With the city of Warsaw sprawling out beneath us, it was difficult to tear ourselves away from the stunning panoramic views from the 51st floor of the Daniel Libeskind-designed Zlota 44 tower in the Polish capital. But when you have seven of the world’s best chefs reclining on a sofa ready to chew the fat, they demand your attention.
This wasn’t some casual meet and greet: we were in town for the first Lexus Hybrid Cuisine event in Poland, sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Fine Dining Lovers, a one off creative meeting designed to promote Polish gastronomy and cultural exchange between top international and Polish chefs, with a series of dinners and gourmet excursions to keep all occupied of course.
The seven top international chefs in attendance – Mitsuharu Tsumura, Josean Alija, Zaiyu Hasegawa, Fredrik Berselius, Dani García, Søren Selin and Jonathan K. Berntsen – have a total of 10 Michelin stars between them and it was hoped that a little bit of this magic would rub off on Warsaw’s culinary scene over the course of the event.
Relaxed on said sofa, the chefs, many of who were meeting for the first time, were asked their thoughts on a variety of issues facing haute cuisine today, while attendees were treated to dishes from top Polish chefs, including S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 hopeful Marcin Popielarz.
This is what they had to say.
The strength of Spain’s culinary offering in recent years is a great example of what can be achieved when chefs come together to promote the greater good, something the Polish chefs in attendance surely took note of. Dani García, who holds two Michelin stars at his eponymous restaurant in Marbella, remembered how “concentrated on individualism” chefs were when he first entered the kitchen. But now chefs no longer keep secrets he says: they travel more and are more willing to look into other cuisines, cuisines they want to discover the secrets of. “It’s easier to cooperate than to go solo,” García concluded.
Zaiyu Hasegawa of Tokyo’s Den restaurant, which not only recently gained its second star, but jumped up to second place on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, spoke of how he was only too happy to share knowledge with those interested in Japanese cuisine, a view shared by Josean Alija of Bilbao’s Nerua restaurant, not that it’s always easy. “You have to be brave to share,” said Alija. “Fear is not conducive to being happy and if you’re happy, you’re going to inspire other people.”
Success and Failure
What is success? Sitting at the top of the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list you would think that chef Mitsuharu Tsumura of Lima’s Maido is the epitome of success. But it wasn’t always so, as he spoke of a turbulent period in the restaurant’s history that almost saw it go under. “At the end of each day, think about what you did right and wrong,” he implored chefs. “Food can be improved – there’s no such thing as a perfect recipe.” For Josean Alija, failure is part of working in a creative industry, and he defines failure in two ways: failure to manage people, for which you pay personally he says, “Because people lose faith in you," and business/financial failure. Dani García believes even the world’s best chefs can be clueless when it comes to business. “Top chefs are still a bit afraid of talking about finances, they see themselves as artists,” he said.
Chefs are usually loathe to talk about trends, but Fredrik Berselius of New York’s two-Michelin-star Aska restaurant takes a more pragmatic approach: “There are good and bad trends … good trends stick around and become traditions.” He sees tradition as “a good anchor,” but admitted to getting bored very easily – take a look at some of his Nordic-inspired dishes here. For Berselius, “curiosity is success an important part of cooking.” Likewise, for Tsumura: “If you want to become a good cook you have to eat almost everything,” he said.
With so many gadgets at their disposal, today’s chefs have it easy right? Well, no, argued Tsumura. “The best way to improve is through repetition,” argued the Peruvian chef. “Machines won’t give you ideas; ideas come from humans.” Berselius feels that limiting yourself can be more inspiring and that chefs should force themselves to be creative “without an abundance of toys.”
According to Tsumura, talking about sustainability is something chefs “really look forward to,” with marine sustainability particularly close to his heart and everything he and his team do at Maido. Søren Selin of Copenhagen’s AOC restaurant looked back to the roots of the New Nordic revolution, a movement that “wanted to be seasonal in an extreme way,” he said, while Jonathan K. Berntsen spoke of the relatively minor role meat now plays on the 20 course tasting menu at his restaurant Clou, also in Copenhagen. “In high gastronomy you choose the best meat and pair it with great vegetables,” he said.
“When you have a good restaurant, you’re in a position to help,” said Berntsen, when asked whether gastronomy can be a force for social change. Clou holds fundraisers for local charities at least once a year, he said, though it’s not something they publicise, while over at Maido, education is key, with the restaurant offering three scholarships a year to young chefs that want to work in the restaurant, while also running an initiative that teaches local women how to make products from soy that they can then sell. For Berselius, successful chefs have an obligation to make a difference: “If you have a following, you have an opportunity to make a positive impact – it’s a no brainer!” he said.