A mid-sized art space in New York's Chelsea neighborhood has become a nonstop pop-up restaurant for star chefs for 52 hours this weekend. They are locked in a battle of creativity and mouth-watering technique.
Thirteen top chefs from Europe and the United States embarked on four-hour, round-the-clock shifts to feed night owls and gourmets at Exquisite Corpse, an event hosted by French group Le Fooding.
The chefs are a mix of rising stars and culinary sages rounded up by Andrea Petrini, an Italian journalist and consultant who's spent the last 25 years in France. He created the three-day matrix that blends different countries, experience levels and styles.
"Building this is like creating alchemy -- finding people who will play off of each other and are flexible enough to work with the format," he said, also explaining the surrealists' idea of the "corps exquis," where every chef's first course has to feature an element used by the chef in the preceding shift.
"If (French chef) Jean-Francois Piege -- a perfectionist -- came in here, he'd blow a gasket," Petrini says, gesturing at the residential-style kitchen and the zany idea of Exquisite Corpse as a whole.
Piege would not, however, have his feathers ruffled by the venue, where the centerpiece is a table for 40, bedecked at every meal with hundreds of candles and further lit by a great chandelier made of dozens of glass jugs.
Beneath it sits an ever-changing group of customers, ranging from the young and hip at 5:00 am to other chefs and foodies who fill the table at all hours.
For chefs, the tricky part is throwing together a meal that is representative of their style at a table thousands of miles away from the home kitchen, and where none of the purveyors are familiar.
"I brought a lot of stuff with me," said Blaine Wetzel, chef at The Willows Inn on Washington state's Lummi Island.
"Stuff," as it turns out, required an industrial-sized Igloo cooler packed to the gills with dry ice. The cooler threw off airport security so much that Wetzel and his crew, who arrived to the airport three hours early, were forced to take a later flight.
"Some of the food we do here doesn't make sense out of context. If you're not on the islands, it might seem pretty gimmicky," he said, citing a Native American kelp and herring roe dish he's currently featuring on Lummi Island.
What's in his cooler? Sockeye salmon caught by Willows Inn owner Riley Starks -- fish featured in Wetzel's dish with celery and watercress.
"With the kind of food I make, if you order salmon from the wrong place, God knows what you'd get."
Listening to him talk, one gets the sense that, in part, chefs are here to show their cuisine to the rest of the world. Working alongside a group of high-ranking peers, they don't want to leave anything to chance.
So put that pressure together with the fact that they only get four hours to use the kitchen and the task of feeding the forty-odd guests several courses becomes a praise-worthy feat in itself.
"It's perilous," said chef Armand Arnal of La Chassagnette restaurant in Arles, France, whose plane arrived only four hours before his 1:00 am shift started on Saturday. He and his crew literally ran into the kitchen with their cooler.
"It's always hard to export your feeling, your cuisine," he said.
Ana Ros of Hisa Franko restaurant in Kobarid, Slovenia, cooked one of the most surprising meals of the weekend, thrusting her tiny country into New York's limelight.
"When you travel to New York City, you expect globalized food," she said. "But when you come from a small country like Slovenia, you should try to tell a little story about it -- you want something from there."
Over four courses, she featured native ingredients like figs, goat's milk, trout and deer, and her black cod with black truffle foam and asparagus was one of the weekend's best dishes.
The cod held its form yet yielded under gentle pressure from a fork and the truffle foam vaulted each bite into the ether.
"In the countryside, it's not globalized, you move with the seasons and cook what nature gives you," said Ros. The recipe for her egg foam, for example, is based on a version her grandmother made for her as a girl, minus the truffles.
"It's made from egg yolk, vegetable broth, a little salt and some truffles. Stop. Nothing else."
Over the course of the weekend there were inevitable kitchen disasters.
Miscommunication could send entire courses into oblivion, chefs' egos grated, and there were broken glasses galore.
Yet there were also perfect and unexpected dishes, beautiful meals and the feeling that at five in the morning, or at any other time in the event's 52-hour stretch, you and your entourage could eat the finest food anywhere in the Big Apple, made by some of the best chefs in the world.