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What it takes to be The Best Chef

Joanna Slusarczyk (Photo by Dariusz Bres)

Readers of best selling book Thinking Fast and Slow by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman  know that there are two thinking systems. One is Type 1 which is fast, intuitive and unconscious thought. The other is type 2 which is slow, calculating and conscious thought. You could say that opposites attract. And that Cristian Gadau and Joanna Slusarczyk used the two systems Kahneman coined when they launched The Best Chef. The first is Italian, the second Polish. The former was in the world of gastronomy, the latter loved food but was a neuroscientist. Cristian may have been the one to have the intuition while Joanna was the one to have thought slowly as to where to take the Best Chef in the coming years. What launched in 2015 purely on social media is today one of the top awards in the field of gastronomy competing with more established names like Michelin or The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List which came before them.

Cristian loved gastronomy, Joanna is a neuroscientist but they had no publication to back their venture. Instead they opted on building a large presence on social media at a time when many chefs and restaurants still were not accustomed to using it for their business or visibility.

And while Michelin and The World’s 50 Best Restaurants focused on the actual restaurants, The Best Chef opted to put the chef at the centre of their awards again realising that a tectonic shift was taking place and that the chef was not just the person who ran the restaurant kitchen but much more. 

Those choices today look nearly prophetic.

Cristian may have started the venture with the support of his partner Joanna but today it is the latter who leads the organisation and is working to make it grow in visibility with not just the list and the gala event but two other events that are really close to her heart, the Food meets Science and Area Talks that are organised over three days when the Best Chef awards are held.

While Joanna is dedicating herself to grow The Best Chef she still works in science doing clinical lab trials, something she still relishes and which she believes also helps her to look at things in the gastronomy world a bit differently. A few weeks ago, I sat down to discuss with Joanna how she sees The Best Chef evolving, what makes it different to the competition and how she manages to combine her work in her profession with that of The Best Chef.

When you set up the Best Chef, your competitors, if I may call them that were focused on restaurants. You opted to put the chef in the limelight. Today chefs are not just chefs, they are personalities, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and much more. In a way you build something that was ahead of its time. Was it deliberate?

I totally agree with you. It was Cristian’s idea. He was the founder. Everything was focused on restaurants, on the place and what type of place it is and I think that he had the idea that chefs lacked the spotlight because at the end of the day, the chef is the most important person in the restaurant because he is the one who leads it.

Today, a chef is not just in the kitchen but is doing a lot of other things from philanthropy to business. Being a chef is much more complex than just running a kitchen. There was this gap in the market since the restaurant was the main focus but there was not much of focus on chefs. That was the original idea and I think it was a very good idea because today The Best Chef is booming and slowly but surely we are building something that is big and global.

Last year, in the middle of the pandemic we saw how important it was for the project to be about chefs and not restaurants. There were many restaurants that closed, chefs moved to other places or launched pop-ups, some moved to consultancy or to another place. While it was not good for the restaurant industry, it still gave us the opportunity to show what chefs were doing.

The Best Chef in 2020 was Rene Redzepi.Despite the fact that the restaurant was closed, he launched a burger concept at Noma, did delivery, takeaway. So even if restaurants were closed, they were still active, some immediately so we could continue with our work.

As you say, many chefs and restaurants pivoted to doing something else. Do you think that in future the emphasis is going to be less on the cooking and more on the entrepreneurial capabilities of chefs? If I look at the last winner of the Best Chef Award, David Munoz for example, he is a great entrepreneur and personality. Do you see a movement towards this approach?

I think it is not about the food they serve but rather the whole image and personality of chef, what he or she represents, how they do things. Of course, it is the opinion of our voters but for example Rene Redzepi showed that we cannot stop, we need to concentrate and work on how to adapt.

David Munoz is not just about fine dining but he does many different things so the award is not for fine dining but for what he does as a whole. In the top 10, we have Ana Ros for example who is a great example of a chef that not only represents just the food but also how she supported suppliers and producers during the pandemic and worked with a chain to be able to support them. What matters is the whole image of the chef. I am not saying that food is not important, because without food it would be impossible to win the award but it is about everything, their behaviour, what they stand for.

Cristian Gadau with Joanna Slusarczyk (Photo by Dariusz Bres)

When you started The Best Chef it was very social media driven. Social media may have been booming at the time but it was nothing compared to what it is today. I recall that many chefs and restaurants were still not on social media. Yet you grew a huge following of hundreds of thousands. I would say the bigger players ended up following you. How do you continue to make the events relevant? Where do you see the Best Chef going in the next three to five years?

For sure, on social media we are modern and innovative. The project was born on social media. We do not have any editorial platform like other awards. We were born on social media. Facebook was our first platform and then we used Instagram.

