When Ned Elliott opened Foreign & Domestic in 2010, he was introduced to Twitter as a means of creating a dialogue with his peers. Elliott, who began cooking when he was 15 and went on to leave the University of Montana to attend CIA Hyde Park and stage at various restaurants around New York, was intrigued by this phenomenon.
As he watched his network expand and fill with fellow chefs he respected, he recognized social media as a valuable platform for communication, but also recognized its drawbacks. “Having been very clued in on the industry, I was just floored by this,” says Elliott. “You know, a picture of food can speak volumes or it has no context at all. You have no idea what the flavors are like.”
Last year, his research and travels culminated in the first ever Indie Chefs Week, where Elliott invited a roster of young chefs from around the country to come face to face in his 47 seat restaurant for a week of collaborative dinners. This year, many will return for the second annual event, which runs from January 7th through 11th.
Elliott’s connection with the chefs varies widely. There are relationships that go back as far as twenty years – as is the case with Gregory Gourdet of Departure in Portland (one of last year’s participants) – where the two met at the University of Montana with Gourdet going on to be Elliott’s groomsmen years later. Others, such as James Mark of North in Providence, came through recommendations from mutual colleagues they’d both worked with in other kitchens. And some, like Craig Thornton, creator of the Wolvesden dinner series, met Elliott via social media before collaborating at last year’s event.
Jess Armstrong, pastry sous chef at Rye in Kansas City, knows Elliott from her time spent in Austin, where she worked at Cake & Spoon and Wink. This will be her first year to participate. “It’s a great opportunity to see new things and make new awesome friends you wouldn’t usually meet in one place,” says Armstrong. “As chefs, events like this really spark us inside. Collaboration definitely ignites creativity.”
“As chefs, events like this really spark us inside. Collaboration definitely ignites creativity.”
Elliott, having recently staged at L’Arpege in Paris, knows how energizing and inspiring it is to step away from your own kitchen and learn from someone else. “Seeing somebody else’s train of thought, to me, is the most engrossing part about going into a different kitchen,” says Elliott, who has also worked under Alaine Ducasse and Doug Psaltis.
Each night of Indie Chefs Week will feature a different lineup of chefs who will each create a dish and introduce it while their peers collaboratively plate. “You have 8 or 10 chefs all touching each other’s food, which is always an honor,” says Elliott. “You made this, this is your idea, and I’m just putting it on a plate. That’s a huge thing with chefs. Just touching someone else’s food and being able to help them plate it up is a huge deal.”
Elliott encourages participants to bring regional specialty items and selections from the bounty of their area. “We don’t have to tag it as sustainable or farm to table,” he says. “As chefs, we want to use the best ingredients possible and they’re going to be handled and treated well.” Returning chef James Mark says, “We are shipping down some great seafood from Point Judith, and some wonderful produce from the area. Plus, my smiling face.”
Thornton is also excited to participate for the second year, though you won’t see his name on any big food festivals the rest of the year. “I don’t really participate in many events because of how particular I am about them potentially being kitschy or gimmicky,” he explains. “I knew Ned would put it together right and it would be a truly food-driven event…not just a big, boring event which people are being herded through like cattle.” He says last year’s inaugural Indie Chefs week “brought the idea together that you don’t need massive sponsors to bring together a great event. You need good people.”
“You can just see that his mantra and ethos shine through.”
What exactly defines an “indie chef”?
The roster of participating talent spans from a research and development chef for Whole Foods and a line cook at Foreign & Domestic to executive chefs and chef/owners launching their first restaurant.
“It doesn’t mean indie in the corporate world,” says Elliott. “Like Greg (Gourdet) works for a hotel. But you can see Greg’s personality and how his charisma shines through in the food. And Justin Severino from Cure in Pittsburgh– you can just see that his mantra and ethos shine through.”
Elliott also wants to dispel the notion that chefs need a big PR budget to be heard. “That’s just not the way I want to have it,” he says. “I want to eat their food and I want to talk to them and just see a different train of thought.” Though having great PR wouldn’t rule any chefs out from participating either.
“Maybe I have PR or maybe I work for a corporation, but that’s not defining me,” says Elliott. “What defines my restaurant is me….At the end of the day, we all love to cook. What can you do to make it your own?”
“We all love to cook. What can you do to make it your own?”
Elliott hopes to extend this notion of experiential learning by eventually doing cook exchanges with restaurants in different regions. He is also looking forward to welcoming a different guest chef to Foreign & Domestic each month for a regular Indie Chefs Table dinner, and already has interest from chefs like Matthew Jennings of Farmstead Inc in Providence, Jason Vincent of Nighthawk in Chicago, and Matt Gaudet of West Bridge in Cambridge.
Indie Chefs Week
January 8 – 10
Foreign & Domestic
306 E 53rd St
Click here for more information and to buy tickets
This article originally published in The Gather Issue of Citygram Austin Magazine [December 2013].
Explore the full issue on your desktop here or download the FREE mobile issue designed specifically for your iPhone or iPad in the App Store today.
Food & Beverage Columnist
Veronica Meewes is a freelance writer and photographer in Austin, TX.
Specializing in lifestyle, travel and food her work has appeared in several outlets including Forbes Travel Guide, Serious Eats, and The Today Show.
Veronica spent her childhood in New Jersey, and traveled around the country before deciding on the sunny capital of Texas.