#50BestTalks from The World’s 50 Best Restaurants sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, which brings together the biggest names in food to discuss the burning culinary issues of the day, hit San Francisco this week, following previous editions in Barcelona, Macau and San Sebastián.
Taking ‘Voices for Change – Championing a Diverse Future’ as its theme, the event at the city’s Dogpatch Studios saw the world’s best chefs take to the stage to tell their stories and share their hopes and dreams for a more ethical and diverse future, not only within food, but in the world at large.
What emerged, as a running theme is how important it is for us all – chefs, restaurateurs, diners (humans) – to step out of our comfort zones to affect the real change we want to see.
Chef Gaggan Anand certainly stepped out of his when he left his home country of India a decade or so ago to open Gaggan in Bangkok. He’s been a massive success there of course, helped in no small part by the spotlight shone on him by The World’s 50 Best and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, but now he’s ready to start again – again – when he leaves for Japan to open a new restaurant in 2020. Chefs still have to suffer in Asia to represent their “ethnicity, colour, culture and food,” he says, but investors and diners are now much more willing to take a chance on an expensive restaurant serving non-Western cuisine, even one when 22 out of 25 courses are eaten with the hands, as at Gaggan. “Asia has just begun,” says Anand.
Gaggan Anand and Daniela Soto-Innes; Virgilio Martínez
Chef Enrique Olvera of Mexico City’s Pujol restaurant also feels that the global dining scene is losing its Euro-centricity, after all, he says, “Food migrates so easily.” At New York’s Cosme restaurant, he and business partner, Daniela Soto-Innes, who joined him on stage, have also sought to move away from a traditionally European pyramidal kitchen hierarchy, with greater emphasis on parallel roles and collaboration, even going so far as to hire staff with no previous kitchen experience. For them, creating a fun work environment is a top priority, the hope being that this sense of joy and inclusivity seeps into the overall experience of every guest.
On the subject of the ethical kitchen, chef Dominique Crenn feels that to stand back, assess and accept the way your restaurant works (or doesn’t) is still very painful for many chefs and restaurateurs, but that again, if the people working in restaurants want to see real change, they have to step out of their comfort zones and face the harsh realities of how employees are treated. “ “Employees must be seen, heard and not feel like a number,” she says, “Let us move past labels … and lists.”
Focusing the attention back on the diner, chef Virgilio Martínez and his team are perhaps doing more than many to introduce international gastronomes to new flavours and ingredients at their various restaurants in Peru, and also around the world, with their exploration of indigenous Peruvian produce. Most recently that involves cooking dishes such as piranha and alpaca hearts – as Martínez says, we should all “Surrender to the possibility of not knowing,” because it’s in those new experiences where real changes – of hearts, minds, tastes and attitudes – occur. Applying this maxim to his own work, Martinez revealed the beginnings of a new project centred on the Peruvian Amazon, one he describes as his most challenging yet.
Bringing this #50Best Talks event to a close, it was left to Lara Gilmore, one half of the husband and wife team behind The World’s Best Restaurant, Osteria Francescana, along with chef Massimo Bottura, to talk about the two huge projects occupying their time currently: Tortellante, an initiative based in Modena, Italy which teaches children and young adults with learning difficulties pasta making skills; and of course, the NGO Food For Soul, which has now gone global, with soup kitchen projects that make use of food otherwise destined for landfill springing up in cities as geographically diverse as Rio, London and Milan. “Stepping out of kitchens and into communities,” is, Gilmore says, the food moving beyond its comfort zone and the best way to have its voice heard.
And what of The World's 50 Best Restaurants itself? It has faced criticism of course for its lack of diversity and its perceived favouring of European, tasting menu restaurants. It is changing, said Group Editor William Drew, and the presence of a restaurant like Cosme, which isn't a fine dining restaurant, at number 25 on the list, is evidence of that, he says.