We started the Best Chef on Facebook in 2015 and the first event was organised in 2017. We had time to learn how gastronomy works, who to follow, where to go, so during two years we were preparing for our first live event. You can exist in social media but without a live event you are missing something important.

When we organised a digital event in 2020 because we could not organise a live event because of the pandemic with Cristian we said that we would never repeat it virtually. Gastronomy is all about meeting in person. Social media is one thing but live events are extremely important.

We want to keep the live event going and in terms of our plans we want to develop the whole project further. Every year we sit down and look at what can be improved in terms of the voting system, the organisation of the events, the whole structure. Our goal is always to improve it since things are always changing with time.

What is sure is that we will give more importance to two side events called Food meets Sicence and Area Talks. With these two events that sit alongside the list we are doing something of substance. We want to develop these further, maybe organise regional editions.

You come from the scientific world. One of these events, the Area Talks looks at trends. The second is Food meets Science. Ultimately food is also science. But very few think of food as science. How important is this element that was missing? Why do you put a spotlight on it?

Food meets Science comes obviously from my background. I have a PHD in neuroscience. to be exact in neuropsychopharmacology which is a study of the brain. While working on the Best Chef and the deeper you go into food, the more you realise it is all about science. First I learned all about gastrophysics. The original idea was to organise a talk called Food meets Neuroscience but slowl I started to discover that whole there is a connection of food with the brain and all our senses there is much more than that. Cooking is science. Everything is connected to science from growing vegetables to raising animals. Maybe some people do not realise that in the kitchen chemistry, physics and even microbiology are constantly in play. The first edition was more on neuroscience with the participation of Prof Charles Spence, Dr Paul Smeets and Dr Nicola Pirastu among others but step by step we saw that we could focus on different topics because every step of the work in gastronomy is linked to science. You can speak of cooking techniques, sustainability, technology. At the beginning it was difficult to present science to a broader audience and to build that audience but the aim is to make science more accessible to a wider audience.

Davide Oldani speaking at Food meets Science

I understand why you say it is still a challenge. We are still in infancy when it comes to technology to give an example. We haven’t spoken about artificial intelligence, big data, how to combine science and art. Where do you see gastronomy going? I believe we are still at the very beginning of food and science just like we were a few years ago with art and gastronomy. Before that we did not consider food as art. Where do you see science taking food?

I could speak hours about this. There are two ways I see it. There is technology that is used say for booking, marketing, to help make the restaurant guests happy. Then there is technology in the kitchen such as 3D printing. Then there is fermentation for example. Today everything is scientific. In the past people would ferment food without necessarily knowing what they were doing. Today we are rediscovering old techniques that we got from our parents and grandparents and we can understand how they work. 

Then there is ecology, sustainability, being careful about production methods, waste. It is never ending. Some years ago, art became connected to gastronomy, science is now doing the same thing.

There are many applications, You mentioned waste, another one that comes to mind is plastic, how to eliminate it from the kitchen. It is also about raising awareness. Do you want to grow Food meets Science and Area talks. I agree with you that it is much better to organise things live and meet in person but it is also easier to organise things online. Do you envisage expanding this from a once a year event?

This is work in progress. We planned things for 2020 and 2021 which we could not do because of the pandemic. The plan is always to stay under the main project which is The Best Chef but we want Food meets Science and Area Talks to also have their own ‘life’. The list and the main event is once a year but we want to create more events, also regionally and meet locals. What I am seeing is that there are lots of new ideas. For example, just the other day I was reading how they are creating energy out of coffee waste. I think that there are so many ideas to showcase and limiting this to just one day is sad because it is impossible to present everything. At best we could have 10 speakers in a day so it would be good to organise more events. We also want to concentrate on the Food meets Science social media account so that we can have content not just for the event but also during the year.

You’ve always been involved with The Best Chef but as of two years you are the front person leading the organisation. But you still practice your profession. How do you combine the two? How do you manage to focus and find the right balance?

I did not discover the recipe for doing two things at the same time. At the beginning, it was a side project for me but as I like this project and the world of gastronomy it sort of sucked me in. Now with science also there I am extremely happy. Doing clinical trials keeps me updated with the scientific world. Sometimes I think I have schizophrenia because I have two lives but on the other hand these two lives are connected together. I like both of them. I like food and I like science and I am lucky to be dealing with both. Sometimes it is difficult because of time. I think both are very interesting and somehow I am able to connect them together. I do not have tips for people on how to do it but rather you need to adapt as you go along. What is sure is that doing the two things keeps you open-minded because you learn something from whatever you do and you can connect one to the other. I use things I learn from The Best Chef in my clinical trial work and vice versa.

There have been changes to the voting system. Can you elaborate on that?

