Elite chefs are swapping kitchens, and shaping the world’s culinary and cultural future.
Earlier this year in the hushed private dining room of the three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin in New York City, chef Eric Ripert emerged from the kitchen to greet lunch guests and escort them to their seats. Although the setting was his seafood-forward dining temple, the dishes that hit the table that afternoon weren’t Ripert’s handiwork at all. Rather, they had been created by English-born chef Martin Benn, who had jetted in from Sydney with a small team from his award-winning Sepia restaurant, known for its focus on sustainable ingredients and avant-garde dishes that fuse classic French techniques with Japanese-influenced visual artistry. Cooking atLe Bernardin for one day, Benn dazzled American eaters with a butter-poached Hawkesbury River squid; tender Australian wagyu beef with Japanese pickles and samphire, a briny sea vegetable; and a golf-ball-sized “pearl” dessert that, when cracked open, released a slightly fizzy, tart gingerade with finger-lime powder.
Kitchen sharing or even relocating a restaurant to a faraway continent is trending. This year, for the first time, Britain’s Heston Blumenthal uprooted his 20-year-old flagship establishment, The Fat Duck, moving it from Bray, England, to Melbourne, Australia, for six months. In January, Danish chef René Redzepi temporarily relocated Copenhagen’s Noma—regularly a “World’s Best Restaurant” contender—to Tokyo, where he opened a Noma pop-up serving a 15-course tasting menu priced at 40,200 yen (about $336). Such exchanges generate publicity, to be sure, but on a deeper level they are a form of culinary diplomacy, a first step in the demystification of a faraway culture. Food, after all, is the way to a nation’s heart, an easy gateway to understanding—witness the long-standing custom of monarchs exchanging tribute gifts of tea, local delicacies, and livestock.
Some of the recherché ingredients and techniques shared by chefs ultimately filter down to the masses. Consider that, until the 1970s, sushi was a rarity in Western countries and is now a mainstay in cities around the world. Or that currently European Union officials are debating whether British Birmingham Balti curries, derived from Pakistani fare, should be given an official protected food name designation. Along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Britain boasts one of the world’s largest Pakistani diaspora communities, one whose cuisine has been embraced by generations of Britons from a diversity of ethnic backgrounds. Consequently, curry has become “a great part of the U.K.’s food heritage, along with fish and chips and pork pies,” Elizabeth Truss, Britain’s secretary of state for environment, food, and rural affairs, told the New York Times in January.
While culinary border crossing bestows pleasure on the plate, it also often spreads virtue. Globalization, the two-edged sword that disseminates Big Macs, makes widely available the “bright flavors from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia to Latin America,” wrote Greg Drescher of the Culinary Institute of America in a 2013 CNN Eatocracy blog post. This can “often tip a menu balance more towards healthier, plant-based foods and away from meat,” he wrote. Chefs, he added, “have a unique opportunity to leverage our new, collective culinary wanderlust on behalf of public health.”
South Korean-born food-truck pioneer Roy Choi is a case in point. He and Daniel Patterson, a Michelin-starred San Francisco chef, are working to put cheap, healthy Asian- and Latin American-inflected fast food in low-income California neighborhoods, and the two are spreading their proactive gospel abroad, as they did in 2014 at Redzepi’s Copenhagen symposium, known as MAD (drawn from the Danish word for food), an annual gathering of chefs, scholars, and activists that has been called the Davos of food. Chefs have become thought leaders on everything from plating and slaughtering methods to food justice.
Exposure to foreign approaches is part of a venerable culinary tradition, but one that used to be emphatically Franco-centric and top down: A jaunt in a Paris kitchen was almost compulsory for chefs who aspired to the pinnacle of the profession. The brigade system established by chef Auguste Escoffier in the late 19th century militarized training, with protégés working their way through “stations,” ranks including plongeur (dishwasher) and poissonnier (fish cook). In recent years, however, a stint with Spanish molecular-gastronomy darling Ferran Adrià or sushi maestro Jiro Ono in Japan might be more prized. Today’s international guest-cheffing is a collaborative, multilateral phenomenon that places chefs “outside their comfort zone,” in the words of Andrea Petrini, co-founder of the global chefs collective Gelinaz!. Notably, that organization has no national base but orchestrates events like this summer’s “chef shuffle”: In early July, 37 chefs from Asia, Europe, North and South America, and Australia, including Redzepi and Alain Ducasse, swapped kitchens for a day.
The cross-fertilization is both professional and philosophical. In Japan, Redzepi was struck by the primacy of personal relationships, as opposed to transactions, in his dealings with fishmongers and other purveyors. At the same time, Michelin-starred Japanese chef Shinobu Namae, who facilitated Redzepi’s intense research of Japanese ingredients, was impressed by what the Dane calls “trash cooking”—the mindful use of often discarded byproducts, such as pig tails, fish heads, and potato skins—part of his mission to eradicate waste from his kitchen. Anita Lo, co-author of Cooking Without Borders and owner of New York City’s acclaimed Annisa restaurant, which fuses American, Asian, and French cuisine, says guest-cheffing in a Russian kitchen gave her a more intimate insider’s view of Moscow. And award-winning tapas chef Jamie Bissonnette not only discovered local crustaceans like bay bugs and mud crabs while cooking at Melbourne’s Bomba in March, but he also learned about Australia’s unique style of butchering domestic wagyu: “They take some muscles out of the back legs,” rendering a tender and flavorful cut. The American chef was so inspired that he plans to experiment with the method back home in Boston.
This knowledge sharing can also involve exalted chefs learning from more humble practitioners. In February, for example, Ripert invited a South Korean monk to churn out traditional vegetarian temple dishes in New York. Even street fare often percolates up into high-end repertoires. “Cooking in Singapore when I was 25 changed my life,” says Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised Marcus Samuelsson, whose New York City restaurants include Red Rooster Harlem and Streetbird Rotisserie. “All that hawker food, the ethnic Malay food,” he says, made him “think about what [culinary] diversity means.”
But cuisine is almost incidental to Samuelsson’s most salient guest-cheffing memory. In the late 1990s, he was invited to cook at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans. The place started out as a sandwich shop in 1939 and became a bar and restaurant that drew leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr. “It was one of the first integrated restaurants in America, and it’s really a part of American history,” Samuelsson says. “Cooking there went way beyond being a badass chef for me—it was being able to walk in history.”
Today, he and his peers have become unofficial culinary ambassadors abroad and change agents back home as they soak up ideas on their walkabouts. In this role, they too are making history, leaving an enduring imprint in distant geographies and forever reshaping the way food is produced, presented, and relished in their homelands.
Illustration by Alvaro Dominguez