Joint interview: "Chef Guillaume Gomez and philosopher Gabrielle Halpern"
©Crédits photo Frédérique Touitou
Interview published by the Jean Jaurès Foundation on 20 July 2021
Guillaume Gomez is the youngest chef in history to have won the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France. He joined the Élysée Palace in 1997, during his military service, after training at the École de Paris des métiers de la table. As Head Chef of the Élysée Palace since 2013, he fights to defend the values that are essential to him, such as work, sharing and passing on. He also contributes to the expansion of an entire economy, both nationally and internationally: defending and promoting knowledge, passing on knowledge in schools, highlighting producers and promoting the products that are the jewel of French gastronomy. In 2011, Guillaume Gomez founded the association Les Cuisiniers de la République française. He is also a member of the Académie nationale de cuisine, the Disciples d'Auguste Escoffier, the Académie culinaire de France, the Société des cuisiniers de France and the Toques françaises. Since March 2021, he has been France's ambassador for gastronomy, food and the culinary arts.
His books have won numerous awards and are now considered as benchmarks. In 2018, Cuisine, Leçons en pas à pas 1 was awarded the title of "Best cookbook in the world" and was translated into several languages, paving the way for Cuisine, Leçons en pas à pas, pour les enfants 2 which, in 2019, also won the title of "Best cookbook in the world" in the "children" category. Guillaume Gomez is also a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur and a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, and is actively involved in many associations.
Gabrielle Halpern has a doctorate in philosophy, is an associate researcher and a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure. She's worked in various ministerial cabinets, before helping in the development of startups and advising companies and public institutions. She also has a background in theology and the exegesis of religious texts. Finally, she is an associate advisor at the Fondation Jean Jaurès. Her research work focuses in particular on the notion of hybridity and she is the author of Tous centaures! Éloge de l'hybridation, Le Pommier, 2020.
Bringing a chef and a philosopher together is what you would call, Gabrielle Halpern, an "unlikely union". What do you see as the link between philosophy and cooking?
Gabrielle Halpern: Yes, cooking and philosophy don't seem to have much to do with each other, but when you have a closer look, their links are much stronger than you think. There are a number of philosophers who have shown great interest in it - Plato and Nietzsche, to name but a few! In fact, cooking is a form of chemistry between foods, whereas philosophy is an alchemy between ideas, between concepts. The ingenuity of the cook lies, among other things, in the marriages that he will succeed in making between foods, between flavours; that of the philosopher lies in his ability to create bridges between worlds, between ideas. The philosopher and the cook are matchmakers, if I dare say so! Not to mention the fact that they are both at the service of society and that each in his own way provides it with the nourishment that enables it to survive and live. Don't we say that the stomach is like a second brain? This has been scientifically proven, since research laboratories have demonstrated the existence of a whole network of neurons located on the walls of the digestive tract and which regulate digestive functions... This reminds me of a phrase by Nietzsche which often comes to mind, "Prejudices come from the intestines. Cuisine and philosophy, which may seem far apart, have a lot in common and their unlikely union can be very fruitful; making them resonate and intertwine is precisely what I mean by "hybridisation" - my main subject of research in philosophy for many years.
Guillaume Gomez: For my part, I'd say that there is philosophy in cooking! As a chef, my philosophy is not to fall into a routine, not to have fixed ideas. You have to be interested in everything and think that the truth is always elsewhere... Just because you've always done something a certain way and someone else is going to do it differently doesn't mean that their version won't be interesting and that it doesn't deserve your attention. The very principle of a brigade is built like that. Cooking is about critical thinking, empathy, a sense of others, sharing, and therefore a form of ethics. It is also creativity, self-questioning, in a word, it's philosophy!
You spoke of "hybridisation". What does this word bring to your mind?
