‘It is the most romantic way there, I think’, was how Andrea Petrini justified the midnight train ride from Helsinki to Lapland over the phone. Coming from anyone else, a thirteen-hour journey (trapped) with some fifty semi-strangers on what could only have been a former Soviet mass-transit train might have sounded less than alluring, but the inimitably whimsical articulation with which Petrini is prone to embellishing each syllable proved convincing enough – and, sure enough, time proved him prophetic.
At 21.23 one frosty early autumn Friday night, this fifty boarded that train. And the bonding began at once. Up and down the three final carriages liberal hands passed about beers, Finnish vodka and cigarettes whilst aquavit-marinated sardine sandwiches and handfuls of juniper-smoked salmon were consumed in such haste that one might have thought they were about to go out of fashion. The mood resembled that of a reunion: old friends exchanged fresh news; new introductions were made; and relations were formed. Although some turned in early, most stayed up as late as they could or as late as jetlag would allow.
At 10.40 Saturday morning, when these travellers descended at their destination, they all did so in shared and tied spirits. Moreover, together they had learned that thirteen hours spent in each other’s inescapable company were indeed an effective way in which to become well-acquainted with one another…
Clearly, this 995 kilometre ride along Finland’s longest single train line to the country’s northernmost station, Kolari – the end of the line – was not the end of their adventure, but nor was it its outset either. Beginning two days before, this international cast of chefs, journalists, photographers, publishers, cameramen, supporters, bloggeurs and even a professional masseuse had started a slow, but steady dribble into the country’s capital, all in time for a press conference on Friday 03 September at the Savoy Hotel. They had come from all over Europe and from as far as Japan and Argentina. But they had good cause.
Helsinki was but a pit-stop; the finish line was the Finnish Polar Circle – that is to say Northern Finland and specifically the ski resort of Levi, not much more than one hundred miles from the actual Arctic. This faraway, isolated site was where the Cook it Raw tour was due to have its latest rendezvous.
Labelled as a think tank of cutting edge cuisine, this open workshop for the world’s most admired avantgarde chefs (accompanied by a flock of ‘extreme foodies’) is organised by two Italians, Alessandro Porcelli (Nordic Gourmet Tour) and Andrea Petrini. Their debut endeavour at noma in June 2009, run in coordination with the UN’s conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen, was an instant and total success. It led to another gathering in Collio near the Italian-Slovenian border in January 2010, wherein the harsh winter was celebrated.
This time, the third time, was to be a little different. Tiptoeing upon the edge of civilisation, the intention was to take these chefs out of their comfort zone, to force them to ‘reboot their culinary poetic under the sign of nature’ with a focus on the secondary sense of raw – wild. Furthermore, there was also to be a secondary theme; one of ‘controlled collaboration’ with the chefs ‘like musicians…declin[ing] the lure of the authorship preferring instead a more collective approach, sharing the kitchen stage in different formations.’
The roll call of attendees this occasion round read…
…Albert Adrià, Iñaki Aizpitarte, Fredrik Andersson, Alex Atala, Pascal Barbot, Claude Bosi, Massimo Bottura, Dave Chang, Quique Dacosta, food snob, Yoshihiro Narisawa, Magnus Nilsson, Petter Nilsson, Daniel Patterson, René Redzepi, Davide Scabin, Hans Välimäki…
…indeed a list strong enough to attract anyone to the icy emptiness of Lapland.
Eighty kilometres from Kolari, deep in Lapland, lies Levi Spirits – the tour’s home for three nights and four days. There, a light Lappish buffet of muikku, reindeer and the like awaited everyone’s arrival. As they fed, accommodation was assigned…no doubt, the semi-random allotment of two to a room, five twos to a villa meant to make for a more interesting dynamic.
A couple hours of rest were permitted before a presentation on local produce by Timo, chef of close by Hullu Poro and, for all intents and purposes, the native attaché. For the majority of onlookers, this was an initiation to what this terroir had to tender. Indigenous varieties of cepe and chanterelle mushrooms, apples, carrots and beetroots sat beside an array of berries, wild herbs and flowers. Fresh-caught bleek and other whitefish lay on ice together with their roe. Snow grouse – a delicacy – and hare were also on show. Their curiosity aroused, the chefs touched, smelled and tasted every ingredient. The inspection, intended to incite its inspiration, also succeeded in rekindling the crowd’s appetite…
That night’s dinner was at the mountain-top restaurant, Tuikku, where a one-meat-feast had been prepared. Slow-cooked ‘stove’ reindeer; reindeer wrapped in lamb thigh and baked beneath the soil; sautéed reindeer; reindeer blood sausages; reindeer hamburgers; as well as assorted accoutrements were offered along with afters of lingonberry porridge. Cloudberry brandy and beer kept the masses merry till past midnight when the coach returned.
