It's been six years since the ferocious Italian food entrepreneur Alessandro Porcelli founded Cook It Raw—an annual, off-the-grid gathering of the world's most dynamic chefs. The concept was simple: top chefs were thrown into the wilderness and stripped of their entourages and fancy kitchen machinery. Porcelli wanted the selected chefs to leave their Michelin stars at home, allowing them to cook together to bring them closer to the essence of their shared profession. In its early beginnings, it was perceived as a revelation, but as Porcelli prepares for the eighth gathering—this time in Alberta, Canada—he's been asking himself whether Cook it Raw is in danger of being overcooked.
"What am I doing? Why am I doing this? It just hit me one afternoon and I felt an urge to make everyone else ask themselves that, too—all my friends, the chefs, the farmers, the producers, everyone I've worked with during all this time," Porcelli explains, his blue eyes blazing. He's ready for new challenges, and so is Cook It Raw. "At first it was about introducing the philosophy and bringing high-profile chefs together like a scout group and have fun with it," he laughs. "Now we need to focus on the bigger picture and return to the core purpose. The trade is so obsessed with the 'next big thing' instead of looking at best practices in the kitchen environment and building a solid structure."
This year, Porcelli says it's been essential for Cook It Raw to not just become another gathering. "[The] key for me has been to reflect on the very reason why I originally started Cook It Raw, the responsibility it entails, and what has given me the strength to continue over the years," Porcelli explains. Known for his charisma and proactive nature, Porcelli wants to use Cook It Raw Alberta as a platform to change the way that the international chef community works, the values it stands for, and the way it treats both newcomers and peers inside the kitchen.
Previous Cook It Raw gatherings have been held in sexy locations like Copenhagen, Lapland, and Ishikawa Prefecture with an impressive line-up of celebrity chefs like René Redzepi, David Chang, Inaki Aizpitarte, and Massimo Bottura. This year's destination, Alberta, is decidedly different from its predecessors, and a province widely known for its grand-scale agri-food industry. Being surrounded by a reindeer herd above the Polar Circle is certainly more extreme than exploring a place known for its beef production and grain and oilseed milling, but Porcelli is convinced that Alberta will amaze everyone with what it has to offer.
Porcelli has also reshaped Cook It Raw Alberta into a two-part programme, with a five-month break in between the events rather than the single annual extravaganza. This year, the events will include more local chefs and less of the celebrity chef frenzy that had previously defined the event. "I knew we needed an impressive opening scenario to forge common grounds and an honest and real sense of sharing and togetherness," he says. What he didn't need was the snow at Birch Island in Lac La Biche two weeks before the spiritual retreat on May 19. But conditions improved and Porcelli kicked off the first round with a purifying ceremony led by a shaman in a traditional First Nation sweat lodge. Aboriginal sweat lodge ceremonies are considered places of personal development that help people to stop, reflect, and transform.
The purpose of this gathering was for the selected 14 inspirational Albertan chefs to slow down, get centred, and single out ingredients, processes, and cooking methods that would set the tone and framework for the second event that will take place this October in the Rocky Mountains. "It was magical to witness what kindness, slowing down, and having time to think can generate. We caught more than 50 pikes over the course of three days, cooked together without the usual stress and pressures… It was an intense and emotional experience for all," Porcelli describes.
As Porcelli takes the last sip of his macchiato, there's a tangible feeling in the air: hope. Still moved by the introductory gathering at Lac La Biche, Porcelli has great expectations for part two on October 4th, 2015. Porcelli encourages everyone to rethink what they're after working in the industry. What's the value in a number-one position if the structure it's built on isn't solid and well?
So here's the "next big thing" in food: slow down, stop, and rethink. Cook It Raw Alberta will hopefully spark a change and foster a deeper understanding as to what truly matters to chefs and a good restaurant.