Gabrielle Halpern: " Hybridisation " reminds me of the mythological character of the Centaur - this half-man, half-horse figure, who is the result of an improbable union. He represents the hybrid, that part of reality that we are wary of, because it doesn't fit into any of our boxes. It embodies a mix, the elusive, the unpredictable, the heterogeneous, the contradictory. Perhaps this is why it's almost always been described, depicted or sculpted as a dangerous and strange character; a sign that hybrids disturb us. The term 'hybrid' has been rather rare until now, except in biology and the automotive industry, and when it has been used, in relation to someone or something, it has rarely been a compliment. And yet, gradually, we're taming this anxiety about hybrids and we're seeing a proliferation of weak signals all around us that hybridisation is becoming the major trend of our time. Take cities - greening projects are multiplying, urban farms, vegetable gardens, animal husbandry on the roofs of buildings are developing to the point where the border between town and country is becoming increasingly tenuous. This hybridisation of nature and urbanism is taking place at the same time as the hybridisation of products and services offered by companies. Although we used to live in an industrial society and have moved on to a service society, it is now difficult to distinguish between the two and they are hybridising in what we might call a society of uses or relationships. These innovations through hybridisation will disrupt companies, professions, sectors, markets and the very notion of competition. Schools, universities, research laboratories, companies and public administrations are beginning to work more and more closely together everywhere - increasing the number of double degrees, blurring job descriptions and professions, and turning organisational models and professional identities upside down. Covid-19 has accentuated these hybridisations, metamorphosing ways of working remotely and face-to-face. The "work" box must be completely overhauled. Objects are no exception to the rule and are also hybridising: the telephone, to take the most trivial example, is also an alarm clock, a radio, a scanner and a camera. It is paradoxically a space/time for leisure and work at the same time.
Local areas are seeing an increase in the number of "third places": unusual places that combine economic service activities with research, start-ups, crafts, social innovation and cultural infrastructures. Consumer behaviour and marketing methods are also following this major trend towards hybridisation and we're witnessing the emergence of new types of shops where it is no longer just a question of buying and selling, but also of learning, playing, cultivating, meeting... There is a hybridisation not only of channels (remote/presential), but also of uses and functions, spaces, generations and activities. Hybridisation is an opportunity for our society! It's a subject I'm passionate about and that's why I devoted my doctoral thesis in philosophy to it and my first essay "Let's all be centaurs! A celebration of hybridisation3.
Guillaume Gomez: The word "hybridisation" immediately reminds me of Gabrielle Halpern, since it's her research work that we're hearing more and more about, through her book and her articles in the press. I use this word more and more often, because I'm convinced that it's one of the solutions our society needs. If we want to build the society we aspire to, it's through hybridisation that we will achieve it: moving towards a different kind of consumption, a different kind of society, a different way of operating, different values. There's nothing artificial about that, since human beings are naturally hybrid; hybridisation is part of us. From the moment we educate, from the moment we grow up, from the moment we educate the other, from the moment we share with the other, there is a beginning of hybridisation.
French gastronomy is what it is precisely because it's been open to the world and has been able to enrich itself with other culinary traditions, by integrating other products and techniques from other countries. In the restaurant business, in the food business, this is part of our DNA, since the very origin of our professions - the know-how - is a hybridisation. We model ourselves on the other, we learn from them, before creating our own cultural, gastronomic, culinary identity, with our past, our history, our family, our land and our territory, which will consist of something different, unique. The cuisine must resemble the person who makes it. The type of restaurant, the season, the region, the context (is it a leisure or work meal? Is it a meal alone or in good or bad company?) influence the meal, the food. All these parameters have an impact on the meal. Depending on whether the cook is in love or not, whether he or she has slept well or not, the dish will vary and the story he or she tells through the dish will be different! Cooking is a living art; a dish is always unique. Each person's life experiences and sensitivity will add something to the meal. The profession of chef is a hybrid profession, because there is no single part of our profession that doesn't need to be linked to others.
How do you achieve a hybridisation?
Gabrielle Halpern: What you have to understand is that hybridisation is neither fusion, nor juxtaposition, nor assimilation - which are, for me, the three pitfalls of the relationship with the other, whether it be in the field of friendship, work, love or geopolitics. There is a fourth way, which is that of metamorphosis: to obtain a centaur, it's not enough to put a man on a horse, but each of the parties must take a side-step, step out of their identity, metamorphose, and only then will there be an encounter and therefore the creation of a third figure, a third world! Putting a crèche next to a retirement home is not generational hybridisation, it's juxtaposing generations; on the other hand, organising cooking classes in 'third places' "retirement home-crèche-restaurant-garden" where young and old bake a cake together, now that's starting to sound like hybridisation. In my training and professional experience, in the academic world, in various ministerial offices, and then in the world of start-ups, companies and public institutions, I have too often seen radically different worlds unable to speak the same language: from the start-up to the CEO of a large group, from the lawyer to the designer, and from the scientist to the administrator and the politician, it's the Tower of Babel on every floor. We have meetings, we talk to each other, but we don't meet. There are oppositions, superimpositions and juxtapositions, but there is no metamorphosis. Unfortunately, everyone leaves the meeting as they entered it...
