The excitement was building for the third and final day of the S. Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition 2019-2021 Grand Finale, and kicking off the proceedings was the Brain Food forum - a new panel discussion with chef Virgilio Martínez, The Sages, and Massimo Bottura - presented by Fine Dining Lovers’ editor-in-chief, Ryan King.
A fitting way to start was to invite two former winners of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition, chefs who have gone on to achieve extraordinary things: Mark Moriarty and Mitch Leinhard. Their message for today’s finalists was to grab the opportunity in front of them.
“Winning opened a whole range of opportunities for me,” said Moriarty. “And it has grown year-on-year to be an unbelievable event. Very few people get this opportunity so grab it. You’ll have a new network all over the world and you’ll be able to progress your career better and more quickly. The network of people you’ll meet is probably more important than whether you win or not”
“I had never been out of the US when I won,” recalls Leinhard. "It meant so much to me being able to go to countless countries and meet the chefs I had held in such high regard. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around often."
Leinhard’s advice to the winner was simple: “Please take advantage of it. You can do anything with the opportunity, take that time and use it. The only thing that’s limiting you is yourself.”
With that, the former winners went backstage to cook lunch for the all the finalists. In the meantime, Brain Food welcomed Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez to the stage, who spoke of his incredible work with local communities through work with projects like Mater Iniciativa, and his restaurant Mil.
Martínez presented us with his vision, his work in the Andes and the Amazon and more importantly, the people - chefs, farmers and craftsmen and women - who are integral to the work. He showed us Peru and the incredible biodiversity on the doorstep of Central in Lima, and Mil in Cusco. Mater Incintiva is his research group, which allows his team to get into the forest and up the mountains in search of new flavours and connecting with the communities that live there. Watch out on materiniciativa.com for when applications are open for young chefs to come to Peru and work with them.
“I used to be focused on my kitchen but I understood that I wanted to get deeper. It was a way to reconnect with Peru and connect with different people in different fields,” said Martínez about what motivates him to do what he does.
“At 4000 metres above sea level people are harvesting their potatoes and cooking them in the ground. A way of cooking hot food and celebrating the harvest. We brought these techniques to the kitchen and now we do it in the restaurant,” he said, describing the exchange of knowledge and how it feeds back into his restaurants.
The chef has a vision that goes beyond the Andes and the concept will now move to other destinations around the world.
“Next steps are working on Mil, working in the Andes and the Amazon, by the end of the year we are opening in Moscow and Tokyo with the teams already there,” he said. Pointing to one of the finalists in the audience from Russia, he said: “This guy is going to help me."
On the S. Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition, Martínez sees it having a very important role to play. “I think it’s very important to do this kind of event. For sharing and learning. For chefs like me it’s important to be in touch with the young people. You see here there is the whole planet, all nationalities are here and you learn from each other. You get very good representations of every region. In the end it’s fun but also very productive, it inspires people. It’s good for the industry and for gastronomy these kind of events."
The next phase of the Brain Food forum welcomed The Sages to the stage. The number, originally at seven, was reduced to five, with Pim Techamuanvivit unable to travel, and Mauro Colagreco having to return to France due to unforeseen circumstances. That left us with Enrico Bartolini, Manu Buffara, Andreas Caminada, Gavin Kaysen and Clare Smyth.
As the theme of the event is 'Taste & Creativity', King asked the Sages what steps they take to promote a culture of creativity in their restaurants.
“We all have brilliant teams of ambitious and creative young people,” said Smyth. “It starts with the individual and our own idea and where you’re from. We start with a family meal, food starts with love and we move from there. When everything is about perfection, it can become a bit sterile and sometimes these young chefs don’t have time to be creative and they can work for years and still not have a real identity.”
Manu Buffara, from Brazil, emphasised positivity and heart. “Everyone has their story and we have to make them proud of where they come from and to tell that story through food and ideas. To have soul, heart and always be creative."
Andreas Caminada shared how his approach teaches creativity outside of the kitchen. “We force them to work one day a week in the garden and we do workshops on everything from economics to dreams. We show them the whole process of running a restaurant. Creativity is more than creating a dish, you have to also know the design and the systems around it. Don’t forget about the customers because it’s about hospitality.”
He added that, throughout the pandemic, he was motivated by his sense of responsibility. “In the end, it’s a sense of responsibility that kept me going. The most important thing was to keep all the employees and pay them 100% salary and we were able to do that. That’s why sustainability is important for a business, that you put savings aside for a time like that."
On the staffing crisis facing the sector at the moment, Gavin Kaysen explained how he has managed to attract and retain staff.
