Walk With The Gelinaz!
The Gelinaz! are at it again: After corralling 39 acclaimed restaurants into an epic “Chef Shuffle” last summer, the international collective of superstar chefs is back at the drawing board.
This summer, The Gelinaz! tried to keep things minimal, with three smaller dinners designed to help them regroup and discover new talent before their next big happening. And yet nothing is ever truly simple for Gelinaz organizers Andrea Petrini and Alexandra Swenden. In a new format called Walk With Us, diners in two restaurants traded places in the middle of a four-course meal cooked by eight teams of two chefs each. But each course is actually four courses, because each course has been invented by one team and then remixed by the three others.
Got all that?
At the Gelinaz! event in San Francisco last month, which followed earlier Walk With Us events in London and Sao Paolo, Chef Corey Lee not only hosted the events, but also specified the key ingredient in each course. Half the chefs cooked a first course of Egg and a second course of Tomato at Lee’s 3-Michelin-starred restaurant, Benu, while the rest prepared their versions of Egg and Tomato at In Situ, Lee’s brand-new restaurant in the SFMOMA.
Diners crossed each other mid-meal in the center of Richard Serra’s massive steel sculpture, Sequence, then partook of a third course centered on Rice and a Peach-centric dessert in seats that their compatriots had just left, without tasting the earlier Egg and Tomato courses that had already been served. Swenden and Petrini laughed while attempting to explain the complex structure of Walk With Us and the “matrix” each chef-team created as a guide for the remix, but the organizers pointed toward a number of motivations, ranging from community to aesthetic theory.
On the simplest level, Walk With Us was a response to the diffuse, international experience of the Gelinaz! Chef Shuffle, which was scattered among 39 locations. As Swenden acknowledged, “we weren’t sure that the guest had this feeling that they were connected with other restaurants, where other dinners and other chefs were happening,” so they conjured a format in which diners would literally cross paths in the midst of their dinner.
And culinary remixes have been part of The Gelinaz! repertoire since its first event, nearly a decade ago, when a dozen chefs remixed Rene Redzepi’s famous dessert of sheep’s milk and sorrel (currently recreated, not remixed at In Situ, as part of Lee’s innovative program of presenting other chef’s creations). Petrini recalled the drama that unfolded at restaurant noma the first night of The Gelinaz: “It was one of the most radical gigs we did. When people came they were still thinking that big guys like Rene Redzepi , Carlo Cracco, Massimo Bottura, that they were there to do a fine dining dinner — and when they found that they were eating twelve times the same dish, the same menu, remixed, remixed, remixed — a few of them started to say ‘what the fuck is this, give us our money back.’” But now, years later, “one big leader of the mutiny” attended the Walk With Us event in San Francisco. Petrini looked a bit unsure of his own emotions. “All of a sudden, everybody loves it,” he said. “So for me, it’s a bit strange, no?”
(For what it’s worth, I spoke with the mutineer-turned-fan, Alberto Torres, who assured me that it was not the food that troubled him as much as the music, which he recalled as a “Cambodian boy crying at the grave of his mother — two hours of wailing” and noted that “if you’re a journalist and you’re comped, it’s one thing, but if you’ve paid for your meal, you expect something else.” He also rued the beautiful wines ruined by an “excessive amount of yogurt.”)
For the Walk With Us event, chefs were randomly assigned to partners, which Swenden believed allowed the chefs greater freedom, because experimenting in duos and trios freed them not only from their egos, but also from familiar patterns. And while the chefs explored the boundaries of their identities through collaboration, diners were confronted with the limits of their own experience through a structure that highlights their own situatedness in a particular perspective.
Petrini pointed to the influence of Filiberto Menna’s art theory from the 1970s, particularly his love of performances with obstructed viewpoints, which denies the spectator the illusion of control and also stimulates the imagination. “If you go through Benu,” Petrini said, “you find only eight chefs, so you miss the other ones. You say, ‘Damn, if I had known, I would have booked In Situ, because I like Chef So-and-So.’ […] You will have missed stuff at In Situ, and the people from In Situ when they come to Benu will have missed the stuff at Benu. So it’s a partial fruition of the same artwork.”
In Situ, of course, creates opportunities for chefs to collaborate and for diners to encounter cuisine as a form of art. Petrini fell in love with the concept when he first heard about it, and he said, “I found it was the most Gelinazian concept that we could have thought of.”
For Chef Corey Lee, collaboration is central to both In Situ and the Gelinaz, but an event like Walk With Us upends the roles that are normally played within a restaurant: “The diner in any restaurant, fine dining or not, is the person everyone should be working to please,” Lee said. “They’re why restaurants exist; their enjoyment of what we offer is how we measure our success and what sustains us. The Gelinaz! events are a little different. I think Gelinaz! is more about finding interesting ways to cultivate industry relationships and offering dynamic programs that lead to new flavors and approaches to cooking.” Lee added, “ This is the first time I participated in a Gelinaz! event so I’m still trying to figure out what it is!”
At the Walk With Us event in San Francisco, diners seemed mostly content to participate on these terms. Ruth Facer, for instance, who lives in San Francisco and works in tech, reflected: “It was so cool. Seriously, the next morning, I was like, was that a dream? It was hard to describe, but the whole concept of food as art, and chefs as artists, it felt really special.” Facer’s best friend, Ali Price, who also works in tech and joined her at Walk With Us, also enjoyed the evening but felt The Gelinaz! had not fully communicated to its audience. Price explained that before arriving at the San Francisco Walk With Us, she’d looked for the London and Sao Paolo versions on Instagram: “I scrolled through the pictures I realized that they were all chefs. I had a really hard time finding social media coverage from others. I even said to Ruth that maybe we were not allowed to take photos. It felt very private — most of the coverage was very chef centric.”
For their part, Swenden and Petrini seem to want the Gelinaz! to be both chef-centric and foster a sense of connection among diners, and that’s a tough combination. The organizers expressed frustration with their own ability to engage the public with their high-art vision via social media. Petrini complained, “When we post something more Gelinaz! like the eternal suncrack of the day breaking, which is a group from Manchester, nobody gives a shit. But you just post a photo with some tomato and they go crazy.”
Ultimately, The Gelinaz! seems designed less as an appeal to San Francisco’s tech side than its old-fashioned art world. Where the event seemed most connected with the city was through a real-world walk through the museum. Outside the restaurants, as the diners moved through the half-lit atrium, thrilled to rub elbows with a sculpture and not just than celebrity chefs, the atmosphere suddenly turned giddy.
It felt like a genuinely San Francisco moment with no tech necessary at all.