The French Connection
Walking into Maxime Bilet’s new world – the Imagine Food space in Seattle – I sense an intense focus on connections. Connections between tradition and innovation. Relationships between senses – tastes, smells, feeling, and the combination of all of those that transform the familiar into a whole new perspective on the importance of food. The linkage between the earth, the sunlight, the rain and the food they all produce in concert. Merging art and science to create new sensory experiences and new avenues for education.
Most importantly, talking with Maxime, I cannot help but sense the emphasis he puts upon the connections between people that are so often facilitated through food. People communing over food while having conversations, establishing friendships, relationships and building memories. Food connects people to cultures – both their own and others from faraway lands. In Maxime Bilet’s view – food is a fundamental connection point between everything.
Maxime Bilet’s Creative Space – Imagine Food
As I wandered through the installations at Imagine Food with Maxime Bilet, we talked about the value of tradition vs. innovation. I was curious to understand if he is purely focused on Modernist Cuisine, that he is well known for, or if he is a traditionalist at heart. The answer is – those boundaries don’t apply.
This became apparent as we talked about certain cultures being stuck in tradition and shunning innovation. Maxime cited French culture as one that went through an extreme period of innovation in culinary science and stopped growing. ‘But why?’ Maxime exclaims. Why stop when there is so much more to investigate and learn? For this is the essence of Maxime Bilet’s spirit – challenging the traditional to find a better way. Tradition can and should be appreciated. But innovation is the way to push boundaries, to discover and to learn.
So, let’s learn more…
Why did you get involved in food?
Well, I’ve never projected who I would be in 10 years or even 1 year from now and I’ve never had a ‘life plan’. At the same time, I believe that every wonderful thing that has happened to me has been because I’ve allowed things to take form within a dynamic context. A lot of things present themselves and you make the choices you believe in. It certainly involves more risk than following more traditional paths.
I never wanted to be a chef. I just learned to cook. I studied Arts, Literature, Philosophy and Creative Writing. I don’t consider myself a Chef even now. I don’t own a restaurant and it’s not in my plans. But what I am doing is making knowledge about food more available so that people can have access to better food education. An important part if that is to create a business model where consumers spend their disposable income on better-quality food, across the board.
Food is the ultimate connecting ground and is the elementary language for communicating our most inherent needs, desires and human capacities. It is also used to communicate through cultures, mindsets, and beliefs. We can use food as a direct platform for experience and sharing knowledge, which no other thing can do without someone being educated in the fields of math and science; those languages currently considered universal.
What or who is your inspiration?
Ever since I can remember, food has been a central part of my way of communicating and understanding life around me. I never imagined cooking as work. I feel privileged to have grown up in a family, who gave me a true appreciation for flavor. My grandparents on my mother’s side taught me how to experience incredible ingredients and to appreciate what it meant for us to have them. Both of them lived through World War II, and to this day, I try to convince my grandmother to eat vegetables. But her memories are of eating rutabagas and Jerusalem artichokes in unsalted water, so it is rather difficult.
I remember my grandfather teaching me about oysters. He said – the oyster is the most primitive being you can eat; you taste the essence of evolution, the delicacy and the work that went into creating the basis for life. At that time I looked at the oysters and saw how they shriveled when you squeezed lemon juice on them and thought that there was no way I could eat them. But I decided to try it anyway to honor what my grandfather was sharing with me. I have loved them ever since.
You are very lucky to have had that family education in food. Not as many people are so lucky today.
Our generation forms such strict boundaries around what we consume. One wonderful example was the Hungry Planet study, which among many things, showed that the Salish tribe used to consume up to 800 ingredients a year, which is down to only 25 ingredients today! Diversity in a diet is so important and it is simply shocking to learn how constricted the tribe’s diet has become. To them food and how they honored the land was ephemeral. Today, we have all allowed ourselves to become victims of this limited perspective.
Tell me about Imagine Food
Imagine Food is an interactive food, science and art space. It’s a combination of non-profit and for-profit where we hold art installations, as well as dinners and classes. All our fees are used to support everything else we do in the space to further free food education. We want people to come and taste, smell, touch and listen. We want to show them how Permaculture, Aquaculture and Fermentation (and so much more) can be utilized. So many people, artists, chefs, members of the business community, put such amazing effort into the space. I am so grateful.