“We’ve been fortunate, we moved away from tipping so it’s effectively profit-sharing with the staff,” he said. “That’s a change of culture within the US. It’s been harder to get the guest to understand that but when you explain, they get it. Last month in America one million people left hospitality, that’s because they don’t feel the guests appreciate the worker, and also that they felt hospitality wasn’t their chosen career. It’s our responsibility to professionalise what we do for a living.”
Smyth believes that part of the solution is telling the positive stories of working in the restaurant industry in a rallying cry to the media to do more. “People in hospitality earn a lot of money when they’re at the top level. Yes, we work hard but that’s the same in every profession, so we need to tell that story, tell the positive stories about the industry. You don’t have to leave university £80,000 in debt, you can go into hospitality and train in the job," she said.
The third and final part of the Brain Food forum welcomed Italian maestro Massimo Bottura onto the stage to share his energy and enthusiasm with the audience in attendance and streamed to around the world. He began by explaining the beginnings of his Food For Soul project.
“Food For Soul started as an answer to the theme of EXPO 2015, which was ‘Feed The Planet'. But nobody was asking us ‘how do we feed the planet?” he said.
“I learned that we produce enough food to feed 12 billion people, and that’s an incredible waste of food, but also energy and resources, so I decided to create a space outside the Expo to use that waste to feed those in need."
“I’m Italian and I have always known that we need beauty in our lives and one day we will all need beauty to rebuild after the revolution. So beauty became important in the space, to welcome people into a beautiful place, offering a first course, main, bread and dessert. This was the first step and I thought it was over after the Expo.”
However, Bottura explained, it was only just beginning. “Then I received a call from the mayor of Rio de Janeiro and he asked me to create another soup kitchen and I said ‘why not?’ So we involved many other talents and we created another beautiful place in the favelas in Rio, during the Olympics, and it was explosive because of the politics at the time. We were feeding people with food waste during the Olympics, in Brazil, where they create so much food waste."
Food For Soul now has 15 kitchens all over the world.
“It is an incredible creative exercise, it keeps the door open for something new. You never know what you will find in the morning when the truck pulls up. You start using your brain, your consciousness, your sense of responsibility, everything you have learned on your profession. Cooking is an act of love. When I was cooking at home during the pandemic I was putting the same love in the food at home that I do in my restaurants.”
Bottura is convinced that culture is the key component for changing the world, starting with opening our minds and hearts, listening and learning and allowing creativity to flourish.
“Culture is the future,” he says. “It’s the most important ingredient for the chef of the future. We start by knowing where we come from... How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know your past? Leave always a space open for poetry in your everyday life.”
Drawing on data from the Fine Dining Lovers’ Why Waste? survey, King told Bottura that 86% of people agreed that food waste reduction is the first step to creating a better future, and almost as many said that reducing food waste makes them feel good.
“I know that those answers come from the young generation because I receive hundreds of messages form young people every day wanting to get involved in Food For Soul,” said Bottura. “They love this project because it’s not only about food, but also resources, water and feeding those in need."
“Osteria Francescana has 4 Michelin stars… three red and one green, which is the more important one. Imagine if you couldn’t get any red stars unless you first get the green star. This is an idea I have in my mind."
Can taste and creativity be taught? “You have to develop your taste. Travel with your ears and your eyes open, consider culture,” said Bottura. “To be creative means to know everything and then to forget everything. How can you understand fish if you don’t go to Japan and taste sushi from the masters? How can you understand the balance of acidity and fish unless you taste ceviche in Peru? Or barbecue in Canada? Travel with your ears, eyes and mind open, but never forget where you come from."
On the S. Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition 2019-2021, Bottura said: “I’m part of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition from the beginning, and for me it’s the way to build the future. I’ve seen the chefs who have been part of this, not just the winners, but all of them, grow from cooks into chefs, to become leaders. I remember Mark when he was cooking at the Refettorio in Milan I was so moved, he was sharing family recipes. This event is very important to build the future and to shape the minds of young chefs with beauty.”
To close the Brain Food forum, Bottura kept the best for last as he made a very special announcement.
“We have a very special relationship with S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, they helped us a lot during the pandemic – another lesson is develop relations with people you like. S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna and Food For Soul have a special relationship, and because of this relationship all the young chefs here will be able to visit the Refettorios around the world and train to be part of the revolution."
"All of those who competed during the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Grand Finale are invited to do internships in the Refettorio to learn about food waste and to take those approaches back to their own kitchens. All the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy members can apply."