On an early November afternoon, Michimasa Nakamura, of Tokyo’s Sushi M, is busy brainstorming.
He’s pondering the set of new recipes that arrived via email earlier that morning. The instructions call for ingredients typically absent from the sushi chef’s repertoire — coconut milk, tamarind, Thai rice and fish sauce. For Nakamura, the challenge is to interpret the recipes and present them as part of a tasting menu that still “expresses Sushi M’s style.” The catch is that he has only one month to perfect the dishes, and he can’t ask for guidance because he has no idea who created them.
Nakamura, along with 147 other chefs in 38 countries, has signed up to take part in an ambitious food event called The Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle: 2019 Stay In Tour, which will take place on Dec. 3. The premise sounds like a giant game of culinary Secret Santa: After submitting a menu of eight new dishes (“Matrixes,” in Gelinaz! parlance), each participant is randomly matched with another chef, receiving their recipes in return.
However, instead of faithfully replicating the menu, each chef will infuse the dishes with the philosophy and approach of their own restaurant (“Remixes”). The identity of the recipes’ original author will remain secret to both chefs and diners until the night of the event.
Anonymity, says food writer and Gelinaz! co-founder Andrea Petrini, “gives everybody the freedom” to take full artistic license with the recipes. The instructions are meant to serve as a “pretext to creativity,” rather than a fixed set of rules. The exercise is an invitation to take a walk through another chef’s brain.
The lineup features stars such as Alain Ducasse, Rene Redzepi and Massimo Bottura, as well as a diverse group of younger talent such as May Chow of Little Bao and Happy Paradise in Hong Kong; Thomas Zacharias of Bombay Canteen in Mumbai; and Ryogo Tahara of Logy in Taipei. Keeping the chefs’ names a secret, Petrini reasons, puts everyone on equal footing from the outset: “Imagine you’re the poor bastard who knows you got recipes from Rene or Ducasse. The pressure would be immense,” he explains.
This year’s iteration of Gelinaz! is a variation on The Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle, a worldwide kitchen swap that launched in 2015 and repeated the following year. The concept was a cheeky twist on the format of a “four-hands” dinner, where two chefs collaborate to serve a single tasting menu.
During the first Shuffle, 37 chefs left their own kitchens to cook at another restaurant, where each concocted a menu that combined the styles of both the guest and — in their absence — the host chef. In 2016, for example, Narisawa’s Yoshihiro Narisawa prepared pigeon with green miso and chestnut soup with citrus mochi (rice cake) at Niko Romito’s three-Michelin-starred Reale in Abruzzo, Italy, while Virgilio Martinez of Lima’s Central served scallop tiradito (a version of ceviche) with sudachi citrus at Zaiyu Hasegawa’s Den in Tokyo.
Although flying around for collaborations can yield interesting developments, the cost — both financial and environmental — is substantial. The exhortation to “stay home” this time critiques the relentless travel chefs have come to view as necessary in order to gain recognition and move up in ranking schemes, such as the influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
“For the past 10 years everybody and their mother’s uncle’s cousin is doing ‘four-hands dinners,’ but a lot of them have no meaning. They’ve become a marketing tool,” Petrini says.
Last May, Petrini met with partners Patricia Meunier and Mat Gallet in Paris to come up with a way to collaborate across borders without having to rely on sponsorship to fund the travel. What if, he mused, “we instigated an international chefs’ strike” by shuffling the recipes instead of the chefs?
“We’re trying to build a playground that is intellectual, challenging and sociological. Everybody is staying home without closing the door,” he says, adding that the virtual platform provides an opportunity for more chefs to engage in global dialogue.
Thanks in part to the no-travel structure of this year’s program, eight Tokyo restaurants will participate in the event. Among the group are Gelinaz! veterans Yoshihiro Narisawa and Zaiyu Hasegawa, as well as Michimasa Nakamura, Luca Fantin of Il Ristorante Luca Fantin, Shirosaka’s Hideki Ii and Sergio Meza, who plans to open a restaurant in Tokyo next year. The final two participants, Alter Ego’s Yoji Tokuyoshi and Thomas Frebel of Inua, were recently awarded one and two stars, respectively, in the Michelin Guide Tokyo 2020.
Hasegawa, Fantin and Tokuyoshi are no strangers to international chefs’ collaborations, having recently returned from October’s Ein Prosit festival in Udine, Italy, where several dozen chefs gathered for five days to cook together. For Nakamura and Ii, Gelinaz! will be their first experience of this kind.
Ii says he’s excited “to do something outside of our everyday service work.” The menu he will interpret is based on French cuisine, which means that guests at Shirosaka, a modern kappō (Japanese fine dining) restaurant, will be eating with forks and knives for a change. Although he hasn’t guessed the identity of the menu’s original creator, he surmises that it “might be Narisawa.”
Nakamura says that, as a sushi chef, he’s “honored to work with Thai ingredients” because sushi is thought to have originated in Southeast Asia. At Sushi M, he’s experimenting with menu ideas that will create “a cultural relationship between Japan and Thailand.”
Hasegawa, too, will be working with Thai ingredients, while Tokuyoshi’s dishes will incorporate Latin flavors. The menus that Meza, Frebel and Fantin have received are more ambiguously international: “I think mine’s American or Canadian,” Meza says.
Details about the event’s menus and chefs will be disclosed on Dec. 3. For more information, visit gelinaz.com.