It's 6 PM on a Thursday evening and there's already a queue of 20 people waiting outside Black Axe Mangal in Islington, speculating about who will be cooking them dinner tonight.
"There's a few dream choices for us," says a diner called Raymond, who's booked up seven places in the 26-seater restaurant. "Someone from Japan or South America would be great. We'd love to eat some food from somewhere we haven't been." Tonight, BAM owner and chef Lee Tiernan's usual kebabs are off the menu, as he has hopped on a plane to Brazil to cook for one night in the Manu restaurant. In his place, another high-flying chef from somewhere across the world will be picking up the tongs in the BAM kitchen—and in that chef's restaurant, yet another secret cook will be taking over service there for the night there, too.
This is The Gelinaz! Shuffle, the world's largest game of musical chairs, but played with kitchens. As part of the global dinner event, 40 chefs from across the world—including the likes of Rene Redzepi, Alex Atala, and Dan Hunter—are thrown into a giant lottery, scrambled around, and given a new home for the night, which could be in one of any 40 restaurants in 17 countries across the world. And the diners, some of whom feverishly paid upwards of £80 for a ticket back in September, have no idea whose culinary efforts will be plated up for them on the night.
A man in chef whites sticks his head around the door at BAM and addresses the eager queue: "Actually, the chef tonight is me, Simone."
Everyone in the line pulls out their phone and Googles, presumably, Simone, chef, Gelinaz! Google reveals our chef for the evening is Simone Tondo from Paris' Tondo restaurant. Sardinian-born Tondo opened his first restaurant, Roseval, in Paris to rave reviews in 2012, before going on to launch Tondo earlier this year. His style of cooking is modern European in a bistro setting, so to be working in BAM's open grill-kitchen came as something of a culture shock.
"It's my first time doing Gelinaz! The concept sounds a bit crazy, but I thought, why not?" Tondo tells me. "I followed it the first time they did a Gelinaz! Shuffle back in 2015 and I saw the project was growing and I really wanted to be a part of it." Tondo landed in London two days before tonight's dinner and despite never having cooked in a British restaurant before, got stuck in creating his menu. He brought over a few chef friends from Paris and was paired with some of the regular BAM crew to create his eight-course feast for the night.
"I found out about a month ago I was coming to London after the draw, so had to keep it a secret, but I began thinking about what sort of menu to create straight away," Tondo explains. "I'm doing a little bit of the stuff I used to do in my first restaurant, so we have an ox cheek wonton, served in a coriander and lime dashi. Then we have grilled langoustines with leek and grapefruit. I'm trying to cook my food in Lee's kitchen, using the open-plan space he has, with the grills and the stone oven. I'm usually in the back in my kitchen, but here I'm open to the public tonight."
The Gelinaz! Shuffle is an event made for social media-savvy food enthusiasts. As soon as the guests are welcomed into BAM's intimate dining room, they're staring at the screens in their palms, then snapping the shit out of the menu, the restaurant, and of course, scrambling to be the first person to reveal the chef as #simonetondo. Word gets out that Chef's Table don Massimo Bottura is cooking just a few miles away in Chelsea's Hedone, and the lucky diners there have also begun their not-so-humble-bragging Instagram onslaught for the evening.
"Tickets sold out pretty much everywhere in an hour when they went on sale," one diner tells me. "We managed to get our tickets for here in the first ten minutes—I hadn't been to the first Gelinaz! Shuffle, but I'd read about it online, so decided to take a chance on it."
The Shuffle event is just one of the many punk and DIY kitchen happenings organised by the Gelinaz! cooking collective since its inception in 2005. Formed as a reaction to the corporate world of culinary conferences, the group's mission is to bring together cutting edge chefs from across the world and create genuinely exciting dinner events. One of the founding members, food journalist Andrea Petrini, tells me that the idea for Gelinaz! sprung from a conversation he had with his friend, Italian chef Fulvio Pierangelini.
