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The Willy Wonka Of Avant-Garde Cuisine:
Interview With Chef Mike Bagale
by Sara Bavar
"Great stories happen to those who can tell them."
~ Ira Glass
What can be said about Mike Bagale that has not already been said? At just 38-years-old, he is already one of the world’s most celebrated and admired chefs. With his limitless talents, Bagale is constantly pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a chef. Famous for his work at Alinea and inventor of Floating Food, Bagale is now exploring the medicinal properties of food. His goal is to change the face of the industry by creating food that is cleaner and healthier while encouraging high respect for the environment.
With aspirations of becoming a filmmaker since a teenager, it can only be said that pure kismat drove Bagale to the kitchen and the world of food. Working with Alinea owner Grant Achatz, Bagale was able to push the limits of experimentation in cooking, giving him the creative freedom to tell stories through food.
Under Bagale's direction, Alinea was awarded three Michelin stars, solidifying his place as one of the world's most talented chefs and opening the way for future projects. Through his consulting firm, Super Food Concepts, Bagale collaborates with various industries, from fashion to automotive, creating memorable experiences around the many tastes, textures and ingredients connected to food.
Sara Bavar: Originally, you had studied to be a film-maker, but for different reasons, ended up as a chef. How do you think your original passion for filmmaking has contributed to what you do today as a chef?
Mike Bagale: I never lost my sense of need to create an artistic view in whatever I was doing. With food, it was a natural transition because I always knew that I would do things that had never been done with food. That was my ambition, same as it was with film.
SB: Filmmakers use film as a medium for telling their stories. As a chef, how do you use food to tell a story? What is the story you like to tell?
MB: Writing was my gateway into film, and drawing storyboards helped me create the visual I wanted. My love of eating, and the idea of limitless possibilities with regard to flavors and textures, opened the door to my interest in cooking professionally. I think it's important to offer my own perspective and evolve. I think that's the reason I pushed myself to create newness - my desire to be perceived as an artist. I want to be a frontrunner in creativity, but most importantly, have a unique voice. Without originality, I am lost.
SB: Why is it important for you to collaborate with companies outside the food industry?
MB: It is really important to connect with other industries as it opens a completely new way of thinking and creating. I have worked with all sorts of brands, and most of them internationally. I always put the emphasis on the brand I am working with. I say, “let's focus on how I can pay homage to what has inspired the brand in the past to the present.” This approach allows me to introduce a wholly original (and natural) creative process that I could have never entered before. This way of thinking has proven to be the most beneficial in my career.
SB: What is the collaboration/project you are the proudest of?
MB: I was really honored to work with Vogue in Hong Kong. We did a pop-up event, an interactive experience where guests walked through a gallery exhibit featuring the most iconic photographers in Vogue history. Peter Lindbergh, Nick Knight, and Miles Aldridge - amongst the many. So, heavyweights in the fashion and art world. Throughout the experience, I paired small bites of food designed to pay homage to the work displayed, and then a sit down eight-course dinner, again, focusing on the photography displayed throughout the exhibit. It was naturally a very beautiful departure from the creative process I was previously in and opened up a new appreciation for the infinite possibilities of collaborative creativity.
SB: How did your invention, Floating Food, come about?
MB: When I was in culinary school, I remember wanting to create floating edible bubbles. The kind from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I waited until I felt that I had the technique and experience to actually make it happen. Then I started renting helium and hydrogen gas. During the process of working on the bubbles, I ended up making a big bubble. So I attached a string to it and voilà, the first person to create edible floating food. A really proud moment for a multitude of reasons, but primarily because I followed through with my vision.
SB: You have been advocating the concept of food is medicine, implementing it into your own personal life. How do you think this ancient tradition can benefit us, especially during this time of pandemic? Are there foods that can help/hurt us?
MB: Of course. The planet is filled with natural medicine ready for the taking. I think the pandemic is a perfect catalyst for people to regain appreciation for the planet and human life. Health and time are two priceless commodities, and it's strange that, as a country, we don’t have a healthier society. Obviously, many cultures have been practicing natural medicine for thousands of years. I am hoping to use my experience and creativity to help educate people, and create awareness around the idea that food can be medicine. Not only can a cleaner and more health-conscious approach to cooking taste better, but it can support a longer life.
SB: It is predicted that a global food shortage may be one of the mid to long-term damages of COVID-19. Do you believe this to be the case? How can we prevent it?
MB: No, I don’t believe that. I think there are certain aspects of our food culture as a society that we need to recognize before we push the panic button on food scarcity. For example food waste. We waste 40% of the food we produce. Which is obviously nearly half of what we produce. And that waste comes from big agriculture, industrial systemic farming, which is also the single biggest cause of climate change (more than fossil fuels). A much greater threat than food shortage, is the economic burden that occurs from the health care costs associated with the foods we consume as a society. The number is in the trillions and as mentioned, the potentially irreversible damage we are doing to the planet. I recommend reading FOOD FIX by Dr. Mark Hyman. Brilliant and horrifying look at the food problem we face in America and on a global scale.
SB: How do you think COVID will change the Food & Beverage industry? What role should the more celebrated chefs play in saving or evolving the industry?
MB: It's hard to predict specifically how things will change. But we can already see many businesses across the world pivoting to take-out, to-go delivery systems, and re-concepting all together. A lot of my friends and colleagues in the industry have used their social media platforms to be as vocal as possible about government assistance coupled with local support to keep business alive. If you have a voice, and an audience take advantage - that is my feeling.
SB: You are currently in Tulum, Mexico working on a project. Can you tell us a little about it?
MB: Tulum was going to be home to one of my food is medicine projects, but due to COVID, I decided to postpone any openings until I felt it was appropriate and the world was a safer place. I'm posting all updates on my Instagram but with regard to my medicinal food concept, I plan to push it forward. I truly believe it is the future of dining. The idea is to use plant based medical ingredients from across the globe to enhance and promote this cooking style. Eliminating fried foods, processed foods, refined sugars (and sugar in general), plays a big role. Using probiotic-rich food with in-house fermentations. In Tulum I was growing a huge garden filled with everything imaginable from angelica root, calendula, ginseng, lemongrass, hola santa, ginkgo, aloe. It's a vast field, so I am working with natural medicine doctors and reading a lot of books specializing in natural medicine, plant medicine, etc.
SB: Are you worried for the future?
MB: A bit, yes. I am an optimistic person, but we are going through a dark age for sure. Once we destroy the planet (which we are very close to doing) it won’t matter what I think anymore. We need leadership to start.
SB: Any last words?
MB: Be good to one another. The rest will follow.
Click here to learn more about Food IS Medicine and Mike Bagale.
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