To achieve successful hybridisation, there must be centaurs, i.e. people who have a foot in these different worlds and who act as a go-between, as a translator between these worlds. Centaurs are those human beings with multiple backgrounds, multiple cultures and horizons, who don't let themselves get locked into an identity and who are curious about everything that is not them. Centaurs are those who 'constantly cast their anchor as far as possible', to quote the philosopher Elias Canetti. The centaur's intelligence and strength lie in his ability to build bridges, without preconceived ideas, between radically different, even totally contradictory worlds. Being a centaur is not a luxury, nor is it the privilege of a few; deep down, we know that we are all centaurs, that is to say, elusive, contradictory, heterogeneous beings in perpetual metamorphosis. This is the meaning of the title of my book Let's all be centaurs! which is an invitation to each of us to finally embrace our identity as centaurs!
Guillaume Gomez: Cooking, the very intended chemical effect of cooking, is a transformation, a hybridisation. It's a hybridization of materials as well as of destination, that is to say of taste. Even before the subject of taste, there is a hybridization due to seasoning, water loss, molecular transformation. What is it that makes a piece of meat or a piece of fish that has been soaked in salt or in marinade no longer the same, neither in taste, nor in texture, nor visually.
We see this in a recipe itself, which is a hybrid. If you take five ingredients, depending on how you mix them together, the result won't be the same. It's not just " Put in five ingredients and mix "! Let's take mayonnaise, which is a good, simple example of hybridisation: it's egg yolk, mustard, salt, an acidic substance - vinegar or lemon - and oil. What makes a mayonnaise? It's a combination of skill and know-how where you add the ingredients in a certain order and with a certain technique. If you mix the mustard with the oil and then put the salt, the lemon and, at the end, the egg yolk, you'll get everything you want, but it won't be a mayonnaise! It will be something else, which will have neither the same taste nor the same texture and won't look the same at all. If you put salt on the egg yolk, the egg will cook and you won't have the same result either, so you see? Everything is important! This proves that hybridisation is not just about "putting things together", it is a mixture of encounters, acceptances - do the ingredients accept each other? ...and techniques. Hybridisation in cooking is intrinsic: cooks carry out their hybridisations because they've been given this knowledge and they've learnt the order and the way in which they should bring the foods together. In fact, recipes are often created by changing the order of the ingredients! A piece of meat is either pan-fried, boiled, baked, barbecued or not cooked at all: what makes it look different, what makes it taste different, what makes it taste different? The way you cut the meat, the way you cook it, can completely transform it. In any phenomenon, any process of hybridisation, everything is important, even though nothing is written. The role of the hybridiser, that is to say the cook, is also fundamental - if you give the same recipes and the same ingredients to ten cooks, there will be ten different dishes in the end!
Not to mention that, like human beings, the ingredient can change during the course of a recipe... We're not suggesting that the product has a soul or a life of its own, but it does have a history, in any case. Behind a product, there is a man and a woman and the product also tells their story. This is what makes an apple not just an apple and an aparagus not just an asparagus; each product is unique and carries a singularity, depending on the way the apple tree or the asparagus was planted, the way the asparagus or the apple tree grew, depending on their soil, their territory. And even if you take two apples from the same apple tree, each one is unique and will evolve differently, like a human being. This history, carried by the product, will influence the final dish. The only difference with a human being is free will! If two people talk to each other, one may be able to convince the other and change his or her mind, but in the case of a tomato cooked with an aubergine, the tomato will never become an aubergine!
Gabrielle Halpern: But are there foods that don't mix? That don't blend?
Guillaume Gomez: Yes, there are foods that are supposed, by their chemical structure, not to mix, mayonnaise is a good example. Oil doesn't mix with vinegar: so the egg is used to create a stable emulsion and the ingredients manage to mix together!
Gabrielle Halpern: In fact, when hybridisation is difficult, you need an egg! If we apply this to the problems of governance, we can see that you need an egg to make it work! The egg, in mayonnaise, is the role played by the centaur!
What about hybridisation in the professional field and governance?