I completely misunderstood science when I was a kid because I was being taught things like the biology of a tulip, without any context or any tangible meaning. At that point in my life I couldn’t have cared less. It just didn’t connect with me in any way. If you are lectured, you will learn maybe 10-15% of the subject matter. However, if you have a direct, full learning experience – you will retain over 80%. For example, I believe that if kids have an edible schoolyard that is well integrated into the curriculum, they will have a more balanced perspective on all subjects, because of the experiential nature of working with food. This is what we are trying to achieve with this space – to pass on these experiences to the next generation.
Why did you get involved in Modernist Cuisine?
I had been cooking my way through college doing special dinners and the like. I had cookbooks everywhere and starting in my teens I collected them and I read them cover to cover. And even then, it never crossed my mind to go into professional cooking. I was planning to join the Peace Corps of all things! But being French, I ran into some bureaucratic challenges. So, after I graduated from Skidmore, I moved back to Manhattan and decided to investigate my culinary passion a bit farther, without knowing or projecting where it might lead. I completed a short program at the Institute of Culinary Education, to verify in my own mind, if this was a path for me. I had some tremendous chef instructors and seeing their maturity and passion was truly inspiring.
So where was your first proper cooking gig?
After I graduated, I was offered an externship at Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar. The place could seat about 28 people if you counted the raw bar. It was a two-story carriage house and the kitchen was fully immersed within the restaurant. The kitchen was entirely open and we were cooking on a little Diva de Provence with four gas burners, an oven and a grill-top in the middle. A little tiled island was all that separated us from the customers.
After I’d been there for three weeks, the chef and her husband decided to leave and move back to New Orleans because the space of their dreams had just gone on the market. So Jack Lamb gave me a chance to cook for him. I made 3 dishes and he gave me a job on the spot. I was 22 when I started and stayed there for a year. My experience there was amazing. We received a 27 in Zagat with lots of wonderful reviews and recognition. It was a perfect opportunity for someone who loves what they do and who has the opportunity to do it every day. I used to send out extra courses for people who seemed to be really enjoying their food. Just a little something of an inspiration made a connection. I loved it because feeding people was the most powerful way I could communicate. Language is certainly wonderful, but I also recognized the experience was that much more powerful.
That seems like a wonderful, enlightening experience. Where did you go from there?
After Jack’s I moved to London to work at the Fat Duck as a stagier. One day I said that I’d like to spend a day up in the lab and was given the opportunity to spend time with Heston (Blumenthal). We clicked as I saw the perfect balance of art, science, creativity and precision. I spent 5 months there and then was hired by Nathan (Myhrvold) and his team at Intellectual Ventures to come to Seattle to work for Modernist Cuisine. At that point, it was supposed to be a book on sous vide (which may be better called “precise temperature cooking”). I cooked for Nathan and he gave me the job.
What was the process like to write Modernist Cuisine?
It took us about two years to create recipes, take photos, and finalize the overall design and vision for the books. The last four volumes took only a year and a half based on the foundation that we had already built. I was doing 100-hour weeks for the first four years there. I was completely invested, both emotionally and intellectually, in being productive and creating visual imagery. My artistic and culinary passions just came together.
It was very important for me to finish my time at Intellectual Ventures by writing Modernist Cuisine at Home, which may be a misnomer. It’s a completely distinct document and barely a residual from the Modernist Cuisine itself. It is a recipe book that provides home chefs with improvised methods from the MC and is therefore a bridge to both home chefs and professional chefs.
My experience with MC resulted in 18 pending patents based on my work there. I also won the James Beard awards for Best Cookbook of the Year 2012 and Cooking from a Professional Point of View, as well as three IACP awards the same year.
What is your philosophy regarding food/cooking?
Cooking begins with intention. If people’s relationship with food is not just personal, but also about their environment and community, that relationship will grow stronger. I’ve always communicated through food and found my greatest happiness in sharing my passion about food with others. My objective is to grasp my intention completely and to always be mindful about how my actions impact others. Through my own learning process, I experience celebration, communing, and, as a result, a new dynamic between people who did not have a common ground otherwise. And it’s just wonderful to witness the connection that helps people come together.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
I would say that at this point in time you should not limit yourself by equating the food industry to working in a restaurant, or being a chef in the more traditional sense. There is so much that can be done with food, so many careers and professional possibilities that could are available and can be created through food. I would approach the industry in a much more open-minded way than what it used to be.