For all Jarkko – the host’s – efforts, that evening the spotlight was really stolen by René Redzepi, who had literally just received the first copy of his new work Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine from Phaidon. As one of the most keenly anticipated cookbooks in recent history, the expectation around the room was immense. Everyone present, from chef to photographer to journalist, was excited by the prospect of a preview – and, judging by the animated and impressed looks on each face, this beautifully accomplished book earned unanimous approval.
Upon returning, some were not ready to rest and the night rolled on, firstly with stories around an indoor fire before finally ending with Massimo Bottura and Davide Scabin arguing over the right to use reindeer milk the next day. Their quarrel neared a climax as each bet the other his restaurant…
Wrestling was involved. Bottura won.
For an especially eager few, the next day began before sunrise…unsurprisingly, no Italians could be counted amongst them. Andersson, Iñaki and the two Nilssons set off on a pre-dawn trip to Lake Jeris. By the time the rest of the tour turned up – several hours later – the early-starters had already finished their fishing, cleaned their catch and Iñaki and Petter were smoking their share.
When at last altogether, it was time to forage in the forest. Dinner that night and the next would depend on what was gathered there that day. Chefs and guests alike hunted for wild blueberries, lingonberries, sorrel, tansy, mushrooms and more… Iñaki , Andersson and Petter picked berries, Adria sought out plump chanterelles whilst Scabin, armed with a large axe, shaved the bark off fallen trees. The local ladies who tended the land helped out, supplying tools and advice to those needing them.
Having spent some hours toiling amidst the tress and with plastic bags full to overflowing with the wealth of the woods, everyone retired to the beach where their efforts were acknowledged with a fisherman’s soup of just-caught whitefish, its roe, offal and potato cooked over a hot fire.
This collation complete, it was back to base and immediately to work. Previous Cook it Raws had culminated with a single meal the final night, but here a ‘pre-dinner’ was also scheduled for the penultimate evening so that the few chefs – Bottura, Aizpitarte and Barbot – who had to leave a day before everyone else could also participate properly.
Actually, some had already started their preparations. Iñaki and Petter for instance who, having been rewarded for their dawn rise with their bounty of char, they themselves then smoked. Bottura meanwhile had begun even earlier and gone to even more interesting lengths. Deciding to cook reindeer tongues, he had set up two of his own water-baths to slowly poach them for twenty-two straight hours. As it was essential that he remain near these, regulating their temperatures, he had in fact (and to much common amusement as well as his own pleasure) assembled them in his ensuite toilet.
Whilst other chefs chose more conventional spaces – kitchen counters, dining room tables, etc – to ready their mise en place, those not preparing for that night, prepared for the next. Rene Redzepi, for example, spent hours snipping the tips off spruce needles so that eventually he could make spruce oil…a task that would have taken him even longer had it not been for a press of excited journalists that arrived quickly to assist.
To cater for the occasion, the indoor kota-style hearth of chalet number one had been converted into a makeshift kitchen. Portable stoves sat on small fridges, tables were requisitioned from wherever they could be removed whilst benches were laid side by side to create an improvised pass upon which dishes were plated. Suggestive of some sort of remarkably ritzy canteen, diners were supposed to stand in line, collecting courses themselves and consuming them anywhere they could find space enough to sit or stand.
Although the six-course dinner that then ensued will not be detailed here – one will be able to read about it in a subsequent post soon enough – it was a success in execution and effect.
After the last dish had been digested, attentions were turned to an impromptu debate between the chefs chaired by John Lancaster. The discussion was a wide-ranging one, touching on such topics as what they hoped to achieve there; what they thought they could leave behind; how they felt fine-dining could influence the public; and so forth.
The discussion carried on a couple hours until, all of a sudden, Albert Adria stood up and shouted out, ‘I love Lapland’. Laughter erupted; the crowd scattered.
Monday morning started in sobering fashion. The tour was led to a Lappish reindeer ranch. They were there to spectate a live slaughter. In truth, it seemed that there was but a single animal on the entire farm and this one happened to be lashed to a pole within a large pen. The throng circled, cameras flashed and the deer was steered out and shot with a stun gun.
Within forty minutes, what was once living, breathing beast was now mass of raw meat and it was time for the tourists to move onto their next stop – the sauna.
