From the name, it might sound as though the latest music sensation has hit the road; and, in the food world, The Omnivore World Tour 2012 is pretty rock’n’roll. Blowtorches have taken the place of basses, knives are the new mics, and liquid nitrogen is flash freezing the ice-cream, not smoking the set.
The three-day chef conference is a one-of-a-kind trade fair uniting the world’s leading chefs, both emerging and established, with one thing in common, they all form part of a democratic food movement united under the banner of “jeune cuisine”.
Now in its seventh year, the French organisation known primarily for encouraging culinary talents to globe trot their food philosophies, has gained international momentum, this year embarking on a world tour of 12 cities spanning four continents.
The gastronomic odyssey kicked off on March 11 in the event’s flagship city, Paris. In the auditorium, the lights dim and heavy music blares as neon lights flash to a video montage featuring six of the Omnivore pin-up chefs. Among the protagonists are chefs Jean-François Piège and Gregory Marchand, who pose in superhero costumes; the former painted green as the Incredible Hulk, while the latter reaches to the sky in skin-tight lycra. As Greg Marchand, chef patron of neo-bistrot Frenchie, assures me, “We don’t take ourselves too seriously; it’s all a bit of fun.”
The montage is the quintessence of the rise of the chef to cult status. But these new heroes of the global food scene no longer depend on the whims of the Michelin inspectors to intrigue diners and maintain their two-month waiting lists.
Take the effortlessly cool Iñaki Aizpitarte of Le Chateaubriand – the only French restaurant currently ranked in the top 10 in the 50 Best Restaurant Awards. His casual eatery might not boast a Michelin star, but it has become a mecca for chefs and food lovers who swoon over the fixed, 55 Euro, five-course menu.
Omnivore is renowned for spotting and celebrating talents ahead of the crowd, with cutting-edge chefs like Attica’s Ben Shewry and Fäviken’s Magnus Nilsson among their protégées. Despite neither being present this year, their respect for indigenous and wild produce, or “connection to nature” as Sydney-based chef Morgan McGlone described it, was echoed in their contemporaries.
And while access to a wealth of Twitter feeds and Tumblr posts documenting meals from all over the world has led to an exchange of styles beyond borders, Omnivore’s founder Luc Dubanchet states the case for physical dialogue that the web simply can’t replace.
“We work so many hours each day, often locked away in our respective kitchens and even struggle on our nights off to get out and go see what our colleagues are doing in our own cities – let alone across the world,” explains Dominique Crenn of San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn, who made the transatlantic trip to this year’s event where she was invited to showcase her signature style on stage.
“I think organisations that are creating forums for us are doing us and the field a great service, as we are hungry to be invited out of our kitchens and to be given the chance to meet and exchange with our colleagues,” says Crenn.
This exchange between chefs is at the heart of the movement. This year a gaggle of Paris restaurants hosted F%#*ing Dinners, a term coined by the veracious David Chang, another Omnivore fave. Visiting chefs were invited to collaborate with a Paris kitchen devising a one-night-only menu. Not only did the exchange allow diners to taste a menu otherwise only accessible by a transatlantic flight, but the opportunity cemented inter-kitchen relationships between chefs at the forefront of global food movements. “For a chef, it is a big source of inspiration,” says Gregory Marchand, who welcomed Derrek Dammann of Montreal’s DNA into Frenchie for one such event. “It is good to change the routine and develop new sensibilities.”
I caught up with the Omnivore’s Antipodean ambassador Morgan McGlone, before he headed to the aforementioned F%#*ing dinner at Frenchie.
“They sent me an email and I had to check that it was definitely for me,” joked the New Zealand-born chef Morgan McGlone, former owner of Sydney's Flinders Inn and TOYS collective
founder, about his invitation to participate at this year’s festival.
“They know how to spot talent early. One or two years after they bring them out, they blow up in a big way. Look at René Redzepi; in 2008, nobody knew who he was.”
One demonstration that particularly struck him that day was an inspiring speech by 25-year old Italian chef Lorenzo Cogo: “These chefs are getting younger and younger. I didn’t know half the things he knew at 25, I was too busy thinking about girls to be thinking about gels.”
The next day on stage, any nerves go undetected as Morgan casually and confidently pays tribute to the flavours of his youth, as the third generation of a family of chefs.
Morgan has tracked down abalone (“or, at least, I hope it is!”), foraged chickweed and dandelion from the Père Lachaise Cemetery, and has sourced sea urchins, smaller and less spiky than the “kina” he grew up diving for in New Zealand. He transforms a traditional fermented corn dish “associated with punishment” in his youth, into an artistic plate with a swoop of corn purée paired with Hinaki smoked eel, chestnuts and brown butter crumbles.
“It’s not often we invite a chef without a restaurant to the stage,” commented the host, Sébastien Demorand. Morgan has most recently been working on the line at Husk – one of the US’s most-talked-about restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina. But from Morgan’s impassioned approach and unusual culinary trajectory, it is clear why Omnivore saw beyond such a detail. “Sometimes you want to learn, you don’t want to teach,” explains Morgan.
I went to sample the inspiration stemming from South Carolina prepared by Morgan in the pocket-sized kitchen at Aux Deux Amis, a neighbourhood bistrot in the 11th arrondissement, where for his F%#*ing dinner, he stole the spotlight from patron chef David Vincente Loyola, who animatedly took on front-of-house duties for the evening. Morgan elevated frying to an art form with his crunchy fried capon, and bravely gave the Parisians a taste of a cult Southern comfort favourite, with his lip-smacking shrimp and grits.
The sense of camaraderie (to steal Morgan’s words) present in the form of both literal and metaphorical back patting was certainly prevalent, and it confirmed the significance of sharing as a way of inspiring and challenging the gastronomic world. “We are about creativity, and creatives want to be inspired, and the more we have at the table, so to speak, the more we all benefit,” Crenn tells me. It seems that too many cooks won’t be spoiling this broth.