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Cook it Raw by Jp McMahon

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Cook it Raw is a trip on the wild side for leading chefs from around the world, who gather together for 5 days and – basically – go wild in the country. The event has been running since 2009, and has been held in Denmark, Italy, Finland and Japan. This year, the venue was Charleston, South Carolina, and Jp McMahon, of Aniar and Cava Bodega in Galway made the trip to the deep south. Here’s his report from Cook It Raw 2013.

Jp McMahon

Cook it Raw. Where do I begin? I met Alessandro (the founder of Cook it Raw) last year in Toronto, at the Terroir Food Symposium. I was immediately taken by his passion for all things food, in particular the historical and ethical aspects of contemporary food. A few weeks after the conference, I received a phone call from Alessandro. He spoke to me of his desire to expand the idea of Cook it Raw to a wider community of chefs and producers (up to this point Cook it Raw had been the stable of a limited number of internationally known chefs, such as Albert Adria, René Redzepi, and Ben Shewry). To my amazement he asked me if I was interested in representing Ireland as a Cook it Raw community leader. My job: spreading the good work and word of Cook it Raw. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity.

Part of my first task as a Cook it Raw ambassador was to travel over to Charleston, South Carolina and take part in the first North American event. Alongside 22 other chefs, our task was to explore the social and historical aspects of South Carolina food and produce a dish (as part of a 16 course tasting menu) based on our encounter. The week also included a huge BBQ catering for 500 people on an island of Charleston.

Part of the beauty of Cook it Raw is that it goes beyond nationality and borders. It looks back into history, at different production techniques and food stuffs, and thinks of ways in which we can renew our present through an engagement with the past. This is in no way nostalgic or romantic. It is rather focused on practices that we have perhaps lost due to industrialization and modernization. It is on a global mission to discover the roots of food consumed in a particular place during a particular time. It goes beyond any naïve understanding of local food (an idea the supermarkets love peddling).

I remember the first time Alessandro explained the idea of Cook it Raw to me: the ‘raw’ was not only to signify rawness in the culinary sense; rather it also included raw in the primary sense; raw as a return to a more primitive was a thinking (one raw event operated with electricity); raw as a way of thinking in a more elementary way, complexity through simplicity; raw as a re-engagement with our past traditions of preservation (a time before refrigeration).

Our week in Charleston included engaging with the complex race relations that still inhabit the deep south. We examined the life of the slave, what they cooked, what they ate, how they worked. We picked rice by hand, thrashed and winnowed it and turned it into something edible; we hunted for alligator and venison, shot, skinned and cooked them on the BBQ in the wild; we foraged for wild onions and other herbs. In all, we engaged with the landscape in a truly dynamic manner – time, space and place.

What lessons can be learned from Cook it Raw? That food transcends our local environment, that it goes beyond us deep into historical and geological time; that we need to appreciate the otherness of our past (our colonial heritage and our trade with many different peoples); that we need to reinvest in forgotten ways of preservation; reengage with farming and fishing practices that go beyond a simple case of productivity and efficiency; that we need to make food for people; that we need to make food worthy of our own landscape. Part of the fundamental crux of Cook it Raw resides in education, in expanding into unknown areas and allowing others to follow us.

Alessandro has opened the door on a truly beautiful food experience and I am humbled to have been included in the events that allowed us to engage with food in a way separate from the day to day hubbub of industrial kitchen life. To see the global in the local, history in the present, artisan in the everyday: that is the purpose of Cook it Raw.

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