At first glance, Cook It Raw — the annual culinary happening that arrived this weekend in the Lowcountry — comes across as the programming equivalent of empty calories, packed with more pleasure than meaning.
Participation in all but one day of the weeklong itinerary is restricted to a hand-picked group of 21 young chefs from as far afield as Singapore, and the schedule is ripe with such seemingly trifling activities as mushroom foraging, vegetable picking and alligator hunting.
For the chefs who get the chance to gallivant with their peers and stray from their regimented restaurant schedules, Cook It Raw is undeniably a good time. Yet organizers say the serious ideas that emerge from the event are likely to fuel Charleston’s drive to become one of the world’s most influential food cities.
“Chefs evoke excitement about what’s going on in your own backyard,” spokeswoman Arlene Stein said of the elite event’s local significance.
According to Stein, Cook It Raw’s selection of Charleston as its first-ever North American host city could result in an international rage for benne seed oil or a global one-pot-cooking renaissance based on hoppin’ john. “Chefs are always looking for inspiration,” she said. And trendsetting chefs are looking to find it here.
Cook It Raw remains fairly obscure even in the foodiest of foodie circles, a function of its cryptic name and closed-door policies. Although organizers are now actively trying to expand the “Raw community,” as they term like-minded culinary professionals, the first few iterations of the 4-year-old event drew essentially the same corps of avant-garde chefs.
Alessandro Porcelli, who spent decades promoting the dining scenes of various European destinations, in 2009 approached his friend and revered Danish chef Rene Redzepi about his idea for a collaborative experience that would plunge participants into the local landscape.
The loose rules of the immersion event in Copenhagen called for chefs to gather ingredients from the forest and surrounding sea, then prepare a dish from them using only knives and fire. Redzepi later told The Guardian that he knew the concept worked when New York’s David Chang fell to his knees in a wild garlic patch, expressing his marvel in uncensored kitchen language.
“You can tell he’s thinking, ‘What I’m looking at isn’t scenery, it’s food!’ ” Redzepi said. “That moment of realization is magical: The world is edible.”
Redzepi served live fjord shrimp at the event’s closing meal, stressing that the short-lived crustaceans gathered that morning tasted “the way that the ocean tastes on that particular day.” The chefs reportedly returned home with an evolved sense of freshness.
To better understand why chefs genuflecting in the woods and feasting on wriggling shrimp is consequential beyond the rarefied realms of Michelin-starred dining rooms, it’s useful to compare Cook It Raw to a political convention or the NFL draft: It’s the event at which the field’s leaders craft a vision for the year to come and do their best to lay the groundwork for its success.
Their ideas don’t always catch on. When Anthony Bourdain documented the 2011 Cook It Raw for his television show “No Reservations,” he responded to Sean Brock’s delight over cod sperm by predicting the ingredient would be the “pork belly of 2013.” By any measure, that didn’t happen.
But Stein said other ideas edging toward the mainstream were first introduced at Cook It Raw, including rounding out menus with wild foods and diversifying diets with insects.
“Eating bugs came out of Cook It Raw,” Stein said. “These are the kind of outcomes we’re looking for.”
Chefs headed to Charleston for Cook It Raw include representatives from Spain, Mexico, the United Kingdom and Australia.
“The most important thing is to try to grow our network,” said participant Connie DeSousa, co-owner and co-chef with John Jackson at Charcut Roast House in Calgary, Alberta. Jackson added, “That exchange, chefs crave it. It’s how we learn.”
While in Charleston, between hunting, fishing and foraging expeditions, the mostly cloistered chefs will study Lowcountry cuisine with experts including Nathalie Dupree, David Shields, Glenn Roberts and John T. Edge; tour Middleton Place and visit GrowFood Carolina, a trip Stein said is likely to help chefs come up with answers to food distribution challenges in their hometowns.
She also is looking forward to participants posing tough questions that she believes will stimulate further growth of Charleston’s food scene.
“We start the debate,” Stein said, adding that chefs from abroad might ask the many local chefs scheduled to interact with the group to defend shrimp trawling; explain why there aren’t more high-end black chefs in Charleston, or delineate the difference between Gullah and Geechee.
“Everyone has different answers,” Stein said. “We asked no less than a dozen people, and one response from a Charleston chef came back, ‘Gullah are white people and Geechees are black people.’ ”
Cook It Raw will culminate Saturday with an unprecedented public event: The sold-out cookout on Bowens Island, featuring the Cook It Raw crowd and teams of chefs from Charleston and Canada, will focus on global interpretations of barbecue.
The tentative menu includes Chinese-style sticky rice packets and biscuits made with water in which field peas were boiled.
Stein said Finnish chef Sasu Laukkonen also is toying with cooking goat. According to Laukkonen, 80 percent of slaughtered goats in Finland are burned for fertilizer. He feels Charleston, which has a history of goat-drawn carts, is the right place to reintroduce goat as a viable alternative to beef, pork and chicken.
Jackson wouldn’t comment on exactly which Canadian cooking styles he plans to bring to Charleston, but suspects his western background will put him in good stead for the gator hunt.
“I think we’ll be jumping on it like at the rodeo,” he said.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.