The food industry is still very young and the possibilities are limitless. People who are willing to look beyond the current boundaries are those who will find success and happiness by giving their time to it. It certainly does not mean that I discourage people from going into the restaurant industry. There is so much one can learn from being a restaurant chef. But I also believe that all too often young chefs limit themselves to thinking too narrowly when there are so many other paths they can pursue.
What would you have done differently when starting out?
It’s a difficult question to answer because I have never set a plan for myself. While I have always intended to find the best way, I’ve allowed my life to evolve and take its course and have never projected a certain path.
Food is a passion, not a job. Even when food becomes a career, it does not eliminate the passion. We sometimes disregard the virtues of work for financial reward. This is why people in the industry are willing to work 100-hour weeks on a regular basis, especially at the beginning of a career when there’s very little financial reward and great personal satisfaction.
That said, there is one thing I wish I knew better. Based on my experience, I know that most people in the food industry have quite a creative inclination, myself very much included. I wish I knew the business side earlier on. Being the creators and people who give their time and spirit to bring enjoyable experience to others, it is important for chefs to combine their creative sense with a clear and educated business sense. It is easy to get to a point where you no longer consider it a passion and you are consumed by the intensity of the work. In order to honor the creative contributions we make, we absolutely must focus on both sides of our work.
What is your favorite ingredient?
I knew of them before, but did not discover their full potential until recently – Jerusalem artichokes. First of all, from the texture standpoint the shifts you can make from raw state to cooked state are many. You can shave them raw and pickle them and they taste like water chestnuts and raw artichokes. When they are partially cooked, they are almost like an al dente potato, but much more digestible. Then you can go all the way to roasting them.
A friend of mine taught me a trick on how to roast them on the shiny side of the foil vs. the cut face of the artichoke. She basically oven fried them until the inside became like fudge. It still had that delicate, suggestive artichoke taste, but it was very subtle and had a profound sweetness. The savory sweet flavor is just amazing.
What trends in the biz do you see on the horizon?
My hope as opposed to what I really see happening? It’s hard to tell. I hope there will be more diversity and more energy- and resource-efficient ways of cultivating. Aquaponics, permaculture gardens, and hydroponic walls – those are the things that are happening. The resulting efficiency of energy, growth and nutritional quality is incredible.
By virtue of understanding the chemistry of food better, companies are putting in systems to maximize flavor, nutrition and benefits for the environment. Giant monoculture farms will soon be a thing of the past. Right now, the consumer’s financial capacity is certainly a driver. But with the expansion of efficiency programs and companies and increased sustainability, good food may be available at lower prices than the products of the monoculture farms.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
Their favorite go-to dish. Something they’ve honed. What they love to cook. I’ve been disappointed that some people are unwilling to cook for me because of what I do. What would you cook for me if you didn’t think of me as a chef, but rather as just a guest that you want to take care of?
I barely have time to cook for myself. I just appreciate the environment my friends create and the fact that they cooked something for me. I cook for others all day. Being cooked for is the most enjoyable experience.
Who is the best chef in Seattle right now?
I do love Jason Stratton’s food at Spinasse, Artusi – it is genius. Using classic flavors from the northwest of Italy and Spain, it’s very clever but so satisfying at the same time. I’ve also always loved Jerry Traunfeld’s work at Poppy. Thierry Rautureau, Matt Dillon, Jason Franey, Maria Hines, Renee Erickson, Matt Costello, Tom Douglas, Charles Walpole, the list goes on… There’s so much talent in Seattle. All these chefs are so authentic and true to the land and their environment. It’s about learning to choose what you like – not about what sounds tempting.
What is your last meal?
If I could choose my favorite food, it would be Japanese. Often people think it equates with sushi rolls, but it is so much more. I love Izumi in Kirkland, which is located in a strip mall. And Kappo Tamura in Eastlake. Chef Kitamura’s sashimi is brilliant. When he makes an omakase, he often takes simple Japanese home food and refines it with brilliant twists. Like his braised kabocha squash in dashi. You go through this whole journey of a meal. One winter, he served me hairy crab with sake poured into their shells for broth. It was so elegant. His preparations for geoduck, Shigoku oysters and spot prawns are pure excellence.
