For many of us, food is the foremost expression of culture, and this has resulted in us seeking answers through dishes, menus, ingredients and tables. The experience we seek might be eating freshly shucked oysters at the market stall with a geriatric from Beziques. It might be tasting the Sauvignon Blanc grapes off the vine in Adelaide hills with a winemaker, deciding if they are ready to be picked. It might be with a group of Bedouins around a campfire, pulling up whole lamb from the embers in a pit in the Arabian desert. All of these things and many more provide more than nutrition for our body – they nurture our minds and souls in a way that museums and books cannot. People just being people, satisfying a very human need, give more about themselves and their country by accident than they do when trying to describe their culture on purpose.
But culinary travel is not entirely one-sided. Sir Walter Raleigh brought back the potato from the Americas – an item that is now so fundamental to British and Irish Cuisine that it’s hard to believe it’s not a native. Around the same time, Columbus and Cortes brought the tomato to Spain, and now it is the most crucial ingredient to Mediterranean cuisine. What if the Swiss had never discovered how to produce chocolate? Imagine an Indian curry without chilli! These ingredients travelled to different parts of the world to find their adopted homes had more to give them in term of production. But now, in a global era where ingredients are available the world over, we find that the opposite is starting to occur.
Last week, Craig Leickfelt arrived for a few nights only to cook at Baker and Spice. He’s the captain at the helm of Guns + Butter, a restaurant without a restaurant. It’s quirky name fits him perfectly – it refers to the economical weighing of government funds, and decisions to invest in defense or civilian goods. It’s of little doubt where he fits on the scales – Craig would shoot his enemies with butter, and probably hope they responded with missiles made of stone-ground sourdough. Then he’d probably sit down with them and discuss the best way to partner the two. He’s one of a growing number of adventurous chefs who have realised that culinary travel is not about getting open mouths in your home town – it’s about getting yourself in someone else’s kitchen. To give while you take.
Guns + Butter started local (Detroit) and for it’s first few ventures, it stayed within the states. His team of 5 (sometimes 3, and internationally, it’s just himself) have cooked all over LA and New York, throwing themselves into other peoples’ kitchens, resolutely remaining with local, sustainable ingredients, and keeping the concept desired and fresh with a clever filtering of publicity, partnering with edgy or off-beat establishments, and limiting lead-time and seating. It’s amazing how we all desire a secret.
Despite being close to home, Craig didn’t leave these stints empty handed. LA had such a broad scope of seasonal produce due to the climate that he found himself awash with choice – he’s taken memories of the market there that can’t be quashed. New York ingrained itself earlier, during his training and early years of work. It taught him everything he needed to be a good cook. Then it fined his skills in ways many smaller cities could – turning him into an experienced and technical chef.
But that wasn’t enough for Craig. In March, he took his pack of knives and threw himself into a Mumbai kitchen. The plan was to cook at the “Taste of Mumbai” AMEX dinner at The Grand Hyatt and a conduct a series of pop-up restaurants, but there was much more to it than that. He trained under chef Jehangir Mehta. He ate, lived and cooked local for two months, and came out a better chef for it. Craig discovered new ingredients, picked up things at market simply unfathomable in the US. He broke a blender making a puree with something he thought was a kind of beet, he discovered you just can’t make risotto with obscure Indian rice grains. But successes were more frequent than failures, and regardless, every experience was positive on the learning curve. He brought with him a new love of spices, and a perfectly weighted GGG (Ginger, Garlic and Green Chilly flavour base used in nearly every curry).
Singapore was different. In December, Lieckfelt found himself in a tiny country where nearly every single ingredient was imported. It was a change for the live-local, love-organic chef, and he admits that he brought more of Detroit to the table than Singapore. But each trip brings him closer to his destinations in different ways. He may not have twisted the ingredients into the menu at the Asian launch of fellow Detroit-born Shinola, but he enjoyed playing the culinary tourist. Singapore gave him a new love of chicken – he loves they way they can cook it moister than he’d ever tasted it before. Of course, there was the Singapore Chilli Crab – it grabbed him by the senses and shook him like it does to everybody else, and he’ll forever-more know what balance he is aiming for in a crab sauce.
Dubai of course is another story. His visit last week brought him to Yael Mejia of Baker and Spice. Another staunch supporter of local and organic cuisine, Yael led him through desert markets many would think were bare. Craig discovered there’s plenty of scope within our regional produce to design a menu that shows his Detroit style with a Dubai leaning. Meat was the only issue – but it wasn’t a quality problem, just an inability to find the cuts he needed to adhere to his own style and talents. An organic Canadian lamb squeezed it’s way into an otherwise regional menu. He worked with tuna, prawns, radish, ginger, tomatoes, squash, pistachios, quinces, aubergine, and labneh.
He’s left us now, and with quite a gift (pictures of his food on the night don’t come close to doing it justice). But he’s moving on with his own souvenirs. From the UAE, he’s taken on a lesson in acid. He’s enamoured of the zestiness of the salads and sauces in the region. It’s inspired him to take a leap past what he would previously accepted as sufficiently tart, and he proved it with an astounding cured tomato and sourdough dish that had me licking my bowl. Likewise, his tuna tartare starter, although definitely with Japanese influence, had a three-dimensional character and length that I’ve tasted few places before.
Craig Lieckfelt firmly believes on entering a new culture with his mind clear and his eyes open. Where many of us would study-up and develop an expectation and a list of places to go and things to eat, Craig does the opposite. He lands with his pack of knives and ISI guns and goes wherever his nose and his friends lead him. It’s quite an enviable feat, being able to walk into an alien kitchen, with staff trained by someone else, and throw together a series of 6-or-more course dinners with resounding success. This is a lesson for the alternate culinary traveller to take on board. A happy accident is worth ten researched disappointments, and it’s something I’ve taken to practice in my recent trip to Bavaria with joyous success.
Next year, Guns + Butter will open in Detroit. That’s right, a real-life restaurant. I asked Craig how it would feel to cement his feet. I can’t help but think of the drear faced by fellow-Detroitian Eminem when he could no longer write about being poor and oppressed. How will a man famous for pop-ups continue to excite us when he is set down? Craig says it’s still the dream. For every chef, it is, and always will be. But there’s no need to worry if you still want to catch him out and about. Plans are to shut down the base for up to 2 months every year and take the team on tour. The merry jaunts will continue.
Coming months will see him look up some old mates in Beirut and London. Keep an ear to the ground by following the facebook page.
Baker and Spice seem to be continuing to bring in international chefs, so you might want to keep up with them too.