On a chilly morning in September, Japanese chef Yoshihiro Narisawa stood at the edge of a lush forest in Finnish Lapland, contemplating a tray of wild mushrooms. The chef wore an impeccably knotted white scarf around his neck and a look of utter consternation.
"How about this one?" He pointed to a fat-capped mushroom, with a spider-veined stem. "Can I use this one whole?"
I translated the question from Japanese into English for our nature guide, who, in turn, translated it into Finnish for the forager. The answer boomeranged back in a wobbly linguistic loop. "No, not really," she replied. "These you have to first remove the leg and then slice the tops."
The previous afternoon, Narisawa, along with 15 other award-winning chefs from around the world—including David Chang (of New York's Momofuku), Rene Redzepi (of Noma, in Copenhagen), and Albert Adria, formerly of Spain's elBulli—had traveled from Helsinki by night train to Levi, Finland. They'd turned out for an avant-garde culinary congress called Cook It Raw, where they would spend three days foraging, fishing, hunting, and cooking in the wilderness, a challenge along the lines of Iron-Chef-meets-Iron-Man. They would improvise innovative, high-concept dishes for nearly 70 people—with foreign ingredients, limited equipment, no assistants, and little time.
"Tell her I'm looking for a mushroom I can use whole," Narisawa said, "one that won't lose its shape when steamed." A note of anxiety was evident in his voice.
The guide shook her head apologetically. "We don't usually steam these whole because they're too big; they might remain a bit raw in the center."
The chef nodded solemnly and repeated his request. An hour later, Narisawa emerged from the woods with a bucket of silky-gilled brown fungi. He'd been told that they could be safely eaten raw, and that, when steamed, they would not lose their shape.
To be a top chef, you must be able to persevere.
Although Cook It Raw's organizers had envisioned the event as a relaxed culinary jam session, at times it felt extreme. From the start, no one had known what to expect. "The chefs are freaking out," co-organizer Andrea Petrini said, "but it'll be good for them."
With only a few hours to come up ideas, they scrambled to inspect crates filled with white-feathered snow grouse, wild hare, bear, and reindeer meat. They munched on fragrant wild herbs, dipped their fingers into jars of piquant yellow cloudberries and bright orange cod roe, and sipped thick, creamy reindeer milk straight from the container.
Narisawa quickly composed a sketch of two dishes, drafted in long, wispy strokes reminiscent of Renaissance drawings. He spoke rapidly and with excitement as he outlined his concept. One dish would involve a leaf-wrapped parcel of stewed hare, encased in a mound of dough and covered with lichen and baked until it turned completely black. The other would be a clear consommé of grouse poured over raw slices of rabbit, splattered with lingonberry sauce meant to resemble blood. Together, the dishes would be a meditation on the amount of life it takes to sustain life.
The Japanese chef may not have been familiar with Finnish ingredients like berries and lichen, but he seemed at home in the woodland environment. Back in Tokyo, at his restaurant Les Creations de Narisawa, he's known for creating dishes inspired by nature. On his one day off, he can often be found foraging in the forests and mountains northwest of Tokyo.
All of the chefs were busy experimenting. David Chang crisped batches of mushroom chips in the oven, while Rene Redzepi snipped thousands of spruce needles for spruce oil he wasn't even sure he would use. The usually jocular Albert Adria worked in silence as he steeped slices of tart apple in caramelized white honey and boiled mushrooms for the sauce.
"You seem so serious," I observed.
"I am," he said with a nervous laugh, "but I don't know why."
Italian chef Massimo Bottura, of Modena's Osteria Francescana, found too few electrical outlets in the kitchen area of the cabin where he was working and rigged an improvised sous-vide apparatus in the bathroom, to slowly cook slices of reindeer tongue overnight until perfectly tender. Meanwhile, Daniel Patterson, of San Francisco's Coi, attempted several times to roast beets in the lodge's rustic fireplace, and then stuck them directly onto the fire. The beets in his final dish were impossibly sweet and laced with smokiness.
Before the final dinner, Narisawa had made a few changes to his dishes. The stewed rabbit had been replaced with the wild mushrooms discovered in the woods the day before: diners would break open the lichen-covered dough with their hands in an act intended to recreate the experience of foraging. The grouse consommé had been enriched with wild hare and bear meat to underscore the environmentally minded message.
"Why did you change your recipes?" I asked.
"I decided to make the first dish simpler and give the second more impact," he replied. "Being a chef is like being an artist or a writer. Even if you're stressed, or sick, or tired, you have to keep going. But a chef is more influenced by the environment, so sometimes you must improvise."
Moved by emotion, exhaustion, and relief, Narisawa wiped tears from his eyes as he presented his final dish.