"Everywhere the Beat Generation seems occupied with the feverish production of answers - some of them frightening, some of them foolish - to a single question: how are we to live?” —John Clellon Holmes, The Philosophy of the Beat Generation, 1958
All I knew, after getting a few cryptic emails from my friend Gioconda Scott, chef at Trasierra, her family’s guest house in the Andalusian hills above Seville, was that Cook It Raw—a globetrotting annual gathering of the world’s most celebrated and pioneering chefs—would be meeting in the Yucatán for a week in April. Except this time, instead of the usual constellation of culinary superstars like Renee Redzepi, Alex Atala, and David Chang foraging and preparing meals for a select group of VIP’s with journalists from major food magazines trailing along, we would be a stripped down crew traveling guerilla style.
I booked a flight to Mérida landing on April 3 and leaving from Cancún on April 9. Where I’d be going once I landed was still a mystery. The day before I left, Scott, who was helping to organize the gathering and who scored me an invite, wrote: “Bring sheets. A towel is essential. Sleeping in hammocks. Bring wet wipes.”
After landing at night, I was picked up and driven down cobblestone streets past elegantly ruined colonial era facades painted in faded pastels to Cook It Raw founder Alessandro Porcelli’s home. Crouching through a small wooden entry door, the interior opened to a large pebbled central courtyard festooned with hammocks in which various people swung in the humid, tropical air.
Little did I know that in five days we would end our last meal in Tulum swigging from a bottle of mescal and swimming naked surrounded by bioluminescent algae high on ecstasy and premium sativa, eventually passing out on the beach before our flight home the next morning. For now, we were just a bunch of strangers in awkward silence who didn’t know what the plan was. We were exactly where Alessandro wanted us.
Porcelli was born in Trieste, Italy into a well-to-do family. His parents were basketball superstars whose wedding made the national news. He followed in their footsteps until he was 18, when after being sidelined he walked off the court and never went back. But his love of the game and its collaborative spirit are still a guiding philosophy. "For me it's all about the process," Porcelli told me during as we sat on the beach a few days later drinking beers. "If you don't pass the ball, you ain't gonna win the fucking game, man."
Born with an unruly appetite for life and a curiosity far too big for the predictable conventions of traditional Italian life, Porcelli was not going to become like his father who, after retiring from sports, worked as an insurance executive and expected dinner on the table at the same time each night. "I never saw my father. We never talked," he tells me, still incredulous. "The only conversation we had was when he told me that it was sinful to masturbate."
Robert Bly's early 90’s wild man rituals centered on coming to terms with a withholding father figure could have been an influence for the primitivism and emotive masculinity that Cook It Raw became known for, but beating drums or holding hands in the woods wasn’t the kind of transformation Porcelli was seeking. His love of restless seekers and miscreants on a quest for meaning meant that Jack Kerouac and Bruce Chatwin were his muses. Porcelli got kicked out of school, grew his hair long, and after getting busted for selling drugs, went on an odyssey that would take him to Australia, Ireland, Vancouver, Toronto, Madrid, Mexico, and eventually Denmark where he landed at Noma. Each detour as he recounted his escapades was filled with enough sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll to make you wonder how he ever made it out alive.
Instead, his peripatetic adventures have been funneled into a desire to recreate the sense of wonder and discovery one experiences while traveling. "I don't know why I do this," Porcelli says, "but I want to share my restlessness, my doubts, my curiosity. And you can only explore and find answers with people." Ultimately, his escapades were not just about escapism and self-annihilation. The romantic in him needed a sense of mission and he found it when he created Cook It Raw.
Presaging the current obsession with butchering and cooking over fire, in its early incarnation Cook It Raw gathered a select group of the world's most celebrated avant-garde and (mostly male) chefs to forage, fish, hunt, and create a jaw-dropping final meal together in exotic locales. Leaving the safety of their kitchens to play with dirt, blood, and fire was supposed to encourage collaboration and a sense of communion with nature. What it became instead was a macho boys’ club where chefs compared knives and jockeyed for power behind the scenes.
"These star chasing chefs have become politicians doing whatever it takes to maintain their status,” Porcelli says with dismay. “I worked with Rene Redzepi for ten years, I saw him more than my wife, I introduced him to Mérida, and now we barely talk.” Andrea Petrini, the well-connected Italian journalist and creator of the culinary spectacle Gelinaz, who was involved with Phaidon’s coffee table book about the events, turned against him too. Porcelli has no regrets. As far as he's concerned, their celebrity approach and way of thinking are over: no more bullshit pomp and grandeur. No more fancy tour buses and four-star hotels. No Excel sheets or PowerPoint. In Mexico, Porcelli wanted to return to what was raw.
