Gabe Kennedy | Chef, Musician, Traveler
Words | Andrew Scheinman
Chef, enthusiastic traveler, and lover of all things sustainable, Gabe Kennedy attaches big ideas like truth, honesty, and vulnerability to cooking. He began cooking at fourteen in Boulder, Colorado, and has been a simple food guru ever since, spending time in a couple of renowned restaurants, consulting for organic brands, and studying at Cornell University and the Culinary Institute of America. Gabe won season three of The Taste in early 2015, where Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, Marcus Samuelsson, and Ludo Lefebvre named him best undiscovered cook. Nowadays, you can find him inspiring you to cook consciously in Bon Appétit’s instructional videos as executive chef.
What inspired you to take the organic, plant-based approach to cooking, as opposed to say, molecular gastronomy?
I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, in a home where fresh food was the name of the game. As a kid we would visit farms, shop at farmers markets, and cook as a family. So, my fondest memories are of simple, ingredient-driven food that serves as a catalyst for connection. With that said, food is innately beautiful. If you start with beautiful fresh produce, there is not much you need to do to it—just treat it with respect and stay out of its way. I get a tremendous amount of joy by exploring the story behind the food and ingredients as much as preparing them, so a lot of my inspiration comes from farm visits, family meals and the emotional ties to the food.
How has winning The Taste changed your career?
The Taste changed my career in a beautiful way. It served as an affirmation that cooking is perhaps my place in the world, but also as a line in the sand for me to truly explore my own passions, talents, and challenges, and to work for myself. The Taste gave me a platform to share my message about sustainable food, and was really a kick-start to my career!
What was it like working with Marcus Samuelsson and having Anthony Bourdain—your childhood hero—taste your cooking?
It was a dream come true. To be mentored by and cook for chefs that I have always looked up to is an experience like no other. Let’s face it, they are serious legends! I learned so much from the challenges and pushing myself, but also from simply listening and soaking it all up. To be honest, the entire time we filmed I was on cloud nine.
You note that you don’t love the kitchen scene, but you’ve spent time in some of the most famous kitchens in the world, including Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Eleven Madison Park. What was your worst experience in restaurant kitchens?
Spending time in professional kitchens is always a challenge/grind. The hours are long, the pay is minimal, the work is hard and it is often pretty damn hot. With that said, there is a magical energy that you don’t find anywhere else. It is hard to put a finger on what the worst experience was, but I can say the most challenging was working for countless days straight at my first job in NYC. I was 18, commuting an hour each way, making no money and continually getting yelled at. I wanted to quit every day, but it changed my life, made me grow up, and taught me how to cook. At my first real restaurant job, when I was 15, I had a particularly interesting experience: I was working at a sushi bar and was tasked to make the wasabi. I made 10 gallons and they told me to use hot water to mix it. First off, you can’t mix powder with hot water easily, but just imagine wasabi gas steaming up in your face. Inhaling wasabi air was probably one of the most painful experiences I went through, coughing, gagging, stinging my eyes and pores. It was an interesting way of being welcomed into a new job. They laughed, I cried, we are still friends.
How did you end up working in Indonesia?
I was working in private equity with a fund that invested exclusively in organic food brands. Lucky for me, one of the companies, Big Tree Farms, was located in Bali and needed some assistance on a project. My colleague and best friend Brennan and I jumped at the opportunity, packed our bags, and set off. It was far and away the most magical work experience I have had. Scootering through the jungle to work in the world’s largest bamboo structure, exploring an exotic land, making new friends, experiencing new flavors, smells, and sights wasn’t so bad. I walked away energized, inspired, and truly a different person.
As a generally freelance chef, you seem to take advantage of your freedom to travel. How does what you eat abroad find its way into your work?
Everywhere I go I am chasing flavor and seeking inspiration. I am a young cook, so learning and staying curious is vital to my growth. Other countries and cultures have incredible techniques, ingredients, and approaches to cuisine that I find exciting. I travel, eat, ask questions, peek my head into the kitchen, and write a bunch of notes. Ultimately, those experiences— whether in a professional kitchen or over a campfire on a ranch—creep into my everyday cooking, which is an amalgamation of my experience.
Speaking of travel, you went to Haiti as an ambassador for Concern Worldwide. What impact do you think you had there?
Haiti was a very touching trip. I did not expect to see what I did there. The level of poverty is immense and it is challenging to see. The people of Haiti are strong, stoic, and hopeful, and it reminds me of how fortunate we all are. I went to Haiti with an open mind and heart, and I hope that came through. I cannot speak to how I impacted others, but can confidently say they changed my perspective of food and inspired me to get creative with limited resources. I hope that my visit was equally inspiring and that our presence was felt by those we worked with and beyond. I think the acknowledgment of their projects, progress, and culture was a rewarding thing to be a part of.
What is your favorite food experience at home or abroad?
It is hard to pinpoint one experience. But I recently traveled to Iceland with some Icelandic friends. They took me salmon fishing in a pristine river. We caught a bunch of fish and I made some crudo on the cold rock next to the riverbank. Catching the fish, killing it, filleting it, and slicing it in a matter of minutes deeply satisfied my soul. I foraged along the riverbank for local herbs and flowers that went remarkably well with the fish. It stands out in my mind because I felt so close to nature, I was really a part of the landscape.
The local food movement has, in the last decade, moved from the fringe of obsessed foodies and high-end chefs to the mainstream. Where do you see the farm-to-table movement going from here?
Local is the name of the game. I see the movement becoming more and more inclusive. In my mind, food is not about being high-end, exclusive, and out of reach, but accessible, inclusive, and part of everyday life. I hope that people will continue to cultivate relationships with their farmers and local growers— and even grow their own!
Who are your heroes—cooking or otherwise?
Anthony Bourdain of course. Tony got me into cooking, so of course he gets a shout-out. Michele Bras is an incredible French chef that works magic with vegetables. And of course my mom. My mom really got me in the kitchen at a young age and I have to say, she really knows how to make a great meal and have fun while doing it.
What do you have planned for 2017? There are rumors of a Gabe Kennedy restaurant concept.
I am really focusing on a few projects and diving into them headfirst. There may or may not be a concept in the works, but when the time is right you will know (under-promise, over-deliver, right?). I am writing a cookbook, pushing forward other food media, and would really love to open a brick-and-mortar concept that is community-focused.
You started working in kitchens when you were 14. If you could be doing anything else for a living, what would it be?
I would be a musician—music is my other love and best friend. I sing, play guitar, and rap. Just like cooking, I have to be fully present when I dive in so it really is a meditative experience. If I weren’t either a chef or musician, I would be a surgeon. I guess I like knives?