João Wengorovious is not a professional writer. He worked in advertising for more than twenty years – occupying the position of CEO for BBDO in Lisbon – before deciding to embark on the adventure of “We,Chefs“, an experience which lasted four years and took him to all four corners of the planet to interview 21 of the most “creative and influential” chefs in the world of haute cuisine, including Joan Roca, Alex Atala, Rene Redzepi, Virgilio Martínez, Massimo Bottura and Daniel Humm. “I was always passionate about food. I also went to the Alain Ducasse training centre, but it was all for the sake of learning – João says – But then I kept on finding parallels between the kitchen and the advertising world: everyone wants to be unique. Cuisine to me is a vehicle for universal messages”.
Chefs Behind Cooking
The book wants to describe chefs in a way that goes beyond cooking, beyond their work as chefs. How? By identifying 33 words their stories all have in common, 33 milestones on the ground they have covered, an experience which spans the chapters of the book in a precise order. Starting from “open”.
“Every chef has to be open at the beginning of his path. We have to observe and absorb, ingest and slowly digest, all those wonderful, strange and unpredictable things that will end up ‘in our plate’. We also need a Mentor, another word I put in the book. You do not reach success without the others: your mentor first, and then your Family, which could be your husband or your wife or even your brigade. Also, you can’t take shortcuts or skipping steps – even though it’s easy. Consistency is fundamental. You’ve to find what you want to say and expressing it, increase your vocabulary every day, find what you want to say in the world around you”.
The Importance of Terroir
The concept of terroir is one on which the author enjoys dwelling most. Terroir in an overall sense, however, not merely intended as products or seasons, but also as culture and techniques. “Now Lisbon, where I live, is full of Nordic design shops. It’s not part of our culture! In a world that looks more and more alike, we have to focus on what’s really ours. On the context, which is geographical, but also temporal: a chef has to ask himself ‘What can I do now?’”.
The conversation with João flows easily, just like his book in which one word leads to another, effortlessly lined up in a conceptualization that is bold yet never excessive. But where did he get the idea for such an opus magnum? “I had always loved dining out in many restaurants every year and whenever I got the chance, I always stopped to talk to chefs – he tells – One day, I was chatting to Dieter Koschina, chef of Vila Joya. It was then that I thought it would be nice to repeat a lunch like that, in a relaxed and spontaneous way, with other chefs. I was not interested in a conventional style of interview: I wanted to sit down with them at the table. Obviously the logistics were not simple: twenty-one interviews in just as many different places in the world, with chefs who had to fit me into their packed agenda! But they were all very accommodating: maybe because I do not belong to their world and they were curious to meet me. Many told me they could not spare me more than half an hour… but then we ended up talking for hours”.
The final structure only emerged at the end: João approached the chefs with the open-minded attitude he believes is essential for addressing the world. One which then leads to the serendipity: a homo faber fortunae suae to whom things only happen when he is ready to recognize and receive them. A chef who becomes an author only when ready to be one, one to whom success never arrives by chance: “Only when you reached a great knowledge of the world and of yourself you’re able to express something truly yours and reclaim your authorship. Moved solely by curiosity and without preconceived ideas or prejudices, we must continuously expand, educate and re-educate our palate. Only then are we be able to express something truly creative, original and visceral”.
And even when we have achieved this authorship, we must never stop exploring, urges João, we must not allow ourselves to forget the satisfaction deriving from an act of creativity and “lower the bar”. The most engaging aspect of We.Chefs lies right here: everything he tells us about the chefs moves you to apply it to yourself. “We can and we should all aim to be authors in our lives, regardless of what we do. If not in the artistic sense at least in the sense that we do it fully, passionately and proudly, in a way which is unmistakably ours. Only then we can create a better, more diverse, colorful and flavorful place”.