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It was just under a year ago they held their secret meeting. A three day retreat in the hills of Florence with chefs from all over the world, some of the best, all together in one place. Three days of Italian feasting, wine, lots of cooking and closed door plotting. 13 chefs inside a huge Tuscan villa once owned by the Italian Medici family. They were there to work on their latest plans. Only members were allowed to enter the safe room, a place where the mysterious chef collective could speak openly. Strictly NO journalists. Gelinaz! was in Italy.
The ragtag bunch of nomadic chefs had rolled into town on serious business. The collective that’s packed with creativity, brimming with attitude and stacked with ample ideas to match, was ready to step it up. They’d secured their reputation as the best, craziest and down right tastiest party throwers in town with events in Ghent and Lima and just months earlier had upped the anti by sneaking into New York to convince a shocked Wylie Dufresne that his restaurant’s cooling system had failed. All to surprise a man they said deserved more recognition.
While cooking up a feast with the Italian butcher Dario Cecchini, on the last night of their stay in Italy, the chefs never revealed exactly what they spoke about in that room. I pushed them on the night of the feast and they were all tight lipped - they just said, with cheeky smiles, that they might have a great idea and that idea they were teasing, perhaps their most ambitious yet, is something that’s about to send ripples across kitchens all over the world. When an idea has Rene Redzepi saying the scariest part for him is ‘the overwhelming risk of failure” and Albert Adria proclaiming “it's such a crazy idea that I cannot find enough adjectives to define it” - you know you’re pushing the boundaries.
The idea that’s scaring them? On July 9th 37 of the world’s best chefs will swap restaurants in a lottery style system that could well bring the day in which Alain Ducasse finds himself standing inside the kitchen of Mission Chinese in New York and Danny Bowein, known for his stingingly hot cuisine, behind one of Ducasse’s monster kitchens and crews. But that’s not all, that would be too easy, not quite Gelinaz! enough. Chefs are traveling and cooking at each other’s restaurants all the time, what they’re not doing is walking their dog, dropping their kids at school, literally living the life of the other chef and that’s exactly what The Gelinaz! Grand Shuffle entails.
The chefs cooking together at the Acqua Panna villa in Italy after their meeting.
The group is led by Andrea Pertrini and Alexandra Swenden, though led seems a strong word, such a gang of strong individuals is more gently driven in a shared direction. As they explain: “It’s really swapping identities and full lives. You have all these guys swapping restaurants, swapping lives and living in each other’s places…You might know Ben Shewry, might even know how to do his cuisine, but you don’t know exactly what it’s like to live like Ben Shewry. Sleeping in the small room close to the restaurant when he doesn’t feeling like driving one hour and a half away from Melbourne, know how it is to twice a day to fetch the veg in the little garden nearby, how is the stress of his service. It’s really putting someone in another persons cloths for four and a half days.”
“Nothing scares me” said Yoshihiro Narisawa when I asked him about the shuffle but I think finding himself standing in Europe with a whole crew of people to manage and an entirely different life to live is enough to put anyone on the edge. Redzepi’s first reply seems more on point, as he adds: “It is a challenge itself the fact that you arrive alone a few days before - it's not a lot of time for you to submerse yourself in a new place. And so the further away you get from your own culture and doing things, the more challenging I believe it becomes. But of course it can also result in more interesting thinking.”
It’s one of the youngest members of the group, Blaine Wetzel, who came up with the idea, with calls of “Blame Blaine” flying about the entire collective. It was the American chef who threw down a map during that closed door meeting in Tuscany, an idea he satys stems from guilt. As he explains: “I had done quite a few cooking events, all these great chefs have, and every time I left to go do one I felt really guilty to leave my the whole staff and everybody at home and then come back and tell them about this awesome experience I had. So I the idea was we could actually involve all the staff from all these different restaurant and it will still be 40 travelling chefs but it would affect maybe a 1000 chefs all participating.”
We’ve seen this idea of restaurants without borders more and more recently with The Roca Brothers, Heston Blumenthal and Rene Redzepi all taking their restaurants out to the world. This aspect combined with the whole pop-up style of the shuffle idea, the sharing it encourages, the sheer number of chefs that will benefit, make it all one of most promising projects we’ve seen from the collective. Tomorrow we’ll find out exactly where the chefs will be placed, Virgilio Martinez from the warmth of Peru to remote location of Faviken in Sweden? Sean Brock from North Corolina to Mirazur just outside Monte Carlo? Massimo Bottura to the edge of Denmark at Paul Cunningham’s Henne Kirkeby Kro? If so, I’m pretty cure Cunningham will fancy a ride of Bottura’s beautiful Italian motorcycle in Italy - that is if the chef hasn’t hid his engines for the duration of the shuffle.
Tickets will go on sale for the Grand Gelinaz Shuffle on May 13th at 6pm BST on the Gelinaz! website.