August 14, 2012

An Exclusive Interview with Chef and Art Director Tom Wolfe

Surely you have already heard the great news. Cavalli Caffe will be opening its first venue ever and chose Beirut city for it's first location. The opening will mark the start of  a new dining experience in Lebanon. A special surprise awaits you... Tom Wolfe, who is the founder of Blue Food Produktions, will be creating 3 signature dishes for Cavalli Caffe. Tom fuses food, fashion, and art. His clients include celebrities such as Madonna and Jennifer Lopez.

I got the chance to sit one on one with Tom Wolfe to learn more about how he mixes food and art together and more about his signature dishes expected to wow the Lebanese tough crowd.

How long have you been involved in food and art? 

For as long as I remember. I have always cooked with my grandmother who is from Sweden and when I needed something, my grandfather who is from Quebec would helped me make it on the spot at his workshop. This was how it started. As I grew up and moved to New York City, I went to art school and back then, in the 80's, I was part of the downtown scene cooking for my friends all the time. A lot of my friends were famous models and artists so I grew up in that world and I’m comfortable with it. Mari Pol, an underrated character, is one of them. She’s a friend of mine. She discovered a lot of celebrities like Madonna and Grace Jones. I later went to the French Culinary Institute and finished the top of my class. My peers told me I have incredible taste memory, which means I can taste something and recreate it from scratch. I work a lot on the senses in general, what we see, taste and more.

How do you master quantity?

It comes naturally. I think with French cooking, when you know the basics, you can cook anything.

How did you start mixing the two together professionally?

I got to London after traveling around the world in 1996, and I was going to a lot of parties and the food was awful and charging 50 pounds, and these were celebrity parties and I thought wow, all right, I’m going to make my own. My friend saw what I designed she took me to Sony Music. That was where I met Jennifer Lopez, and she needed a chef and so I became a chef for her when she would be in London. Wherever she was, I would follow her. Then I met 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers, and from there it really took off because I was really the only chef at the time that could do product design. So X-Men was my first film premiere ever. I made X-Men trays and cooked the food and I dressed all the staff up and made the clothing and they were just shocked. And for me coming from New York, you had to do that because there’s so much competition, but in London you didn’t have to. So I’ve done 50 film premiers, all the X-Men, Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton films.

Mixing art and food is not simple, how do you do it and where do you draw the limit between art and the focus on good taste?

It’s not easy, but its doable. Combining food and art - it’s using great ingredients presented in a simple way. Here is a chocolate mold, and I put it in a lipstick, on a Cavalli plate (picture below). Beautiful, simple and edible. So most of my stuff is like this. The thorn collar is a heat molded acrylic collar with pure silver and chocolate strawberries. That’s it, but on the model it’s fantastic.

Is this your first time in Lebanon?

Yeah, and I love it. I worked with a Lebanese Chef called Nadia in London for 10 years, and I learned how to cook fattouch, moutabbel and all other tasty Lebanese preparations.

What do you think about Lebanese food?

I love it, it’s like the Latino cooking to me. It’s very similar. In New York, I grew up around a lot of Latinos, it’s why me and Jennifer Lopez got along so well. Latino food is fresh, they use a lot of lime lemons, salsas...it’s fresh food.  According to my French teachers, Lebanese food is the French cooking of the Middle East.

Do you ever cook Lebanese for your celebrities?

Yeah, actually. When I was working with Nadia 10 years ago, I got a phone call from Jude Law and they asked me to cook for him. And he’s vegetarian, so I made all the vegetarian Lebanese food for him and he loved it. That was a huge success.

Now that you are in Lebanon, can you find enough international ingredients here to make what you want to make?

Yeah, I think you have everything here. I brought some chipotle peppers from Mexico and some molecular ingredients, but I think you have them here.

I wanted to ask about Molecular cuisine…do you believe in it? Or is it too complicated?

Two years ago, I was invited to El Bulli, by the chef there. So I went there for like 3 weeks and I worked with him but I didn’t understand it. And I thought something was wrong with me. But I then figured out Molecular cuisine is not my thing, let the professionals of this sector deal with it. What I do is take really good ingredients that fit into a design. Like tonight, a few of the things I got like plastic eggs, and I put Penna cotta in them to give it that added touch. I then take dark chocolate cake and break it up so it looks like dirt, so it looks like the egg is in sand or something. This is what I do, I do design. I create a design that someone can wear or a tray. It works for me, it’s getting bigger and bigger.

I heard you’re doing the most expensive dessert in Lebanon… is it expensive because the ingredients are expensive or because it’s out of this world and no one has tasted anything like it before?

It is a combination of both. It’s a 23-karat gold chocolate leaf sundae. So we’re still developing on it, and maybe we’re going to give a Cavalli golden spoon with it. It’s a super deluxe chocolate sundae. It’s just a great press angle.

How expensive are we talking? What’s the price range?

It will be high price, but it will be an affordable luxury, you will also be able to add Cavalli chocolate to it… so it will be a high-end price.

The menu you’re preparing is a pure Italian menu… will there be at least one dish that combines Italian with Lebanese? Or a special Cavalli Lebanese plate?

We haven’t had this conversation yet, I would love to work personally in the future with another artist or chef and maybe develop something. Right now, it’s my signature dishes that will be on the menu…so the whole menu is Italian, but I hope this is the start of a long relationship.

The Armani Café, you have it all around the world but they have this special Lebanese twist here…so maybe it could work.We'll see.

Well, look, in Russia, the brands you have there you have to adapt to the market there. They like things different but they also want their special foods, stroganoff…they’re really tough about it though. They won’t let any other cuisine  dominate. If you want an Italian restaurant you need to have an Italian and Russian menu. But these are the Russians, I don’t know how the Lebanese are.

Have you ever thought of opening your own restaurant with your own name?
If I did, it would be in the Middle East. I have my first TV show right now. And I have my first book coming out on Russian Sukosky. I work with one of the best photographers in the world. He’s phenomenal this guy, very original. He’s Irish, been in London since the late 70s. Photographed Punk, New Wave, Paul McCartney to name a few.

Anything you’re thinking about that might interest food critics in Lebanon that might help them get to know you better?

Sure, it’s not about what's expensive. People think if it’s most expensive then it must be the best. But I just got back from Russia, and I brought a bunch of ingredients from old Russian babushkas who are growing their ingredients in their back yards, they care for them, it’s real. That’s what it’s about. It’s about quality ingredients.

You’ve worked with a lot of stars and have become a celebrity yourself. What are you doing to make more people know about you and appreciate the work you do?

I have started now, it’s starting in Russia. The TVshows, my book… T-shirts, aprons, cooking equipments, and hopefully we can sell it here too.

Thank you for having me in Lebanon. It's a pleasure meeting all of you and working with professional people like you.

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