Into the wild

Chef Massimo Bottura with a catch.
Chef Massimo Bottura with a catch. 

Fifteen chefs go out for a walk in the forest … It sounds like the beginning of a joke - or a slasher film. But that's more or less what Cook It Raw has been making happen: it plucks the very best and most forward-thinking chefs in the world from their kitchens, their ''laboratoires'', their ''ateliers'', and deposits them as far as can be imagined from their usual comfort zones, leaving them to forage for ingredients in the Gorizia hills along the Italian-Slovenian border, fish for a main course in Lappland, or wade upstream in search of wild wasabi in Ishikawa prefecture in Japan.

The selection process for invitees each year is mysterious - though it is clearly an honour to be asked. When invited to do anything in the company of internationally recognised innovators, such as Albert Adria, David Chang, Rene Redzepi, Massimo Bottura and Alex Atala, few would not leap at the chance.

But Cook It Raw is not a food and wine festival. Participants will, presumably, at some point, ''cook'' food. And, chefs being chefs, there will surely be wine. But there are no tickets sold, no tasting tents, co-branded cooking demonstrations, sponsored parties - the usual razzmatazz of events that, to these chefs, have become part of a day's work. At Cook It Raw, chefs are invited somewhere new each year to learn, to explore, to exchange ideas. And, most interestingly, to fail, gloriously, by creating dishes they have never attempted before.

Travelling foodie Anthony Bourdain.
Travelling foodie Anthony Bourdain. 

They are invited to learn something new about an unfamiliar place, make maximum use of its local ingredients, take note of traditional preparation methods, and then, in full view of the very best of their peers, do the most spectacular thing they can imagine, with whatever they've found.

One doesn't arrive at Cook It Raw prepared to crank out some battle-tested signature dish that long experience has taught is perfect for the venue. The challenge is to do what has never been done before - by anyone.

This is exactly the opposite of what every other gathering of chefs expects. Perhaps the greatest difference between the conventional model of the food ''event'' and this mutant roadshow is that there is no ''audience'' in the usual sense. At the climax of a few days of experimentation, planning, hunting, foraging, gathering (and heavy drinking), the chefs convene to cook for a few select journalists and local purveyors, craftsmen and dignitaries. These, however, are not really the intended end user. There is no judging, after-action report or measure of a particular dish's success or failure. What the chefs are actually doing is cooking for each other.

David Chang harvests wild produce.
David Chang harvests wild produce. 

The restaurant business demands repetition - at its core, it insists that a customer who enjoys a dish one day should be able to return a week later with friends and receive exactly the same thing. In the best-case scenario, that dish will become much-loved, widely written about, frequently imitated - a signature dish. This would be the very definition, by traditional restaurant metrics, of ''success''.

But a signature dish is also a prison. One cannot remove it from a menu. Two signature dishes are two slots on a menu where the chef can no longer be creative but only repeat what he has done before. To travel to the other side of the world, then, and be invited to fail - spectacularly - all in the name of unfettered creativity? That is truly a wonderful thing.

For centuries a principle driver has been trial and error, yet the business of keeping a restaurant's doors open - especially in a shrinking economy - makes such things difficult, and often impossible. Pure innovation for its own sake - the imagination run wild - is what elevates the profession, lifts food from necessity to pleasure, from sustenance to craft and, in very rare cases, to art.

<i>Cook It Raw</i>, published by Phaidon, rrp $59.95.
Cook It Raw, published by Phaidon, rrp $59.95. Photo: Eddie Jim

Extract from Cook It Raw, published by Phaidon, rrp $59.95.

Cook It Raw has been held four times previously and is due to be held again this year.