructions – it was frustrating, people were just like, ‘OK, so we’re going to cut the vegetable like this, and make the plate pretty…’ – I came from a family where literature and art were very important, and that gave me a sense of understanding expression – and in particular through food. To communicate with someone through food is like expressing yourself through a painting, through music, through a book. I believe you have to give people something that’s authentic and valuable, that represents the landscape of nature where their food came from visually and through the wider senses.
Q: What is the art and aesthetic of food?
[Alain Ducasse] It’s an important question since social networks and especially Instagram changed the perspective. The aesthetic of food isn’t a novelty. A dish must be legible, that’s to say the eater must be able to recognise easily what he is going to eat. The eyes are the first sense of taste. However, the aesthetic never replaces the flavour and tastes which are the final criteria of a good recipe. This question is particularly important in patisserie. At my restaurant of the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, I asked my pastry chef, Jessica Préalpato, to forget the constraint of aesthetic and to concentrate on produce and tastes. Her creations are undoubtedly less Instagramable but she has been voted World’s Best Pastry Chef of the Year 2019!
[Heston Blumenthal]: My journey into food has taken me into the world of quantum theory and I believe that aroma is actually quantum harmonics. If you believe in string theory, everything is vibrating, everything is connected – not just our atoms and cells but we as humans need to bond and connect. We need to feel worthy of belonging, and we become fearful of being rejected and not being in a group.
Today’s humans live longer, are more liberal, and more focused on life outside our bodies. We have more money, more friends, more social networks, more things and these are all based on the linear systems of measurement that humans have created. It’s damaging…. It needs to change…. Today’s humanity believes in ‘happiness’ when our real baseline is pain and suffering – and to get to a sense of happiness, we really have to fight that. Our endocrine system has evolved around a world based on pain and suffering – and whilst we have the right to be happy, if we think that happiness is our baseline, we can only be disappointed.
Imagine two columns, on the left side is ‘human being, non-linear’ – feminine energy, creativity, relationships, etc…. the right side, ‘human doing, structured’ is more masculine – working together, structured systems… These two columns work together to create harmony. You can’t create without imaging, and without creating you’ve got nothing to imagine against.
Our aesthetic is driven by these complex interplays, overlaid onto what people think is important at that time. Today’s humanity is more connected, but lonelier than ever before – as a Chef, you can cook for social media, thousands of people will love your beautiful looking dish, but they won’t eat it.
Food also has a beautiful aesthetic that connects it with everything. I have books and books of drawings that show you the relationships with Pi, symmetry, the brain, food, everything… You see that the tree is just like the hair growing from your head… that the coral in the ocean is just like your digestive system…. It’s beautiful.
Q: What is the relationship between science and cuisine?
[Alain Ducasse] I’m more interested by technology than by science. Cooking techniques and materials have enormously evolved these last years. They offer great opportunities in terms of health and tastes.
Q: Does the consumer understand the depth of the philosophy of your art?
[Dominique Crenn]: If you want to come to a restaurant, get fed, and leave, and be left alone… that’s fine! I’m not here to push my philosophy on anyone… I’m very transparent about what I’m doing, and if people want to come and try it? That’s amazing. I’ve always believed that when you are creating something, through food… through a painting… through anything… that it’s a meaningful process, and that the creative memories you have come out through your food, and that what you cook really contains that expression of who you are. You don’t even have to say anything to those people, if they eat it and if something happened to them and they’re just blown away by it, you know that it succeeded.
Q: Do you feel a sense of responsibility with each dish you create?
[Heston Blumenthal]: For example, next time you have a glass of red wine… hold the glass, close your eyes, and think of someone you love, someone who fills you with happiness and joy, you’ll naturally get a smile on your face- now take a sip. Immediately after, think of someone that fills you with negativity – it could be anger, frustration, whatever…. Then taste the wine…. I promise you, it will be different… The same is true visually if I wrote the word ‘wine’ in big round letters, or big jagged letters, and you really examine the words then taste the wine, it will be different.
Language is a mixture of our shared beliefs. Our primitive ancestors may have pointed and grunted at each other, and had a form of conversation, and over millennia that became the written word, art, sign language, music, food….