If you build an event around people who are at the top of their game, ego will rule. But when you throw together a disparate group of working chefs from far-flung restaurants with some expats like Jeremiah Tower—a hugely influential pioneer of California cuisine at Chez Panisse and Stars, who after driving through Mérida in 2004 became so enamored with its beauty that he got out of his car and never left—and get them out of their comfort zone, that's when the interesting shit happens. "I believe in people being able to connect and you can only do that when you have an intense experience together, " Porcelli says.
For the next six days, lanky Canadian Tyler Shedden, Executive Chef at Café Boulud in Toronto, Mexican chef Benito Molina at Manzanilla in Ensenada, Mexico who was perpetually in flip flops and wrap-around shades, and Spanish-born Brit Scott, chef at Francis Mallmann’s Garzon in Uruguay who could out-drink most of the men, a camera crew from Vice, myself, and a few others would be at Porcelli’s mercy, some of us traveling in a cramped van that he piloted like an Italian race car driver with a bottle of mescal between his legs while the remaining group tried to keep up following in a rental car.
Mérida is the capital of the Yucatán, a peninsula with the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. Like many cities founded by Spanish conquistadors, it was built on the site of a former Mayan metropolis. The Spaniards tried their best to destroy the indigenous culture, but Mayan resistance prevailed and it is one of the few places in Mexico where indigenous culture dominates. It is also home to one of the world’s great regional cuisines; while the food reflects influences and traditions from Spain, Portugal, Europe, Cuba, and Lebanon, it has remained distinctive thanks to its relative geographic isolation.
It makes sense that Porcelli, not known for his moderation, would choose a place diametrically opposite to Scandinavia. “I spent 15 years in Copenhagen hating 14 of them. My brain in Copenhagen doesn't function, I see fog." What better place to burn that away than the Yucatan? As he traveled around the region improvising the program for this edition of Cook It Raw, he met shamans and hippies, drank ayahuasca, and got pulled over by the cops. “Coming here hit me hard. Mexicans are tough motherfuckers. Driving around, meeting people, I felt like Kerouac. This place, the energy. There is magic.”
The official goal of our convocation was to learn about the region’s traditional foodways and culture through what Porcelli calls “experiential methodologies.” As we careened around the Yucatán from milpa to fishing village, jungle to beach, we learned that before corn came from the north, a tuber called macow was what the elders used to make masa. We watched how to build proper pib (hole) for cochinita pibil by making a pyramid with the wood and adding limestone rocks to form a natural bed that would absorb the heat when the wood collapsed. We saw giant cauldrons of corn cooking over fire with lime for making traditional tortillas.
We went to a seed fair where farmers did what they used to do in America before Monsanto: trade seeds with each other. We learned about the importance of smoke in the Mayan tradition and its dangers, especially for women who cook at ground level on outdoor wood-fired stoves and die from inhaling the fumes. We learned about a local initiative that is part of The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves who are trying to empower women by building cleaner stoves that save lives and improve livelihoods. We learned to improvise and be resourceful in the midst of chaos. We got lost, stoned, and very drunk. In Porcelli’s universe, the journey is the destination.
Yucatecan smoke’s apostle is Eric Werner, chef at the renowned Hartwood in Tulum, whose need for fire is so powerful that he burns himself when he is away from it for too long. Part of what drew him to the Yucatán was the desire to be in a place where the outside temperature is akin to the inside of an oven: an interesting proclivity for an intense, bearded former hipster from upstate New York. On our third day, we met Werner at Valladolid’s renowned market where he took the visiting chefs to his favorite stands and regaled them with his knowledge of native fruits and vegetables. The plan was to buy whatever we could and drive to a house in the jungle built by a Mayan family where the chefs would concoct a meal from the spoils.
A whitewashed circular structure built from limestone and local timber with a thatched roof, the house did not disappoint. A makeshift grill had been set up on rocks. Eric had caught a snapper that would be grilled with avocado, beets, yucca, onions and leeks. The rest of us tried to set up lights, prep the food, and arrange the space. Wanting some direction, we realized at one point that Porcelli, Scott and Molina had taken off. Confusion ensued. A strange aimlessness took hold. Then the hippies showed up. Two brothers with requisite long hair and bandanas, trailed by a perpetual cloud of sativa. Other guests arrived unsure of what to do. In spite of the growing unease, Shedden and Werner moved purposefully and calmly to build a fire and devise the menu. By the time Porcelli and the others had returned, it was night and they were wasted. The Mayan family who had built the house was sitting on the floor quietly observing a camera crew documenting this strange scene. In spite of the chaos, a kind of strange magic did happen. We ended up sitting on the floor eating our meal out of gourds by candlelight, but as the trip progressed, it became more consumed by disorder and debauchery. If Kerouac is the muse, then I suppose it was all part of the plan.