See How He’s Disrupting Fine Dining — and He Isn’t Even a Chef
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the most exciting food is the one that’s yet to have a recipe.
The clean lines and chilled vibes of the dining area at Nahm, one of Bangkok’s most renowned restaurants, are what you’d expect from a joint with an acclaimed, history-driven menu that has set it apart as one of the best in the city. But behind the scenes, back in the kitchen, you encounter the clatter of pans, bursts of flames, staccato knocks on chopping boards and shouts of “Yes, chef!” and “Service!” It works, this careful chaos, thanks to a delicate balance of trust between the waiters, the line cooks, the assistants and the leader of the whole show, the executive chef. This week, the chief isn’t there. He’s in Slovenia. In his place is an acclaimed but unfamiliar French chef from San Francisco. Why? Because Andrea Petrini said so.
Petrini, a writer who for a decade was the French chair of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants — essentially the Academy Awards for food — has been turning his attention to the Gelinaz! Shuffle, an ambitious project he co-created now involving 40 of the world’s best chefs swapping lives and restaurants at random for seven days. After permitting just a week of culinary experimentation, the alien cooks are asked to create a brand-new menu and serve it to paying, critical foodies. The nightmarish situation just shouldn’t work, let alone be enjoyable for anyone involved. But if someone could pull it off, it’s Petrini, the peripatetic Italian diner and onetime “culinary star maker” who these days plays something more akin to the professional culinary agitator.
For him, agitation is an art. “You see, when you take someone’s dish and let others remix it, it shows there is not just one copyright on those ingredients; there is not just one truth to the recipe,” Petrini muses. His habit of letting his eyes drift shut as he talks lends him an additional air of thoughtfulness, and eccentricity.
But Petrini has taken part in projects like Gelinaz! before. For almost 10 years now, he’s been integral to Cook It Raw, an experimental get-together of avant-garde chefs. According to Mason Florence, a 50 Best academy chair for Southeast Asia and the mastermind behind several food publications, Petrini is “just a total pioneer.”
“We wanted to desacralize the religion of food.”
Andrea Petrini, Fine Dining Mogul
When I meet Petrini in Bangkok the morning after the Asia 50 Best award ceremony, he appears dressed in soft blue trousers, offset by a floral-patterned yellow shirt. Eclectic, to say the least. Now in his 50s, Petrini began his professional life as a writer for the French culture magazine City. He had a young reporter’s hustle, snagging interviews with the author William S. Burroughs and the singer Peter Gabriel, among others.
Yet he remembers his editors’ reaction when, in the mid ’80s, he asked to write a profile on an up-and-coming chef in London. “They were horrified,” Petrini says. “You see, food was in many ways still considered a lower-class type of journalism then.” Eventually, they relented, and Petrini went on to profile the upstart — a certain Marco Pierre White, who would go on to become the rock-star chef of his generation, single-handedly making cooking sexy while training future star chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Mario Batali.
Petrini’s rise mirrors the international rise in fine cooking today. When he began in the food world, the rarefied airs of the “finest” French affairs were more smothering than refined. Today, as his influence continues to grow and stretch, he paints a portrait of constant evolution, from deconstructionism to molecular gastronomy to New Nordic influences and fermentation. “It will continue to change as the customers will it,” says Petrini. He doesn’t mind giving it a push.
Now, if anything, the abstract approach to some of today’s more avant-garde dining is sometimes criticized as theatrical to a fault, and Petrini himself has in the past predicted the approaching death of the tasting menu, replete as it so often is with abstract “dishes” that often bemuse as much as they titillate. But in general, Petrini explains that such critiques tend to miss the point. Either you approach a meal as something that will simply keep you alive, or you approach it looking for more than just a meal with X calories, Y protein and Z vitamins. He’s pushed the envelope, turning food first into a kind of performance art before folding it back into itself to expose the absurdity of fame and pomp. In 2000, he explains with more than a hint of glee, he asked world-renowned Monégasque chef Alain Ducasse — who boasts 21 Michelin stars — to stand on a stage and make … sandwiches. “We wanted to desacralize the religion of food,” he recalls.
Back in the kitchen on that fine November day at Nahm, it was renowned French chef Dominique Crenn’s turn. “I have almost no idea what I’m doing,” she confides before laughing. “But it’s fun! This is really exciting.” Crenn, who is an expert in French-inspired cuisine, by her own admission knows “almost nothing about Thai [food].” She’s only just landed at Nahm; her own restaurant — the two-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn — is in San Francisco. But Petrini asked, so she’s here.
In many ways, Gelinaz! is a natural progression of Petrini’s ambitions. While some gourmands demand growth by fine-tuning foods, he prioritizes innovation and performance. And now, he expects other chefs to join his innovation train. Once, he bemoans, “if you walked into a Michelin-starred restaurant, you already knew what you would get: foie gras, scallops, pigeon.” And now? “Now it’s beetroot. Go to a Michelin restaurant and you can be sure you’ll get some fucking beetroot.”
Back at Nahm, Crenn is finely slicing a gelatinous yellow mollusk. “Abalone,” she says when she sees my slightly repulsed expression. She laughs again, happily experimenting with the ingredient. No fucking beetroot.
* Correction: The original version of this story misstated the length of time Petrini served as the French chair of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.