I worry that today, we’ve lost our ability to connect through distraction, and maybe that’s stopping us from having those insights that can happen from being present. Thousands of years ago, some bloke looked up at the stars and thought, ‘haaaaang on a second, maybe the stars aren’t moving, maybe WE are…’ That insight came at a time with no NASA, no telescopes, no space ships, just a bloke or woman looking up and having an insight. That’s the beauty of human being.
Q: How Is social media impacting food?
[Vikas Khanna]: I was classically trained, and believe you need to understand history to see the contemporary. To understand modern art, you have to understand the renaissance. You can see clearly where individuals don’t understand those basic fundamentals of cooking, and it impacts their art.
I was born and raised at an era where there was no internet, without many good books…. We had to travel to learn our craft… I had to travel to Maharashtra, Kerala and Bengal to learn from the masters.
Today, people can be distracted far too quickly from the depth of understanding they need to achieve. Nevertheless, beauty is important. I just opened a new restaurant in Dubai; I didn’t want to change the taste of my dishes, but I understood the aesthetic needs were different. One of my signature dishes, tandoori fish, took me two weeks to make. Why? We’re now competing with an extreme wave of Instagrammers coming to the restaurant, we cannot be isolated, and ignore the power of these individuals and their voice. The look of the food will decide the destiny of the restaurant. If you look at the tandoori fish that’s served in the restaurant, it’s taken 8 hours to make, it’s just beautiful.
Another example is a classic Indian street-food dish, chaat. I had this sweet potato chaat once as I was travelling in Delhi, it was just beautiful – almost a sacred experience, but I cannot serve that dish in my restaurant the way it looks at the roadside. My sweet potato chaat has 8 layers, it tastes incredibly Indian, but looks unique.
Today Instagram is leading the market, and chefs can’t be in denial. All the chefs who have expired and become extinct are the ones who are not living up to the technology when the world around them was changing. We don’t want to be extinct, we want to be part of the breed of chefs who are evolving simultaneously in the ecosystem of this digital age.
[Michel Roux Jr]: We talk now about food being instagrammable, and restaurants are often designed with that in mind – with the perfect lighting and décor, encouraging people to take pictures… Social media has become an important tool across hospitality, restaurants and most industries… and it’s unique, it’s two-way communication, between people, staff, businesses…. It gives you a connection you could never have before, that’s the beauty of it
You do find, though, some chefs are now cooking for social media. I differ a little bit, I’m old- school in comparison to some of the younger chefs. For me, presentation is important… things should always look smart and eye-catching… but the most important thing is taste, that is the defining, ultimate definition of good food.
Q: What is the role of awards [e.g Michelin Stars] in food?
[Vikas Khanna]: You know what? I was OK being the average invisible chef, behind the steel kitchens in New York. I was OK with that until a very spiritual moment happened to me, cooking at the James Beard Foundation. Everyone stood up and applauded my cooking, it was the first time someone had appreciated my food like that – I remember it so clearly, August 23rd, 2004. That day gave me access to the world and made me understand the power I could have with Indian food. We didn’t have many Indian chefs in America at that point, and America still has never found a love for Indian food like England.
As a Chef, you need to hit a point in your life where you’re broken, or crushed so badly that you have no option but to reinvent yourself. It takes that level of willpower to really reach the top. For Chefs, the ‘top’ is a Michelin Star – there are guides, there are lists, there are so many ways to get recognised – but much as movie-makers look to the Academy Awards as their pinnacle, Chefs look to the Michelin Star as their once in a lifetime pinnacle; a sense of achieving immortality in the cooking world for having done something right.
I remember being in American and European kitchens where I was treated like shit. In a way, it was OK, it showed me my position in the hierarchy of the cooking world. In 2008 though, I was working in Paris at the restaurant of a Chef who I considered a cooking god. It was back in the days where you could go to a restaurant in Paris and still talk your way into getting a job. I did a lot of things, from washing the dishes up to cooking… and I remember one particular dish. I cooked it for the Chef, sent it to his office, and he said something to his sous-chef along the lines of, ‘tell that brown shit I will never eat anything from him…’ That was my turning point, that was when I decided that I would come back to Paris, but only with the crown of a Michelin star. My cooking should be defined not by my skin colour, how I look, or how I behave… nor by my accent. I remember that night, I washed my hands over 80 times, subconsciously trying to ‘wash the brown away’ – and something in my mind clicked, making me realise that I was only left with one option to prove my equality in that world, and that option was to get a Michelin Star. That dish by the way, the one the Chef in Paris turned away? Was the same dish I later cooked for President Barack Obama.
