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“We’re pleasure seekers, we don’t want to give up pleasure”
In 2011 American chef Matthew Kenney got up on the stage of TEDx to talk about food choices, haute cuisine and health: it was a speech that had an extraordinary international resonance, especially for the importance it attached to pleasure. In brief, on the subject of food, what counts most is the pleasure it affords.
Much of the American chef’s life has been spent trying to demonstrate that a plant-based diet can be just as satisfying as any meat-based one. But, unlike the latter, it has positive effects on our body and on the environment. Having spent his childhood in Maine (developing what he refers to as an “avid outdoors man” attitude) Kenney moved to New York where, following his Political Science studies, he decided to start afresh and dedicate his efforts to cooking.
A form of cuisine which, as his career advanced - punctuated with new restaurant openings, books and awards – was increasingly focused on the many multi-coloured nuances of vegan food and raw food diets. In 2009 he founded the Matthew Kenney Culinary Academy, the world's first state licensed raw food educational center, which now has five branches worldwide acting as educational but also experimental centres on everything concerning raw veganism.
We met with Matthew Kenney in Milan during Identità Golose, where he was invited to speak, with that mingling of diffidence and concern typical of those who expect an intox from those who intend to promote detox: reproaches, attempts to indoctrinate and radicalization. Instead, a few minutes were sufficient to realize that his approach is quite the opposite.
How did you come into cooking?
I was in New York working for Christie's and studying law. Whenever I had a little bit of extra money I spent it in restaurants. I just loved them! Even when I was young I adored the experience of dining and all the magic in restaurants - the music, the lighting, the wine. It was in the back of my mind that I wanted to own a restaurant, even though I didn't properly want to become a chef.
Every lunchtime I kept walking by this new restaurant that was about to open, a Sicilian restaurant called Malvasia. After ten days of looking at the design and the menu the manager came up to me and said: "We've seen you outside a lot, are you looking for a job?” I said “Sure!”, left my other job and took the job at the restaurant.
How was your first experience in a kitchen?
I loved everything about it, even the chefs getting mad and the stress ... it was beautiful. That made my career. I stayed there for a year, and also attended the French Culinary Institute. I kept growing my culinary skills and the same time my passion for health. 15 years later, I managed to combine the two things.
What's your normal diet?
Almost all vegan. I'm not strict about raw, but I prefer raw food. I drink a lot of liquids. Everything very seasonal. A little bit of cheese from now and then. But I eat in restaurants a lot - I'm a chef, I have to and I'm just as passionate about them as I was years ago. I don't stay at home eating sprouts and tofu everyday: I love drinking wine and enjoying beautiful food.
Why are raw vegan dishes always so aesthetically pleasing?
The presentation is very important, because this is a new style of cuisine and it has to capture people's attention. One advantage is that we're not cooking, so the colors stay the same and everything is so vibrant and bright instead of brown. We have to take advantage of that and show people how alive this food is. We even teach how to present it in a beautiful way in classes.
Who was your teacher?
I taught myself. And I listen a lot, I learned from my students from all over the world and I keep on learning from them.
Is raw veganism in conflict with culinary traditions from all over the world, based on animal proteins and long cooking?
No. For example, we took a lot of inspiration from Italy. One of our most popular dishes is cacio and pepe (literally: cheese and pepper) made with kelp or zucchini noodles, and served with a creamy and peppery sauce. We embrace the history of every country and respect it.
Should we all eat vegan?
People should incorporate it into their lifestyle and decide if they want to do it full time or not. When I started I was more idealistic, but now I think everybody as their own path, as well as we all have different blood types. It took me 40 years to figure out what was better for me, so I don't criticize anyone if they’re not able to do it.
What's your opinion about philosophers, scientists and experts, from Lévi-Strauss to Pollan, saying that cooking helped developing humankind?
Pollan, he's a very talented writer but he’s trying to be politically correct. I know it’s a bold statement, but I think that he knows that this diet feels better. I'm not a scientist or a doctor but I’m 52 and I know how to listen to my body. Anyway, there’s nothing bad in cooking, I needed to learn to cook before learning how to work with raw food. Some food is better when cooked.
What are the next steps in veganism now that it has become sort of a trend?
It's going to become part of a chef's repertoire. You can have amazing meals from all over the world: I ate mostly vegan at Redzepi's Noma and totally vegan at Alain Passard's L'Arpège in Paris. I can see all these very talented chefs incorporating vegan into their cuisine and embracing new visions: we’ll be able to find vegan food.