Do you remember being fascinated as a child with the wonder and awe of science experiments that transformed the most mundane objects? Chef Maxime Bilet, co-author of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (March 2011) and Forbes top “30 under 30” in the food and wine industry in 2011, never forgot this childlike wonder of seeing the world through the lens of discovery and asking what else we can do to make even the most simple root vegetable show its most beautiful self on the plate.
You have most likely seen Chef Bilet, too, on the Martha Stewart Show, “Top Chef Seattle”, The History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” or maybe Andrew Zimmerman’s “Bizarre Foods”. Chef Bilet is not only a genius in the world of all things culinary, he has a heart and passion for educating children and individuals to enjoy eating whole foods that nourish, through the lens of science. Through his work, he supports the great work being done by The Culinary Trust to improve children’s access and knowledge about food, McCarver Elementary’s Edible School Yard Program, and Newark’s St. Philips Academy.
JoyFoodly: Tell us about your first food memory. What do you remember about it?
Chef Bilet: Wow. My first food memory!? I remember so much about my childhood through food. That was a tough challenge you presented me with but I am very happy with the result. I remembered a moment in our Paris home, when I was 3 years old, having breakfast with my mother. She had bought a fresh baguette from the local Boulangerie and made a spread of good butter and Acacia honey. She tore a piece of baguette from the end and ripped it into two long pieces. Just the sound of the crisp shell breaking is enough to make me hungry for a great baguette. She spread a thin layer of the butter down the center of each side and spooned a generous layer of honey on top. The tartines looked like little boats. The taste and texture were perfection: crispy, chewy, soft and syrupy. It was incredible and so simple.
JoyFoodly: What about food inspired you to make it your career?
Chef Bilet: As I was going through my traditional educational path, I never once projected that I would become a chef. Part of the reason for this is the fact that I’ve rarely ever projected the next step. Another reason was perhaps the fact that I had such a passion for food that I never wanted it to become work. I was very fortunate to have the freedom, both physically and mentally, to take each step as part of life’s adventure and to interpret the next step as it arose.
In elementary school, I was always fond of art, and excelled at painting. I got my Baccalaureate in Sociology and Economy from the Lycée Français de New York. I then graduated from Skidmore College with a BA in Literature and Arts with a particular affinity for fine metal work and poetry. It was only after college that I decided to delve into the professional world of cooking.
All that being said, my passion for food began as soon as I became aware of eating. I started cooking for myself and with my mother at 3 and soon enough I was smelling, tasting and contributing to all of the food that we ate at home. Apparently, I even hid about 10 days’ worth of dry food under my bed at the age of 5, just in case, that my parents only discovered several months later.
Food and cooking were always my way of communicating both my love and imagination for friends, family and the people I had the privilege to feed. It was also always my most satisfying outlet for creativity. I would never leave the house without a cookbook or two, to study what Georges Blanc, Bernard Loiseau and the Troisgros were creating at the time. Later, of course, when I moved to New York, it was Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, Jean Georges, Harold McGee and so many others of my heroes that gave me a vision into the future of food through their culinary artistry and unique philosophies.
At the end of high school and all the way through college I made money putting together special dinners, catering for events and cooking tasting menus for friends and family. The natural progression of that came together when I spent time working with Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck, and then writing Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home in The Cooking Lab in Seattle with Nathan Myhrvold. My passion for food, art, and language came together in those projects because Heston gave me, a young unproven cook, a chance and Nathan empowered me to express my creative and constructive vision of food.
It has been an incredible journey thus far. Now, the most important aspect of food to me is education, empowering people to discover the many roles of food, and fix a broken food system so that delicious and nutritious food can be truly democratized.
JoyFoodly: Imagine your best friend is coming to dinner tomorrow night. They are bringing their 9-year-old child with them. What would you want to cook with them?
Chef Bilet: If my best friend came over with his 9 year old child, here is the menu I would prepare:
Fresh Concord Grape Juice and Lime
Caramelized Carrot Soup
Savory Coconut Whipped Cream, Glazed Baby Carrots
Apple Juice Brine, Sweet Onion Marmalade, Baked Parsnips
Crispy Crunchy Salad
Colors and Textures of Fruits and Vegetables
Pop Rocks, Puffed Brown Rice, Best Dark Chocolate, Almond Flour
More about Chef Maxime Bilet
MAXIME BILET is the co-author of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (March 2011), which received the 2012 Book of the Year Award from the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ Visionary Achievement, among many other awards, and of Modernist Cuisine at Home (October 2012).
For six years, he was the Director of Culinary Arts and Sciences at The Cooking Lab, housed within Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures Lab in Seattle. He led the research and development for all projects related to The Cooking Lab, as well as conceptualizing and overseeing the unique photography and aesthetic of both books. He is a co-inventor on ten pending patents that resulted from his experiments.
He has been a featured and keynote speaker at events around the world, including Madrid Fusión 2012, the Epicurean Classic, Paris des Chefs, the Experimental Cuisine Collective Symposium 2011, Maker Faire San Francisco, the CIA Worlds of Flavor, McGill University, Bastyr University, the Seattle Culinary Academy, and IACP New York and San Francisco, among others.
He and his work have also appeared in television programs, including the Martha Stewart show, Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods”, “Top Chef Seattle” and the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels.” Forbes named him one of the top “30 under 30” in the food and wine industry in 2011, and Scoffier one of the best emerging chefs of that year.
A graduate of Skidmore College and the Institute of Culinary Education, he became head chef at Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar in New York City at 22 and soon after worked with Heston Blumenthal in the development kitchen at The Fat Duck in England.
He is an active volunteer with the Hunger Intervention Program’s community kitchen, McCarver Elementary’s Edible School Yard Program, the Gossett Place youth center, and the Quick! Help for Meals program led by Peter Clarke and Susan Evans of the University of Southern California.
He is currently working on connecting his fine arts background with culinary education and cultivating a better understanding of the different roles of food and their natural connection with the arts and sciences. He just recently won a Washington State grant to showcase this inter-disciplinary approach in one of Seattle’s storefronts.
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