The last of the Cook It Raw chefs are now flying home, marking the end of one of the more ambitious culinary events to choose Charleston as its venue. Having spent the week embedded in the program, this is probably the proper time (to use an adjective favored by the many UK-based participants) to assess the week’s success.
Overall, I think the program was successful, although perhaps not in the ways I initially imagined. Because the young organization is still wrestling with identity issues, it hasn’t yet hammered out a concise explanation of its purpose: Its representatives have a knack for using words like “collective” and “curation,” which don’t always resonate in the goal-oriented U.S. What I took from the very little information I was provided prior to the event was that Cook It Raw aimed to sequester an enormously talented group of chefs for a week of creative kitchen mayhem.
The chefs did spend the week together at Middleton Place, but nothing occurred which I’d classify as crazy. I’ve been approached by countless locals asking about the event’s backstory, and I assume they’re terribly disappointed when I tell them the chefs spent their off-hours drafting ingredient lists and getting to bed early. The world’s top chefs earn their status partly through consummate professionalism, and their approach to this trip was no exception. Covering Cook It Raw wasn’t too different from covering finals week at any respectable college.
And if any of the chefs were tempted to stray from behavioral codes, there was no shortage of cameras to help them reconsider: Guest speaker John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, joked about a kind of photographic Matryoshka doll which emerged on a foraging trip when an event photographer took a picture of a journalist taking a picture of a chef taking a picture of a fellow chef. Cook It Raw places a high premium on documentation.
Still, that’s not exactly a definition. Here’s my stab at explaining Cook It Raw in American terms: It’s an all-star gathering of chefs from around the world who aim to impress each other and the media (and, starting this year, folks who can afford a $100 event ticket) with their skilled use of a region’s iconic ingredients. Maybe their dishes blossom into full-blown ideas. And maybe the chefs ultimately adjust their techniques in light of what they’ve learned from a foreign landscape. But the event’s really about solidifying a global network of chefs dedicated to pushing boundaries.
So I’m not persuaded that average eaters gain much of anything from Cook It Raw. But it is a boon for participating chefs: All of the chefs I asked said without hesitation that they’d Cook It Raw again, if invited. The roster this year was expanded to include chefs who aren’t members of the food world’s most elite echelon, a decision which resulted in what many returning participants called the best Cook It Raw ever: The event was distinguished by a clear lack of ego.
Cook It Raw was also a definite win for Charleston, which chefs and visiting media agreed now belongs in a class with New York and San Francisco. Nearly every local associated with Cook It Raw reported huge spikes in their social media followings over the course of the event, with tastemakers from around the world setting their culinary compasses to Charleston. Plenty of Charlestonians followed the chefs and food lovers right back, tying the city to a broader culinary scene that American epicures too often ignore, stolen glances at Scandinavia and Spain notwithstanding.
And while it’s not yet known whether Cook It Raw chefs helped local chefs rethink their relationships with rice and shellfish, which was one of the stated goals at the program’s outset, the event definitely helped local event planners think differently about Bowens Island, which is no small thing. Everybody doubted Cook It Raw could pull off a party for 750 in the restaurant’s parking lot: By every measure, Saturday’s four-hour tasting festival was a screaming success.
Not every element of the week was perfect. I very much wish participating chefs had more opportunities to explore how locals actually use ingredients, rather than just discovering them in the wild (Edge and I were so intent on exposing the group to lowcountry soul food that we schemed to deliver 20 take-out plate lunches from Bertha’s to the chefs’ prep kitchen.) And I’m sorry that the program never made the connection between the racial issues raised by Southern history and the racial issues participating chefs perpetually encounter at home.
Still, Cook It Raw — in all its unanticipated calmness — benefited not just participating chefs and Charleston, but quite possibly food festivals everywhere. Festivals from Denver to Denmark have fallen into something of a rut, offering up the same starched wine dinners and glitzy tasting tents. Headlining chefs rarely have the chance to interact meaningfully with the festivals’ host cities: Dining at the restaurant of the moment and getting drunk in another chef’s hotel room might constitute the entirety of a chef’s festival experience.
What Cook It Raw showed by pinning a genuinely public event to an intensive chef retreat is that there are better ways to bring chefs to town. While it’s not always feasible to follow the Cook It Raw model, it at least proposes the possibility of festival programming which stimulates and challenges ticket buyers while simultaneously informing and enriching chefs’ art.