Gabrielle Halpern: There's an image that I think is very strong, which is presented by Lucretius in De rerum natura. He writes that at the beginning of the universe, "the atoms descend in a straight line into the void, dragged along by their gravity. But sometimes, we can't say where or when, they deviate a little from the vertical, so little that we can hardly speak of a declination. Without this deviation, they would never stop falling through the immense void, like raindrops; there would be no space for encounters, for collisions, and nature would never have been able to create anything4". This image helps us to understand what happens in a meeting where the marketing director, the legal director, the financial director and the R&D director talk to each other, but don't meet. Because of very rigid professional identities, because we think of jobs, training and qualifications as boxes on which we stick labels, it's hard to understand each other, beyond the professional jargon of each person, because each world has its own imaginations, culture, representations, prejudices, reference points, temporality and interests. The role of the manager, and more generally of the director of human resources, should be to create bridges between these worlds, to guarantee the possibility of hybridisation; this means rethinking job descriptions and the imprisoning boxes of organisational charts, but also reinventing the professions, which also hybridise. The strength of a group, whether it's a company or a public institution, lies in the constellation of skills and in their hybridisation. If we take the example of the management of Covid-19, it is, in my opinion, all too easy to mock the politician; it's all too common to blame the administrator; it's all too tempting to criticise the scientist. The real issue is their difficulty in hybridising! However, it's our collective responsibility to get out of our worlds, our identities, our languages and our prejudices and to hybridise!
Guillaume Gomez: The good thing about gastronomy is that it makes you think about a lot of things. Some people think that it's a secondary, not very serious subject, but they're wrong: gastronomy is a very serious subject and that's what I try to put on the table! Gastronomy makes us think about seasonality, about the very fact of being a society, about exchange, we're the only country where we talk about meals at the table! As the maxim of the Club des Chefs says: "Politics divides people, the table unites them". This is why gastronomy should be recognised as a wonder of humanity. Today, as Gabrielle Halpern says, we talk to each other, but we don't meet, everyone sticks to their positions, and gastronomy is the opposite of all that, it's about sharing. Gastronomy allows you to open up to things you don't know: you eat a new food, you discover new flavours, you accept this form of unknown, you open up to something other than yourself, to something other than what you know. The intelligent thing to do would be to talk to each other and help each other grow - that's what food is all about! You have to be curious and open. During a meal, another form of communication takes place - dialogue is more than just talking, it's gestures and looks. When I cooked abroad with teams who didn't speak the same language, we managed to communicate in ways other than words and it worked very well!
In a restaurant, we're used to managing teams made up of extremely different people; they don't have the same culture, nor the same expectations, nor the same language, nor sometimes the same needs. Everyone has a different story. What makes the chef the conductor of all this diversity? In my opinion, it's because he or she has mastered hybridisation, he or she knows who to get to work together, how and when. The brigade is a very particular model of collective work, because it is neither bottom-up nor top-down, but rather a true transversality, a true hybridisation where the commis will bring something to the chef, the waiter will bring something to the sommelier, etc. What makes a brigade strong is not that its members are good, but that they are good together! There are few jobs where you depend so much on each other...
What about the hybridisation of professions, and more specifically that of the chef?
Gabrielle Halpern: Hybridisation is the great trend of our time and the world of work can't escape it. But, as you can see, we would completely miss the treasure of the hybrid approach if we limited it to a mere "mix of face-to-face and distance", as many people unfortunately understand it. No, hybridity is not just adding digital to what I do, it's not just streaming an event, it's not running a meeting or a training course with participants in the room and others behind their screens, it's not a simple multi-channel. The hybrid approach is infinitely richer! Tomorrow, all jobs will be hybrid. A designer will no longer be able to confine himself to his job, but will have to combine it with that of the developer, and vice versa. The sales manager will necessarily have to combine his or her job with that of the R&D manager, etc. Because the world is becoming increasingly hybrid, jobs will have to become increasingly hybrid, and this will lead to a complete rethinking of professional training and the philosophy of human resources.
Rather than systematically training in the fields, sectors and disciplines that match one's profession, one will have to cast one's anchor as far as possible, including towards other sectors, other professions and other disciplines, so as to acquire skills that are radically different from those already learned. For example, lawyers will learn to code in Python, accountants will learn about business and managers will take courses in anthropology. In this sense, employees who are already 'centaurs' - with a variety of backgrounds and skills - should be seen as gems. They will be the mediators, the linchpins between different professions/departments/services capable of building bridges between these worlds which have difficulty in communicating. Recruit lawyer-developers, sales people-philosophers, managers-designers, engineers-artists! Value these hybrid profiles, promote them, don't cut off the feathers that make them such rare birds; and help them hybridize their skills. The hybrid company or public institution, capable of hybridising professions, generations, channels and uses, services and departments, professional identities, employees, skills and ways of working, will then be all the more capable of hybridising the sectors, use cases and populations it addresses in order to innovate, and thus face up to the unpredictable, disguised as Covid-19, computer viruses or other.
