True grits: Cook It Raw chefs visit the Lowcountry

An international group of trailblazing chefs congregate in South Carolina to explore indigenous foodstuffs and traditions and cook a meal from the local bounty -- like boy scout camp with better knives.
Written by Amy Serafin, Contributing Writer

"Have you ever shot a high-powered rifle?" Catherine Harrison asked the pretty restaurateur from Calgary. Harrison, who wore camouflage with the aplomb that other women wear Chanel, was mistress of the 1,200-acre plantation outside Charleston where the alligator hunt was about to take place. The Canadian, Connie DeSousa, had asked to be the designated shooter. But no, she admitted, she had never fired any kind of gun before. "A .35 should do," Harrison pronounced after a pause. "We can't have her messing up her arm -- she's a chef."

DeSousa had flown to South Carolina to participate in Cook It Raw, a more-or-less annual event where an international group of trailblazing chefs congregate in a particular part of the world, explore indigenous foodstuffs and traditions, then cook a meal from the local bounty -- like boy scout camp with better knives.

Launched by Alessandro Porcelli, a gastronomic consultant living in Denmark, and Andrea Petrini, a Lyon-based food writer, Cook It Raw got its start in Copenhagen in 2009, the year of the United Nations climate summit. It assembled 11 avant-garde chefs, a veritable dream team including René Redzepi, David Chang and Massimo Bottura. They foraged on the beach, tasted leeks and asparagus fresh out of the ground, then created a feast using little or no electricity. In a famously competitive profession, they became fast friends.

Since then, the "Raw" part of the concept has become less literal, more a nod to the affair's back-to-basics nature. A similar group hunted wild boar in Italy, scraped reindeer lichen off rocks in Lapland, made fruitless attempts to net ducks in Japan, picked mushrooms in Poland, consumed copious amounts of alcohol and prepared unforgettable meals. Albert Adrìa of elBulli fame, the only chef to have attended all six events, said, "The funny thing about Cook It Raw is that you can't really explain what it is. But it's taught me so much -- these are the most important events I've ever done."

In October, Cook It Raw made its North American debut in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. This gathering, the first without Andrea Petrini, was bound to be different. Clearly, there was an attempt to make it less an exclusive club and more a global movement with a clearly defined philosophy (the main principles: innovation, collaboration, tradition, respect for the environment). An expanded social media presence included a Twitter feed and a Tumblr account. It was also the first time the general public could take part, with 500 tickets sold for a grand barbecue on the last day.

Twenty-one chefs attended, a larger number than ever before, and nearly all new to Cook It Raw. Aside from Adrià, this event's heavyweights included the New Yorkers Dan Barber and April Bloomfield, Australia's Ben Shewry, André Chiang from Singapore, Enrique Olvera from Mexico City and Charleston chef Sean Brock, who doubled as the local host. Explaining why Cook It Raw has become such a hot ticket, Barber said, "I haven't been to many events that afford a chef the opportunity to step out of the daily grind of the kitchen and delve into a culture with an exciting gastronomy."

Another New Yorker, Alex Stupak, worked every connection he had in order to glean an invitation. "To be able to escape for a week and take a deep, close look at a place you've never been before is really mind-expanding," he said. He compared the experience to his own unconventional career leap, establishing himself as a pastry chef, then opening a Mexican restaurant before he knew how to cook Mexican food.

Several lesser-known chefs participated in a category called "Raw Community," including two contest-winners who proved their Raw cred on Tumblr. One was Brandon Baltzley, a young talent with a history of drug addiction who will open his first restaurant, TMIP, in rural Indiana this spring. "If you're a cook who's not working at, like, a Denny's, you know about Cook It Raw," he said. "So when they put out the thing on Twitter saying they were opening it up to two relative unknowns, I jumped."

Whereas prior Raws were largely European, most of the invitees at the Charleston event hailed from North America. There was one immediately visible difference: the American and Canadian chefs had tattoos. Lots of them. Jimmy red corn and chioggia beets grew up Brock's arms, maize with corn smut covered Stupak's side, Matthew Jennings' knuckles spelled the word "Handmade," Baltzley's throat bore knives. Even DeSousa flashed a pin-up girl on her forearm. Next to them, the chefs from overseas looked somehow unfinished.