I felt like that sense of everyone being equal that I was taught in those Sikh temples had become an illusion. I had become just another person in a big restaurant, a dishwasher, a cleaner, someone at a low position…. But when I decided to compete with those great chefs with hard work and devotion, that’s when everything changed. I felt that Indian food should have that position of significance in America. This was the land where I was promised equality, where I was promised there was no class system, that everyone had liberty – but yet, I wasn’t given the freedom to be myself? Why was I given a position that I would rather be a delivery boy or dishwasher?
15 years later, people are breaking the rules and doing great things. Back then, there was no internet, communications were poor, people didn’t have the same voice. Meryl Streep once said, ‘you need to take a broken heart and turn it into art…’ I connect with that. It’s brokenness which sometimes gives you the energy and potential to fly to higher levels where gravity can’t pull you down.
[Alain Ducasse] Michelin stars, one can live without but one lives better with them. Simply because, whatever the debates and critics, it means a significant increase of clientele for the restaurant. I consider that, all in all, the Michelin guide is the most serious and credible one – which does not mean faultless. Then come the social networks and uncountable awards. Like it or not, we have to do with them. They reflect the passion for cooking and, would it be only for that, they are a positive sign of vitality for our industry.
[Dominique Crenn]: I say to each and every one of my cooks that we don’t wake-up in the morning to get awards. We wake up in the morning to treat our craft with respect, to be better than we were yesterday, and to give the customer the best experience.
We are very blessed and grateful to have received the awards we have, but they do not define us. You can win an award today, but tomorrow? You get back in that kitchen and work…
I was at an event recently and was speaking to some students. I asked one young person, ‘what’s your dream?’ and they said, ‘…to be on the 50 best restaurants list, and to have all the awards we can’ – I just looked at them and said, ‘you’re not in the right business if that’s how you feel, you need to rethink’ If you get into cooking, you have a lot of responsibility – you are serving the community, not doing it to boost your ego.
I don’t wake up in the morning wanting to win awards, nothing defines me apart from how I want to walk the walk, and talk the talk.
[Michel Roux Jr]: Awards like the Michelin Star are very important. Any chef that dismisses these awards is simply wrong… they push the bar up… we all want recognition as human beings, we want to know what level we’re at… it’s always nice to get an award, whether that’s a good review or a Michelin star.
However…. And this is important… there are too many young chefs who fall into the trap of cooking for the guide-books, for reviews, or for Instagram – and that’s totally wrong. Chefs should cook for their guests and customers – get that right, and you get repeat custom – you get a loyal fanbase that comes weekly, monthly…. You can build a great business, a strong kitchen… and then, because you’re doing a good job, the accolades will come.
For most of the chefs who earn a Michelin star, they were rarely gunning for it… they were just doing their thing… I remember working for Pierre Koffmann many years ago, when he had 2 stars – he was just doing his thing, not chasing, just believing in himself and doing amazing cooking with amazing flavours….It wasn’t fanciful, and the awards came.
Happy chefs cook better food. If you’re chasing stars or chasing those great reviews, you’re obviously very tense and stressed and your food will never be as good.
Q: Why are we seeing such a global growth in restaurants (at all levels)?
[Alain Ducasse] Probably the conjunction of good and bad reasons. In our contemporary way of life, we eat less at home and more outside. And even when we eat at home, the habit of home delivery has enormously developed. The consequence is the decrease of home cooking practise, notably amongst the younger generation. Yet the brighter side of this is that eating has become a sort of joyful hobby for a larger and larger portion of the population.
Q: What are the keys to creating a great restaurant?
[Alain Ducasse] A restaurant has to tell a story to the patrons. Or, to put it differently, to have a soul, a reason of being. I spend a lot of time, prior to an opening, to define this red thread and, after the opening, to check if we still follow it. I call this job “defining the editorial line”. Each and every tiny detail is important to express it: cooking, of course, yet also tableware, uniforms, lighting, sound design etc.
Q: Where do you find your inspiration?