A sensible majority kept to the schedule and headed to a lakeside retreat, but a few went directly to document the chefs ready dinner instead. The event’s climatic meal was to be at Skylight near Levi; a place that guests had been cautioned beforehand resembled ‘a cross between the Overlook Hotel of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead opening sequence’ and which is also the annual meeting place for the international congress of shamen…
Split into small teams, the eleven remaining chefs worked diligently in the crowded kitchen. Its restricted size, limited capacity as well as the scarcity of essential ingredients ensured a testing day lay before them, but the cooks pushed on. Having sequestered the required raw materials, soon they had spread out from the kitchen and across the grounds. Actually within the dining room, Patterson and Petter Nilsson took over a small fireplace whilst Andersson, Chang and others crossed the vast estate to a large hut that held a charcoal grill. Bosi tried and failed to bake potatoes in a sauna and Scabin, going a step further still, simply made a brand new cooking area with his own hands, digging himself a large hole wherein he could cook his fish underground.
However, once again, the details of their endeavours and their endeavours’ outcomes will follow. Needless to say though, this night of ‘wild instant composing’, as it was billed, was greatly enjoyed by the guests.
The morning after the night before was spent sluggishly. Having packed up, the tour was packed off to the local airport. This time expediency was favoured over entertainment and, ninety minutes later, their little Lappish plane landed at Helsinki International. Upon arrival and some mandatory airport drama – connections missed by minutes, missing luggage, mistaken luggage, iPhones left on airplanes – the rabble slowly disbanded. Most never left the terminal, catching another flight soon after; a handful headed into Helsinki to spend the night; whilst an even smaller number were able to take a taxi straight home.
‘It’s the sense of being something genuine. Genuine dedication from the chefs, genuine products and genuine cooking,’ is how Magnus Nilsson explains what is special about Cook it Raw. Alex Atala is a little more lyrical describing it as ‘where barriers of the kitchen and dining room have fallen and brotherhood prevails.’ Both are clearly keen on the concept. And it is no surprise why.
Cook it Raw represents a quiet revolution, the next evolution of the gastronomic event. Large-scale conferences are useful for reaching mass audiences more immediately, but this more intimate style meeting is the way forward. Individuals are able to really immerse themselves in their environment, to engage fully with everything around them as well as with each other.
Instead of simply standing upon a stage, playing a video or preparing a couple plates of food, here there is true interaction. Chefs must search for their own ingredients, see them in their natural state and collect them themselves. Moreover, they also talk amongst themselves, sharing their knowledge, learning from one another. Those accompanying benefit too. They can establish a connection with the chefs that extends immeasurably beyond that realisable during the regular question and answer session after a demonstration. Furthermore, they are able to see firsthand the entire creative culinary process from crop to finished course.
How many would have been conscious of the hours and energies spent picking, snipping, sorting spruce needles just to deliver a few drops of oil onto their dish had they not had to pick, snip and sort them with their own hands?
Indeed it may be argued that what the tour witnessed was a romanticised rendition of reality. Its members might be forgiven for imaging that a native Sami led a life symbiotic with nature and tied to tradition, living off the land in a steady state of serenity mixed with subtle mystic meditation. This is not the total truth. Most locals buy their meat and fish frozen at the supermarket whilst deforestation, gold and uranium mining by multinationals as well as global warming are threatening wildlife and way of life in this once unspoilt spot. Fishing, hunting, foraging, reindeer rearing, wolf breeding…such activities do persist, but in general they exist as tourist attractions – a role that ironically might be what saves them from extinction.
If these facts make an event such as this seem irrelevant or indulgent, then that too is untrue. For those involved, the significance of taking part – as detailed already – was incredible and even if the memories from this meeting might be limited to those that attended, its merits were certainly not.
Returning home and writing up their experiences, those present will give Lapland its go in the gastro-spotlight. Articles around the world will raise awareness and direct attention on this area as well as, at the same time, dismissing popular myths of its arctic austerity whilst chefs will leave with an improved knowledge of ingredients and of sourcing – wisdom that they may be able to apply within their own terroirs. What is more, there was definite appreciation and delight from the native residents to have such a collection of individuals visit. One lasting memory that illustrates this is from the day spent foraging in the forest. Several elderly Lappish ladies, who had spent that morning gingerly following in René Redzepi’s footsteps eventually approached and asked him, ‘are you the one from Denmark?…the chef from Copenhagen?’ His muted affirmations were met with excited smiles and irrepressible whisperings.
‘Believe it or not,’ Petrini remarked during that debate Sunday night, ‘I am not happy everyday’. This was not the start of a manic depressive’s desperate plea for instant intervention, but the beginning of a tribute to all those who had left their hectic lives behind for a few days to meet in the middle of nowhere and share in a rare experience. Personally, those precise, poignant words were utterly relevant to why those fifty people had travelled the world and collected in Lapland. Echoing Atala’s words, Andrea went on to reveal that what did make him happy was to see his friends – all those whose passions were parallel whether they be chefs or writers or anything else – able to enjoy each other’s company, free from distraction and everyday agitation: to be together and to see them all happy…
After all, at its core, what is Cook it Raw if not a celebration.