At Izumi restaurant there is a bar seating 8-9 people. Only the master serves you. I can eat sashimi all night long. In salmon season you might have 7 different salmon dishes with different sauces and salts. One of the top 5 bites I’ve ever had was at Izumi. It was tamago – the Chef layered it with sea urchin and caramelized it. The uni was sweet/ savory and the egg was delicate and briny. It was all about the best technique and ingredients.
It Is Better to Give Than to Receive
My conversation with Max spanned over two days for about 4 hours. We covered many topics and tangents along the way. One particular story Maxime shared struck a chord with me. It was about French and Chinese families being proud of having recipes they take to the grave. There are people who are known to make the best variety of a certain local or regional dish who will not share the recipe or technique. In his mind, this is a shame. Having that knowledge is a burden that can be shared with others who can then expand upon the dish. To not share and to not unburden yourself to permit innovation for next generations is a tragedy because it means the end of wisdom, practice and lineage.
As someone who has once held family recipes near and dear I completely understand keeping that ‘secret’ but now avow to share and share alike. And our chef culture has thankfully completely shifted. Now chefs are collaborating more and more across the planet on techniques, flavor combinations and social advocacy.
What I took away from our time together was simple. Maxime is all about sharing, learning and connecting with others. The Imagine Food space is just that – a space to share, learn and connect with food. Check it out and spend some time getting to know your food and Maxime Bilet.
If you enjoyed this interview with Imagine Food’s Maxime Bilet then please check out my other articles in the series at Chef Interviews and stay tuned for future conversations with more of your favorite well and lesser known Seattle-based Chefs on The Hungry Dog Blog!
A Recipe from Maxime Bilet of Imagine Food
French Onion Soup Recipe
Yield: 10 standard portions
Ingredients & Amounts
For the Sweet Onion Broth:
Sweet onions, shaved on a mandolin – 4 large (about 3.35 kg)
Comte cheese, grated – 200 g
Water – 3.5 % of total weight of solids
Baking soda – 0.3%of total weight of solids
Xanthan Gum – 0.15% of total liquid
Sherry vinegar – to taste
Red Boat Fish Sauce – to taste
Salt – to taste
For the Pickled Red Onions:
Water – 3 cups
Champagne vinegar – 2 cups
Sugar – 1 cups
Salt – 2 Tablespoons
Calcium lactate (optional) – .1% of total weight
Red pearl onions, blanched, peeled – 15 each and quartered
For the Stuffed Cipolline Onions:
Small Cipolline onions, cut in half – 10
Shallots – 3 each
Dry white wine – ½ bottle
Black pepper, coarsely ground – to taste
Parmiggiano, grated – 1 cup
Meyer lemon zest, Microplaned – from 1 lemon
Thyme leaves – from 1 sprig
For the Assembly:
Pickled Red Pearl Onions – 30 small petal shapes
Stuffed Cipolline Onions – 10 each
Chives, cut into batons – 30 batons
Make the onion broth. Combine the sliced onions, baking soda, cheese and water in a pressure cooker. Bring to 15 psi over medium heat, at which point you will count 45 minutes of cooking time. Strain the broth and weigh. Blend in the correct amount of xanthan (0.15 g for every 100g of liquid) until well emulsified and creamy. Season and set aside. Note: The solids make an excellent pancake with a bit of Wondra, some egg white and a touch of salt.
Prepare the pickled red onions. Combine water, vinegar, sugar, salt and calcium lactate and bring to a simmer until all ingredients are dissolved. Pour hot brine over the cut red pearl onions and let them sit at room temperature for 20 minutes. Cool and refrigerate.
Prepare the stuffed Cipolline. Roast the Cipolline onions in the oven at 375°F until they get soft. Wash and peel the shallots. Finely mince, and sweat them without browning. Deglaze with the white wine; keep cooking until all the liquid evaporates. Turn off the heat and add grated parmesan, lemon zest, grounded black pepper, thyme, and season with salt. Remove the core part of each Cipolline onion and gently stuff it with the shallot, parmesan mixture. Reserve for later.
Plate. Arrange all ingredients evenly in small bowls and pour the broth to order.
Published with permission of the author. All rights reserved, 2014