A universal language
The food we love has a way of informing who we are. Ask anyone you know to picture any holiday from their childhood. Chances are good that one of the first images to come to mind will be the food they’ve always associated with that holiday.
Very few things are shared between all cultures throughout the course of history. Food is one of them. Every culture has created its own dishes, flavor combinations, and cooking techniques.
We wanted to learn more about the importance of food culture to identity and how culinary traditions interact with each other. So we reached out to three culinary professionals who have come from vastly different cultures and food traditions.
Despite the variety in their upbringing and early exposure to cuisine, our guests all found their way to careers that place creativity, expression, and connection at the forefront.
We also discussed what it’s like to engage with, and even combine, culinary traditions outside of the ones you grew up with.
Before getting into the conversation itself, we’d like to introduce our culinary experts.
Sven Gadzimski is a professional chef who attended an exclusive culinary school in his native Germany. Since then, he has brought his gifts to many restaurants and institutions in Europe and the U.S.
Gadzimski has worked as a private chef for Kappa Kappa Gamma and he was also the youngest pastry chef at the famed restaurant The Blue Door @ the Delano Hotel. More recently, Gadzimski has been involved in the pre-production of a public access program that will teach children and parents how to cook and eat healthy at home.
Laure Larrose, originally from a small town in France, is an experienced pastry chef. She has also worked at many famous bakeries and pastry destinations around the world, including an award-winning run (Best Pastry, Best Croissant, and Best macaron) while working in Toronto.
Effie Noifelt is an established culinary professional who specializes in elaborate carvings and arrangements that use fruit and vegetables. After growing up in Nigeria and Greece, Noifelt attended Santa Monica College in Los Angeles, where she focused on food sustainability and safety. She then attended culinary school in Greece and worked her way up the ladder as a chef de cuisine and took home an award at the Culinary Competition of Southern Europe. Her affinity for the visual arts continues to influence her edible carving arrangements.
The traditions we grow up with
When growing up, the world of a child is very small, in more ways than one. Practicalities like money, responsibility, and health are nonexistent. For many children, school and family have a huge presence in their lives.
This might be why we carry such vivid and powerful memories of family events and the meals that were served there. The sights, sounds, and smells of everyone enjoying special dishes become ingrained in our minds.
There are broader cultural traditions as well as the smaller, more specific trends of each region, each town, and each family.
So how were our culinary pros introduced to their family’s food culture?
Sven grew up in Germany, where he quickly learned that a few of his relatives had a rich personal history with food and cooking.
“My dad was a chef when he was younger, and my grandmother grew up during wartime. She was responsible for all of the cooking in her family. Growing up I remember there wasn’t a day when she was not in the kitchen. For Christmas, my dad and my grandmother always wow-ed us with roasts. One year it was goose, the next year venison. ”
Laure Larrose, having grown up on her family’s farm in the southwest corner of France, has a long history with fresh local foods.
“The place where I grew up is very close to both the Basque Country and Spain so we had all these different flavors available. As for traditions, we always have foie gras on family holiday dinners and then gambas a la plancha. Dessert was crêpes, my mum’s specialty.”
Effie, on the other hand, is no stranger to combining and tweaking multiple food cultures. Both of her parents were Greek, but she was born and raised in Nigeria, where her family had easy access to incredible spices.
She remembers enjoying traditional Greek and Nigerian foods as a child, and she’s carried this unique combination with her ever since.
“We were accustomed to traditional Nigerian cuisine which consisted mainly of fish and shrimp from the river. On rare occasions, there was goat meat cooked with a lot of hot spices and cumin. But my mother was always proud of being Greek, so she found ways to cook traditional Greek recipes on weekends and holidays.”
For each of these pros, childhood encounters with meaningful meals planted the seed for further exploration and inspiration.
In fact, these stories led to many of our staff sharing their own anecdotes about which foods were most important to their families when growing up. Sure, children may disagree with their parents when it comes to religion, politics, or social trends, but food represents an island of agreement.
Finding your own way
Having a great love and appreciation for food is well and good, but the transition from being a food lover to becoming a culinary professional can be challenging. Many people who love and appreciate great food never step into the kitchen.
Enjoying something is one thing, but making it your job is another.
We wanted to understand why each of our interviewees decided to make the leap to a culinary career, and whether their experiences with their own families and food traditions encouraged them to do it.
For each of them, the thing that pushed them over the edge, that made them want to take cooking more seriously, was their families.
Gadzimski spent a lot of time with his grandparents, who placed a great deal of importance on growing their own food on any piece of land around the house. The family kept small animals as well as numerous fruit and vegetable plants.
Noifelt, being Greek, was always aware of how important Greek foods were to the family. Both her mother and grandmother made a point of preparing classic Greek dishes as often as they could.
For Larrose, it was her mother who inspired a long-lasting love for all that food could offer. The appeal of a culinary career was so strong that there was no real chance of taking a different direction.
