Smoke fills the halls as Jake Kellie, the young head chef of Burnt Ends fires up his engines at the start of the cook. The air around him fogs up with the smell of burning wood and his eyes take on the sharp focus of a hawk as he adjusts the fire. His assigned mentor, Richard Ekkebus, the executive chef of two-Michelin-starred restaurant Amber stands by watching, encouraging and doling out pointers.
Kellie’s aim: To go against 21 other chefs in a five-hour cook and present his dish of aged pigeon served with berry compote. The stakes? The title of the S. Pellegrino Young Chef of 2018 which will open restaurant doors across the globe.
This is a gathering of some of the most promising culinary upstarts from across the world, from South America to the Far East. Those presiding over the competition are gastronomic giants: Dominique Crenn, Paul Pairet, Margarita Fores and Virgilio Martinez.
In 2018, the world of gastronomy has become flatter. Where French and Japanese cuisine once occupied the top of the totem pole of fine dining, that notion is fast becoming a thing of the past. Today, cuisines from across the world are making their mark as unique and measured by their own yardstick.
As restaurants of every stripe from Nordic to Thai emerge on the world stage, so too are the toques behind them and the team that propels these names forward.
This is why international gatherings matter. For what’s traded here is access to a global talent base and the desire to progress through the spirit of competition.
Indeed, chefs in the 21st century are rock stars whose role has gone beyond being cooped up in the kitchen and peering out at diners from the pass. They have become thought leaders showing the way on sustainability, gender equality and even levelling out income disparities. Their restaurants — often award-winning ones that dominate rankings — have become pulpits from which ideas and opinions are lobbed to a mainstream audience already hungry for more.
They have invaded cinema screens and Netflix, published coffee table books and appeared on magazine covers. They’ve opened soup kitchens, thrust farms and farmers into the spotlight and even stamped their names on mass market goods like ice cream bars.
But where does it all start? Right there in that smokey hall as dozens of ambitious and deliriously hungry young chefs chop, stir and flambe hot griddles, waiting to be catapulted into the next arena.
This is where it all began.
Making of a Mentor
To be sure, only a tiny handful of chefs reach such vaunted heights. All start as apprentices at the bottom of the food chain peeling potatoes and dicing onions into the perfect brunoise.
These can be learnt in culinary school, but it is in the high pressure environment of the restaurant kitchen that a young chef learns the most, often by staging. It’s also inevitable that the young cook would soak up the restaurant’s techniques, ethos and perspectives of their colleagues who hail from across the world.
“When you are exposed to different cultures and perspectives, it will help you to think about things in a different way,” says Massimo Bottura, chef/owner of 2018’s World’s Best Restaurant. Just take a look at some of the list of who’s who in the culinary world and one would notice how they hold elements that shadow its forebears.
Bangkok’s Gaggan — which ranked 5th in this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for instance was conceived after its founding chef Gaggan Anand trained at El Bulli — one of the most influential restaurants in modern history. He not only absorbed the molecular techniques deployed there, he internalised the mindset of the avant-garde restaurant and applied it to Indian cuisine.
Elsewhere in Asia, Taipei’s Mume, Taichung’s JL Studio, Kuala Lumpur’s Dewakan and Bangkok’s Gaa all speak of Noma as the progenitor of their ethos towards using local produce and having a sense of time and place.
“The biggest legacy of the chef is in training good people,” explains Richard Ekkebus who went under the tutelage of Guy Savoy, Alain Passard and Pierre Gagnaire.
“It’s the most important part of what we do. We run large teams — I have a team of 55 chefs that I direct daily and the most important part is training. The stronger the team gets, the better I can perform as a restaurant and as a chef.”
Indeed, like any team, the strength is in its people and head chefs are tasked with finding the right people with the right aptitude.
Ekkebus adds: “Everybody talks about talent but I think that’s overrated. You need to do this job 6 days a week and they’re very long days, so you need that desire to push yourself and do extremely well.”
Getting fresh talent
But for chefs who take the time out to mentor young guns, what’s in it for them?
“For me, we learn so much from seeing what young people are thinking and how the industry evolves,” says Margarita Fores who was named Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2016. “For us who’ve been in the business for so long, it’s refreshing.”
“What’s important in our industry is that you always have to look at the younger generation because they have a different point of view,” adds Dominique Crenn. “I love to hire younger people: you inspire and you look to be inspired.”
The desire it seems, goes both ways. While every chef’s experience is different, Burnt Ends’ Jake Kellie believes that one of the biggest aspects of the industry is in running the business.
“It’s not just about the food,” he says. “Cooking is one part of running a restaurant but what’s been really helpful working with mentors like Dave [Pynt] is that he’s constantly teaching me things on the business side. A restaurant has to make money to stay in business and there are things that young chefs like me don’t otherwise see.”
It’s a microscopic look at what drives restaurants, but Asia’s rise to prominence on the world stage wouldn’t be possible if not for fresh blood.
“Japan and Hong Kong are very mature markets but you’ve seen that even cities like Manila has an upcoming food scene. Incredible talents are being produced in these areas. The shoulders of Asia are getting broader and more exciting,” says Ekkebus. “There’s a lot cities that were known more for its street food but not in fine dining. Just look at Bangkok in the last 10 years which is more known for its street food.”
So what advice do the great chefs have for promising young upstarts?
“Grow slow like a tree,” advises Bottura. “Have big roots that go deep so you’ll feel like you can manage everything that comes after.”