"You should go explore the surroundings and pick some juniper berries, but make sure to never go alone. Keep the bear spray on you, because the grizzlies are dangerous."
Local environmentalist Rob Butler warned us on day one at Cook It Raw's latest gathering in Alberta, Canada. After a bumpy four-wheel drive, we had arrived at Mount Engadine Lodge, located at 6,050 feet above sea level.
We were an eclectic group of five writers, nine international chefs, 14 local counterparts, one cameraman, and two photographers, but we stood together in awe as we looked across at the patchwork scenery of the Canadian Rockies. All the while, a huge moose stood 50 feet from us, chilling, chewing mud, and wondering what the hell was going on in his valley.
"To be invited to this circle and to all be on the same level is a bit hard to compute," explained Brayden Kozak of Three Boars Eatery, located in Edmonton. "I'm still working hard to find myself in this, and to be representing Alberta at Cook It Raw is kind of surreal," he continued. Sweden's Magnus Ek of Oaxen, located in Stockholm, couldn't wait to go fly-fishing: "I really want to see how they do things here." The mixture of chefs from near and far had a rare sense of solidarity between them. It was a refreshing, along with the beautiful setting we'd become immersed in for the next four days. I had to poke the air to see if it was real.
Cook It Raw had always seemed distant to me; exclusive, isolated and very chef-y. Nevertheless, I appreciated the intentions behind it: creating awareness of a place by tapping into its culinary traditions, heritage, and ingredients while inspiring chefs in the process. The first Cook It Raw, which took place in 2009, marked the beginning of chefs moving away from their kitchens into physically and mentally challenging environments that were out of their control. A few years later, it shifted from that ethos and settled more on the ego; whoever got to pose with the carcass and the bloody knife first.
Set aside the Alberta cowboys in huge pick-up trucks and the 80s architecture built during the oil boom, this place is home to forward-thinking urban farming and a young, aware food community. Albertans are on it when it comes to urban farming and beekeeping, growing their own food sources and embracing all things local. This is confirmed in a blossoming new restaurant scene that's embracing the province's possibilities and alternative practices. As for the local chefs, they are refreshingly low profile. Cook It Raw had landed itself in the right place.
"We all agreed to check our egos at the door, no question about it," said John Michael MacNeil of Black Pig Bistro. Other Calgarian chefs chimed in. "I want to stop cooking for the 5 percent and start cooking for the 95 percent," said Darren MacLean of Shokinun. "We're at this gathering to see the big picture and to ask ourselves what type of chefs and leaders we want to become," added Justin Leboe of Model Milk, who's more motivated by creating a holistically sustainable restaurant than stardom. "It's not about personal relationships but about whether a cook is good at his job or not," added chef Shane Chartrand of Sage. The Alberta chefs are not just "getting rid of the cancer"⎯i.e. sacking a poor cook with a bad attitude⎯but addressing the greater cancer, the failing chef trade, and a restaurant industry gone bad. Many agree that it's harder than ever to find quality, devoted cooks with the right perspective on the profession. And the relentless quest for the "next big thing," the rivalry, and the bad energy it generates has gotten worse than ever.
Cook It Raw founder Alessandro Porcelli insisted on tackling the beast: "Let's stop just talking about it and come up with concrete tools to work with." While some chefs became defensive, others were open to change. "Many people don't get that this is the only thing I do in life, or that it's my only interest from morning until evening… I appreciated the old way, because it made me a more disciplined cook," argued Brandon Baltzley of TMIP in Michigan.
"The chefs' trade is a very delicate micro culture, and we can't afford to continue to approach it like we've done in the past. We're forced to think differently if we're to have a future at all," Porcelli explained. According to norm, the event culminated in debates and presentations of dishes based around local ingredients such as bison, beef, honey, root vegetables, canola, Saskatoon berries, and red fife, a native wheat.
But a greater part of the gathering transformed into a chef discussion about the challenges of contemporary kitchen culture with urgency, presenting each other with potential solutions. Cook It Raw had to open up, evolve, and start working on the big picture. "I get young cooks coming in and telling me that they want the whole "garden experience," but they aren't necessarily willing to work for it. They only want the bragging rights without having to deal with it," Paul Rogalski, head of Rouge Restaurant, explained. At Rouge, homegrown produce from the restaurant's backyard has been a rule, not a trend, since 2002. Rogalski has been one of the pioneers in Alberta who is shaping a better food system. "The sweet spot happens when everything aligns: the weather, nature, people," he mused.
Sure, parts of Cook it Raw remain elitist: the mediatized VIP dinner, the tight group of chefs only, and the after parties, but what went on in Alberta was more than just hype. It became about the unknown future rather than the past. Cook It Raw and its chefs are creating a healthy international community that speaks for heterogeneity of the kitchen environment and the end of the celebrity chef with its many dubious expressions. Best of all, though: the rise of a next generation restaurant industry. That's why big names like Ferran Adriá keep coming back; it fits their needs to evolve and constantly challenge themselves for the better.
Sitting in the autumn sun on the last day at Kananaskis, Alessandro addressed the group: "In my 32 years of traveling and working with many chefs and restaurants, I've never seen anything like this— where people actually listen to one another. The core of Cook It Raw has been about the fruits of collaboration. Until this year's event, it hasn't come true. Now we've arrived at the truth, and the real expression of Cook It Raw. This is a good place to start working from."