For all three, food was already a part of who they were, and there was no getting around it. Becoming professional chefs wasn’t a rejection of their upbringing but rather an acceptance of how important food had become to them, thanks in part to their families.
Combining tradition and personal style
For professionals, simply recreating old favorites isn’t enough. There’s certainly a market for traditionally prepared foods, but most well-informed diners are looking for a new experience.
If you’ve watched any cooking shows over the last few years, you’re probably familiar with this mash-up approach. Many contestants present their food to judges as a combination of the foods they grew up with and more sophisticated ingredients and flavors.
Noifelt has been combining elements from different cultures and recipes for quite a long time.
“My culinary style was influenced immensely by both Greek and Nigerian cultures. My recipes have ingredients and spices from both countries.”
For example, adding certain Nigerian spices to Greek dishes has the potential to make them healthier overall.
As we mentioned earlier, Larrose grew up with access to fresh local foods, and while she continues to seek out local food sources, her extensive travel has had an influence on the food she makes. Each city or town has its own seasonal specialties. Larrose’s flexibility, allows her to adapt to this spinning wheel of available ingredients.
“By having the opportunity to grow up on a farm I know how fresh and quality products can change the taste of a meal. I try now to use seasonal local products whenever possible. I want my desserts to be full of different flavors and colors.”
The internet and cultural mashups
Until recently, the experiences of young chefs happened in a vacuum. Then came one of the most significant technological shifts of our time.
It’s no secret that the internet has impacted the very course of history, changing the way we think about and approach just about every subject and art form.
Just 30 years ago, getting to experience food cultures outside of your own required either travel or an extended personal network of friends from diverse backgrounds.
This is not the case today. In particular, young chefs have the chance to research just about any type of food on the planet with ease.
But what effect will this have on culinary professionals who are still developing their style and approach? Is it possible to be exposed to too much information? Will all of these intermixing food traditions snuff out older techniques?
For our guest experts, the internet has indeed had an impact, but that impact has been almost entirely positive.
Sven mentioned that one of the most important benefits of the online culinary community is the increased accessibility it offers to cooks who are just starting out. It eliminates certain barriers, both in terms of culinary background and cultural background.
“I feel the Internet has brought food culture closer together if anything. Now everyone from any part of the world, chefs or not, can upload and share their recipes and ideas about food. People learn the basics of cooking or baking by watching videos and probably get inspired to try different foods. I personally get inspired to go travel to different places and try the local food.”
Larrose believes that the internet has made chefs more responsible by giving them the tools to find out where their ingredients are coming from. It’s an opportunity to be more responsible with food sourcing.
“You can’t dissociate what you see on-screen from the story and the people behind it. It gives us perspective about the reality of the food business. Diners can now make the responsible choice of where they want to eat based on how the business is handled.”
By the end of our conversation, it was clear that our guests value their relationships with cuisine. Each of them worked their way to successful careers based around the creation of inventive foods.
Out of curiosity, we ended our talk by discussing whether they would ever want to do anything else. Had cooking become an integral part of who they were?
Noifelt feels a strong connection to food and can’t imagine tearing herself away from the career she’s made for herself:
“The food itself, in its basic form, is an integral part of my identity and its result is the creation of great, tasty recipes that reflect the respect that I have for nature’s gifts. It really is that simple.”
For Gadzimski, cooking is almost a form of time travel, as it quickly takes him back to the headspace of being an excited child putting together a meal for the first time.
“Many things that I cook bring me back to those fun childhood cooking experiences. Food is fun, relaxing, creative and expressive. I am the person I am today because of the food and memories from my childhood.”
These days, Larrose’s desire to create highly original creations has influenced the way she looks at the world. Her culinary inspiration doesn’t just come from food but from other art forms as well.
“It has become a habit for me to write down notes constantly, based on my own tests, what I taste in restaurants, and things I see in magazines or online. It can relate to food or simply art, architecture, or nature, and I try to create my own recipe and design from that inspiration. Everything can become an idea for a new dessert.”
This holistic view of artistic expression brings to mind the Bauhaus movement, which attempted to combine multiple mediums to create a singular artistic experience.
This kind of cross-pollination is further proof that cooking and baking are finally being perceived as art forms of their own, not just by chefs but by the general public as well.
Like other artists, the focus is always on the current project, and how it can be better than the last.
A collection of experiences
How identity is shaped has been up for debate for many years. Some believe that brain chemistry determines who we will become. Some say that our childhoods are the determining factor.
But when it comes to careers and artistic callings, it seems to be a combination of prior influence and personal choice.
Yes, it matters quite a bit what we grew up around, but as each of us grows older, we choose what to take with us and what to leave behind.
When it comes to the food we love, there are dishes our families introduced us to as well as meals that we found ourselves.
Just consider our guest chefs. They started with relatively focused views on what makes for great food then expanded those views over years of training and professional experiences.
When it’s all said and done, each of us is a collection of experiences, which means that we will never stop changing. Whether you’re a professional chef or just an amateur, try to welcome the foreign and unfamiliar. In the process, you will become something new.