On Thursday, July 9th 2015, 37 celebrated chefs from around the globe swapped restaurants for one night in a dining experience dubbed The Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle. In this worldwide musical chairs production, the chefs not only swapped restaurants, they swapped lives, residing in their colleagues’ homes, working with their staff, dining with their friends and families, and feeding their cats.
The Shuffle was sponsored by S. Pellegrino (you’ll notice that many of the participating chefs are also on the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna), and orchestrated by Gelinaz!, a collective made by chefs for chefs, whose mission is to explore the unknown by creating collaborations between chefs, artists, musicians, scientists, thinkers, and producers. As described by co-founder Andrea Petrini, “The line-up for this performance is a family of chefs, who take risk as a starting point, that are neither fearful of creativity, nor driven by ego, but are fueled by a desire to explore.”
Tickets for the event were sold based on what the usual tasting menu price would be at each restaurant (at the three participating Bay Area restaurants – Manresa, Coi, and Atelier Crenn – we’re talking upwards of $270 all in), which diners blindly paid for the chance of experiencing an 8-course menu crafted by the likes of Rene Redzepi, Massimo Bottura, Albert Adria, or Alain Ducasse, just to namedrop a few.
I say blindly because the Grand Shuffle is a grand secret – the identity of the guest chef was not revealed until night of the dinner. Teaser info about the event itself was cryptic at best, and if you dug a little into what Gelinaz! even was, well then you really had no idea what to expect. This did not deter adventure-seeking diners. The event was sold out in all 37 participating restaurants, from Japan to Chile, Brazil to Slovenia, France, Turkey, Sweden, Thailand, Australia, UK, Italy, Peru, Spain, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, and all across the United States.
With the evolution of "different" dining experiences, from pop-ups a la Mission Chinese, to communal dining concepts like Lazy Bear and Outstanding in the Field, to "one time only" Food as Theater extravaganzas like this, it seems like people just aren't satisfied with the norm of dining out anymore. Have the days of dinner and a show come and gone? Has dinner become the show?
The marketing machine certainly milked the secrecy and mystery of it all. In the week leading up to the big night, a trail of breadcrumbs dropped one by one, enticing ticket holders to guess who would be cooking them dinner. Super fans got into it and played the guessing game, formulating elaborate spreadsheets, and doing some mighty
obsessive impressive detective work.
Chef Jock Zonfrillo laughed, “I’m just impressed we were all able to keep the secret! Chefs are shit at keeping secrets.”
Zonfrillo was shuffled over from his restaurants Orana and Street ADL in Adelaide, Australia to the Bay Area’s own Manresa. Like all the other participating chefs, Zonfrillo’s name and restaurant match were picked out of a hat. Back home in Australia, Zonfrillo is leading a movement in defining Australian cuisine through celebrating and rediscovering the indigenous foods of the Aborigines. His restaurants use only ingredients grown, raised, or produced on the continent, and his cooks regularly forage for ingredients in the nearby foothills.
While the menu and ingredients at Orana and Manresa could not be any more different, there are some things that remain the same. Both have strong ties to local farmers and purveyors, both honor a sense of place in their food, and even some ingredients are echoed – wild sea succulents, abalone, and yes, you bet Zonfrillo knew what to do with the eucalyptus he found here in California.
The Manresa staff took their guest chef under their wing and showed him all their favorite spots as they developed the menu together over the course of 4 days. Zonfrillo took a field trip to Monterey Abalone Company, Love Apple Farms (of course), and the Cultured Pickle Shop where he was stoked to discover “over 200 cultures in a tiny storefront by some proper Berkeley hippies.” One of those cultures made it into the opening course! [Spoiler alert: ZOMG, this crazy Aussie chef served us SCOBY…and it was delicious.]
As each of the chefs got swept away to a different country and a different kitchen, they have to think on their feet and work with what presents itself. We asked Zonfrillo about his experience with the shuffle:
“It’s nice to come into it with no preconceptions and jump right in. Mehmet Gürs [chef of Mikla in Istanbul] is at Orana right now. He was smart, he came a few days early to prepare. He opened the walk-in and was like, ‘What the fuck is this shit? Where are your onions and potatoes? I laughed, ‘We don’t have that shit here!’