I cannot describe the process in full as it is still ongoing. What we wanted to change is the candidate selection. It was a bit weak in terms of the process. We had people who travelled around the world but with the pandemic stopping travel to certain regions we needed to add more local voters. Voters will not just vote for The Best Chef but they will also vote for the other awards such as The Best Pastry Chef during the regular voting in May. We know we need to improve the candidate selection and we know we need eyes everywhere to keep the list worldwide. This is something I want to improve.

One of the most fundamental issues in the field of gastronomy is how to be inclusive. There is an absence of women but not only? There is also an absence of chefs, whether male or female from certain areas around the world? How do you deal with this? How do you make the list more inclusive?

This is a tough question with no right answer. I understand that there are few women in the list and there are few chefs from Africa. On the other hand, we need to give time for things to change. We cannot have a 50-50 list from one year to the next. This is a natural process that needs time. It is ultimately what Ana Ros said on stage. Women have been in a difficult situation in gastronomy so to change things you need to raise awareness. You cannot say you need 20 women in the list and you try and find them. We need to be careful, we need to give opportunities to women to flourish in the kitchen and then we can have lots of female chefs. What is also important is that the list is also based on meritocracy. What matters is not who the chef is, whether it is a he or a she, European, Asian or African. What is important is that they are the best at what they do. There are of course issues like countries which might be under represented, gender that needs to be corrected and we are aware of this but it takes time. For us the list of the Best Chef needs to be the best. The most is that those that are in the list are really the best.

The Best Chef sits between Michelin and the World’s 50 Best restaurants lists. There is also La Liste. People like lists but are you not afraid that we get tired of all these lists?

I think that humans have competition in their blood. Competition is something that stimulates us and drives us to improve. Rankings are good. If there are too many, however, we can get a bit lost. Most of chefs say that it is good to receive an award but it is not all about awards. Rankings and lists are important but to be honest it is a stimulus to develop and improve. Obviously, there is no perfect rankings or system but it is a good thing.

One thing that has happened for sure over the past few years with events like yours, like World’s 50 Best is that there is a global community of friends. How important is this in the wider sense. Restaurants of courses are businesses and compete with each other but at the same time they help each other to move forward.

Gastronomy is hospitality and links people. Events like The Best Chef and others help people to meet. We realised in our last event in Amsterdam that we could not get people to sit down for lunch because they were happy to meet and talk. The lockdown periods have showed us that humans need contact. Social media is one thing but human contact is another. Being together in gastronomy is important. I can mention for example Mauro Uliassi and Mauro Cedroni who put Senigallia on the map. It is a perfect example of how two chefs collaborated, brought attention to this area in Italy and led to positive developments for the city. Of course there is competition because a restaurant is a business that needs to make money but you need to have a broader vision. One restaurant can bring a group of people. More restaurants will bring more people to the same place. It helps to collaborate, to exchange techniques, ideas and experiences. It is what Area Talks is all about.

Three winners of The Best Chef awards. David Munoz, Bjorn Frantzen and Joan Roca

You have a few years experience from when you started. What does it take to be The Best Chef?

That is a very difficult question. You need to ask our voters. What I notice from the past results is that you need to cook very well but you also need to be a very special person. Every single winner during the past five years had something special. Joan Roca with his brothers have something really special. Its the family. Bjorn Frantzen is a real businessman who knows how to run perfect restaurants. No wonder he said the most important thing for a chef is to know how to use Excel. Rene Redzepi has put Nordic cuisine on the map and has been incredibly influential while David Munoz shows an avant garde approach not just in fine dining. All these winners have something valuable to showcase which is not just the food.

We were speaking about the pandemic and whether it had an impact on voters, on awards, on the event. Have you noticed in between any difference in the way people dine or in the way people behave in restaurants? Have you noticed changes in restaurants?

There is this trend of chefs doing extra activities apart from the restaurant from pop-ups to food trucks to home delivery for example. What has changed is that they see there are opportunities in different areas and not just the restaurant. But I did not notice any big changes yet. Some chefs have had more time to develop new ideas. My wish would be that chefs focus more on local things and produce. 

I actually thought there would be more changes. I think maybe this may come at a later stage. Daniel Humm made a major change when he went plant based and has been criticised. Maybe change will come at a later stage.

 It is difficult to judge but we might see an impact in one to two years.

Where do you want The Best Chef to be in five years? 

I really see a lot of potential with The Best Chef. I want to see it booming, to be working on educational projects, discovering new talents, showcasing food. As we saw over the past two years we can never know what will happen, what life will bring so basically our goals are to showcase the most talented chefs from the gastronomy world and make sure they set an example. I also want Area Talks and Food and Science to bring substance and value to the discussion.

The post What it takes to be The Best Chef appeared first on Food and Wine Gazette.

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