Cook It Raw is now just past its midpoint, with its participating crew of 25 chefs from around the world having gathered the necessary ingredients for a 17-course dinner tonight at McCrady’s. They’re now at the restaurant, cooking and — quite possibly — fretting: The chefs are spread across two kitchens and a makeshift workspace, doing their best to flush genius from wild herbs they’ve never before encountered and collaborations with colleagues they’ve only just met.
Tonight’s meal is supposed to reflect what the visiting chefs have learned about the lowcountry, and food historian David Shields will be on hand to assess how well they’ve understood their subject. Since it’s a day devoted to taking stock, this morning seemed like an opportune time to share a few initial observations about the event, with which I’ve been embedded since Monday:
1. Great chefs aren’t necessarily snobs.
Folks who don’t eat for a living always expect me to scorn everyday food, which is hardly the case. Yet I made the same mistake by assuming participating chefs would be finicky about what they were fed. Impressively, they haven’t fussed about hotel-made fried chicken biscuits or Wild Olive ravioli, neither of which was garnished with foie gras. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that many of the humbler-seeming dishes have been exceptional, including Butcher & Bee’s sesame peanut butter and Hominy Grill’s pies.
2. Cook It Raw is one big dinner party.
Maybe the chefs are accepting of everything they’re served because they’re so fixated on tonight’s dinner. Before Cook It Raw started, I wrongly likened the event to a culinary Renaissance Weekend. Turns out it’s really more like an important state dinner, helmed by nervous chefs speaking different languages.
Most of the week has thus far been spent foraging, fishing and figuring out produce orders in advance of the big press supper. Unfortunately, the intensity of the schedule means there isn’t much opportunity for chefs to deviate from what they planned back home, and many of the chefs are keeping their dishes simple in order to keep their Cook It Raw experiences bearable.
3. Basic foods are fascinating.
The Cook It Raw agenda was designed to expose chefs to various ingredients they might not encounter in their home countries, but auxiliary foods have also sparked conversation. “I think this is squid,” a foreign chef said, deciphering a fried item served in Middleton Place’s lobby. Close: What he mistook for shellfish was a noodle in a fried mac-and-cheese ball, a happy revelation to the European contingent.
4. But sometimes basic foods aren’t fascinating enough.
As a young organization, Cook It Raw is understandably still figuring out how to strike a balance between its respect for local traditions and avant-garde inclinations. For instance, organizers earlier this week reportedly rejected an order of grouper because the fish wasn’t sufficiently obscure, and chefs who tried to include peanuts in their Thursday night dishes were told there were already too many peanuts on the menu.
So what’s the sum total of the above? We’ll find out tonight; follow my Twitter feed for a blow-by-blow account, or pick up Saturday’s paper for coverage of the meal.