I asked about his own dishes for the evening. Zonfrillo replied, “I’ve never made any of this before.” Let’s see what he came up with!
Here’s a look at the 8 Course Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle Dinner: Manresa edition by Chef Jock Zonfrillo
CULTURED MOTHER DUCK
“Geoduck, Kombucha and its Mother,” this was a cool and refreshing starter that wins for most creative use of SCOBY I’ve ever seen. The bright acidity and complimentary textures worked! Garnishes were sliced broccoli stems compressed in kombucha, winter savory oil, and beurre noisette.
CARROTS & CURDS
As Zonfrillo took stock of the Manresa pantry, he came across some jars of carrots that had been pickling since January. He cooked those pickled carrots, cooked them in the whey that had separated from the sheep’s milk curds, and then kissed them with some applewood smoke. The result was a multi-dimensional beauty. Garnishes of toasty smoked almonds, tomato leaves, mint, coriander oil, and flutters of carrot top greens and flowers pulled it all together. One of my favorite dishes of the evening!
ABALONE & CUSTARD
This jewel-like composition featured abalone steamed in dashi, set over a silky custard made from the abalone cooking liquid. Over top lay an array of seaweeds and sea succulents foraged from Pebble Beach.
ROAST LAMB, MASH & MORELS
Meat and potatoes like you’ve never seen. The meat element was in actuality the meaty, plump morels roasted in lamb fat and drizzled with lamb jus. A luxurious bed of buttery mashed potato held the mushrooms, and lemony leaves of sorrel cut the richness with a tart bite.
LOCAL BLACK COD & HALIBUT
Line-caught halibut poached in sea water, topped with a smoked cod head emulsion that resembled a mayonnaise, with a spritz of meyer lemon. The mini field of flowers on top (coriander flowers, raddish flowers, cress flowers, and beach mustard) stole the show though with their lovely color and little bursts of flavor.
BEEF, EUCALYPTUS & BEETS
Grass-fed wagyu beef grilled over madrone wood laced with eucalyptus was the star of the show here. The eucalyptus perfumed smoke intrigued and drew you in bite after bite. Ribbons of beets, spelt, spinach, and a drizzle of eucalyptus-infused oil completed this artful plate.
“FUN DIP” TOASTED MARSHMALLOWS WITH STONE FRUIT
This playful dessert featured a trio of ember-kissed soft marshmallows in three flavors – white peach, nectarine, and blood plum. Each marshmallow had a 3-way treatment of its respective fruit: “fun-dipped” in a dehydrated powder of the fruit, dolloped with jam, and topped with a razor thin, semi-dehydrated slice of the intensely flavorful fruit from Andy Mariani’s orchard. P.S. that blood plum has now ruined me for all other plums. Thanks.
CALIFORNIAN FRENCH TOAST
Sweet cream ice cream studded with super crunchy bits of Manresa’s hearty 100% whole wheat bread. The crowning touch was a subtly sweet, cinnamon flavored egg yolk the texture of soft caramel. For inquiring minds, this bit of sorcery was achieved by cooking the eggs whole in a circulator at low temp, then cracking them, separating the yolks, and curing them in a simple syrup infused with cinnamon! A finishing drizzle of yerba buena-infused maple syrup sealed the deal on this closing dish.
The Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle resulted in 36 other extravagant meals like this around the world, unique to one place in time. As in any performance, there is the performer and the audience. In one of the teaser videos Gelinaz! describes the group of participating chefs as "a rock band of avant garde chefs" looking to push their creative boundaries in a non-traditional setting. This persona of the rock star chef is nothing new, but what is new is how this "tribe" is developing and creating more platforms for itself to grow, collaborate, and learn from one another. Events and educational symposiums are being organized by chefs for chefs, restaurant exchanges and guest collaborations are popping up, and more opportunities are arising for the Artist Chef to take a break from his or her daily chaos and go off to explore/discover/work/play far from home.
So, what is Gelinaz!? It is part celebrity chefdom, and part marketing dramatics, but beyond the gimmicks, I think it is mostly about discovery and finding creative ways to evolve one’s craft. It is about getting thrown into a new situation, adapting, learning, trying something new, winging it. If Gelinaz! is about getting out of your comfort zone, disrupting your stasis, then I support it. We could probably all benefit from a dose of that.