[Alain Ducasse] In the venue itself. Let me take the example of our last opening, the BBR (Bar & Billiard Room) at the Raffles of Singapore. This hotel is unique by its history and architecture, it’s an icon for Singapore. I felt this feeling when I first visited it and when I had to develop a restaurant there, it really inspired me. I passed this vision to Jouin-Manku, the architects of the place, and to my entire team. The result is a very consistent proposal, reflecting the soul of the venue with a very contemporary twist.
Q: Has your experience of cancer changed your approach to your craft, your art?
[Dominique Crenn]: In those instances of facing things alone, you peel the layers of yourself away and realise that your body is changing, as are you. You have to reflect on who you are, your belief system, your vision… Going through cancer has reinforced where I want to go with my work. I’m not producing food for people to fancy me, I do it because everything we do has a purpose – and that you must use your platform to help others, to be activist.
For me, eating is an art of activism… food is very political. It touches every part of everything from politics to social economy to humans and human rights. When you think about a country, how people used to, and still are, controlling the country. The first thing they do, they go through food. Only giving enough food to the people of their country, or they don’t. It’s been done since the beginning of time. Food is a tool that can bring people together, it’s also controlling people in a way.
Q: Where do you find your inspiration?
[Michel Roux Jr]: For me, inspiration can come at any time. I find it’s very often when I’m on my own, running, enjoying sports, when I’m away from my phone and other distractions. When I’m free of everything else, my mind turns to inspiration and problem solving. Sports are really important to me; good for physical and mental-health, a great stress reliever.
Q: What would be your advice to younger chefs, starting on their journey?
[Michel Roux Jr]: I consider myself fortunate enough to be raised in a family of chefs, with food around me from a young age. The most important advice I would give to young chefs today is the advice I would have given to myself when I was younger…. Spend more time travelling…. Spend more time, when you’re young, looking at different food and cultures, be brave and travel.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Alain Ducasse] It’s much too early to talk about legacy. I am just starting my career!
[Heston Blumenthal]: It took me a long time to even feel I could use that word ‘legacy’ and not think, ‘who the fuck am I to be creating a legacy’ – but every human being has a legacy, everyone… Every human being is on a journey of pain, pleasure, emotion. Today I’m speaking to you from France, I’m 10 minutes from Van Gogh’s hospice… a place where Picasso lived… it’s a national Park and has the highest level of Gamma Rays anywhere apart from the Himalayas. Gamma rays are the fastest of the Sun’s rays, and are incredibly powerful, and this area also has the Mistral Winds – and you can see this reflected in Van Gogh’s own work, the swirls, the colours the textures. This is the place where they’ve found some of the earliest signs of settlement in Europe, where the Romans built their water network, and where much of modern western civilization came from.
And water is interesting…. It has a memory, it carries data… we can change it’s structure through the application of waves…. And even our relationship with water has become damaged. Today, we might think that if we don’t drink a litre of water a day that we’ll get ill – and carry that unconscious anxiety and stress with us. If you pass that resonance to the water, guess what, you’ll probably get sick. If you eat with gratitude, if you drink mindfully, it’s different… the health benefits of water, like so much, are influenced by your relationship with water.
The same thing is true with drugs for example… If you’re eating a cake because you just love it, or you’re drinking wine because you love it, it’s very different to eating a cake or drinking wine because you’re anaesthetising. And it’s never necessarily just one or the other. However, if you can be aware that you’re doing something, do you have the ability to do something about it if you want to, and that’s much healthier.
I want to use storytelling, fairy tales, humour, science, human connection, and bring these things together through taste, flavour and communication to really help people reconnect with the world, that’s what I want my legacy to be.
[Dominique Crenn]: I don’t want my legacy to be that I was the first Woman to get Three Michelin Stars in the United States or even that I was a Chef, that’s not what I want. I want my legacy to be that I was a human that wanted to help change the ways and behaviours of our world… someone who wanted to make sure humanity was at the core of everything, and someone who helped others through wanting to make our world more equal, better…
That will be, I hope, my legacy.
[Ruth Reichl]: The biggest thing I want to do is to make people understand how central food is to everything. It’s about community, economics, history, everything. When I first started writing, food content was just recipes and reservations – and so if I can move the needle a bit to make people understand that food is much bigger, and much more important than that? If I can do that, I’ll be happy.