"Fulvio kept being asked for years to attend food congresses around the world, but he never wanted to go," Petrini explains. "He's well known for being a total paranoid—he was sure people would steal his own recipes, it's why he never published a book and never gave recipes to food magazines."
He continues: "It got to the point where he said to me, 'Fuck. They keep asking me to do these events again and again. I can't keep declining them, I either need another really good excuse or a good idea for doing something completely different.' That night, I said, 'Well, what if you go on stage to cook and at the same time, have have three or four other chefs doing their versions of the same recipe—like DJs remixing another record?' And he said, 'OK let's do it.' That's how we started."
The group of rebel chefs started to grow and soon needed a name. They christened themselves after a combination of Pierangelini's name, the rare Geline chicken, and the band Gorillaz. It's Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's cartoon collective who have had the most influence on the chef crew.
"We started to think of ourselves as like a band, so we started to ask other people to join the band, like Rene Redzepi and Davide Scabin," says Petrini. "We did a few gigs on stage, then we did things like a private dinner for 20 guests, where we had eight chefs doing a remix—so people had the same dish eight times, but remixed in different ways." Other pop up "gigs" for the supergroup of chefs include dinner parties in Lima, San Francisco, and Ghent. When the group was on a spiritual Tuscan retreat to brainstorm what their next move would be, a chef threw a map down onto the floor.
"The map had arrows going from Sao Paulo to Copenhagen, from Modena to Tokyo. We said, 'What the fuck is that?' He said 'That's The Shuffle. We all exchange restaurants,'" remembers Petrini. "We said, 'There's no way we can finance this' and the guy said, 'Who cares? We pay for our own flights, then I come to cook at your restaurant, I sleep at your place for a few days, and we exchange people throughout out the world.' We all thought about it and said, 'Fuck it, let's do it!'"
And so, the band's world tour was born. To say the The Shuffle is a logistical nightmare is an understatement. The event is a whole year in the making, overseen by Petrini, who calls himself the road manager, and his bandmate Alexandra Swenden, who also produces all the events. After word got out of the success of the first ever Shuffle in 2015, the chefs were forced into doing an even bigger Shuffle this year—with 20 chefs cooking 40 dishes at a giant dinner party in Brussels, while the other 40 farflung chefs had their one-night stand in another Gelinaz! member's restaurant. As Petrini says: "Everybody wants to be part of the band, now."
Back at BAM, and Tondo's first few courses come out: the ox cheek wonton is a delicious opener for the evening, followed shortly by smoked potato and eel velouté with burnt sage, which he says was a signature dish in his Roseval restaurant.
"Stop photographing! Eat!" Tondo chides with a smile. For a chef normally hidden away in a kitchen out the back, seeing the the trend of snapping food before eating it for the first time must be pretty bemusing.
Mid-meal entertainment comes in the form of temporary tattoos, and we all stick Gelinaz! logos on our limbs. I make a mental note to remove it by the morning, in case my sleeve covers up the "Geli" half and I'm mistakenly branded a white supremacist. Tondo takes a break from service and gets involved in the inking.
"How long will it last for?" he asks nervously, as "DEEP THROATER" is plastered across his left bicep. "Forever!" jokes a BAM waitress.
Back to the grills Tondo goes, and plates up the biggest nod to Tiernan's cooking on the menu tonight: beautifully pink slices of lamb on a pillowy flatbread, sprinkled with a spice blend that's just the right side of atomic. This updated Brits-night-out dish is followed by a more Tondo-style smoked pigeon with grilled cabbage leaves and spinach puree. Dessert is a little cup of tiramisu and a shot of whiskey.
The diners look happy—especially when Tondo comes out to chat with them and pose for selfies—but now he has to do it all over again for the second sitting of the evening, which must be the longest encore of all time.
Tondo seems content with his first service and is looking forward to the next group of diners—and of course, the best part of the night: the after-show party.
"I'm going to meet up with Massimo [Bottura] afterwards for a well-deserved drink," Tondo says.
It'll be AAA all the way, wherever the band of chefs choose to let off steam from this monumental gig. What happens on tour, stays on tour, right?