Guillaume Gomez: I recognise myself here, because I decided to do my very first internship in a shoe repair shop. It was simply because I knew that I was going to be a cook later on and I wanted to learn something else first. It's these experiences that make life rich! Hybridisation is just common sense! A mixture of self-confidence and common sense. Where does it say that you have to be a cook all your life, because you chose to be a cook? I have great respect for those who realise that it's time to change jobs, not because they are unhappy - that would be almost too easy - but simply because they want to change their life, try something else, discover a new profession. Just because you're a pastry chef and you want to become a carpenter doesn't mean you're going to stop baking, you're going to continue to do it, but differently. I was a chef, now, as an ambassador of gastronomy, I'm still a chef, I'm still in contact with the product, but differently. I hybridise myself by changing my path!
There are some who do this very well, they are the top sportsmen and women; it doesn't shock anyone, everyone knows that after a certain age sportsmen and women will have to have another life, so they prepare themselves for it. You can be a sportsman and a vet, a sportsman and a musician, a sportsman and a mechanic! But, apart from sportsmen and women, it still shocks people that you can be a baker and a banker, an optician and a taxi driver. In the kitchen, however, we meet many professionals who have had a life before - there are human resources managers, airline pilots, politicians, salesmen, teachers, etc. - and who have decided to jump into the kitchen. In any case, success comes from work and passion!
In the wake of the health crisis, could hybridisation be an innovation strategy for companies, and in particular for the restaurant industry?
Gabrielle Halpern: Yes, absolutely! This strategy will allow companies that were only positioned in the product sector to hybridize it with services, and vice versa - we've already seen that this hybridisation strategy has enabled many companies to survive during the health crisis. Pharmaceutical laboratories, for example, are moving away from the drug paradigm and devising patient support programmes, using a service-based approach. We need to go further by hybridising sectors, uses and activities. Shopping centres have set up co-working spaces, shops are hybridising with amusement parks, and hotels are hybridising into artist residences and art schools. At a time when we need to reinvent offices, museums, schools, bricks-and-mortar shops and restaurants, there are a thousand things to invent, a thousand unlikely marriages to be made. In my opinion, tomorrow, all places will be third places. We will gradually stop putting people, products, services, professions and buildings into boxes, and this opens up exciting prospects. Let's mix retirement homes, co-working services and start-up incubators! Let's hybridise shopping centres, gyms, arts and crafts workshops and computer language courses! Let's mix train stations, museums, artist residences, youth hostels and vegetable gardens! Only if research laboratories, companies and public institutions hybridise, recombining places, materials and equipment and proposing different uses, will there be a real social mix, true inter-generational solidarity, sustainable economic developments and, of course, a more environmentally friendly system. More specifically, as far as restaurants are concerned, it might be worthwhile to rethink their economic model, by turning them into third places: how can we think about the reversibility of spaces and monetise them during off-peak hours? This is a solution at a time of health crisis for the revival of restaurants.
Guillaume Gomez: This is already being done, in a thematic way. I agree with the idea that all places will one day be third places. There are two scenarios: a restaurant offers hybrid services or it offers different services during off-peak hours. This takes the form of bookstore-tea shops, coworking restaurants, butcher shop-restaurants. Some restaurants offer film screenings or group classes. In any case, a restaurant remains a hybrid place where people meet, where you go to work, where you create things, where you relax, etc. Yes, hybridisation can be a solution at a time of health crisis.
Restaurateurs have had to be creative during this period: making home delivery or take-away sales. Now that they have done so, many will continue, because it introduces their restaurant to a different type of clientele, and motivates their teams differently, because the time frames and paces change. Some restaurant owners will hybridise their services and, for example, offer an evening service only, while weekends and lunches will be devoted to take-away sales.
In any case, the restaurant business is inherently resilient, since it is not under control. Many industrialists are interested in the restaurant model, because it is the business of the unpredictable and the lack of control par excellence: you don't know if the customer is going to come or not; if he does come, you don't know who he is, nor what he will want, nor how much he will spend. And he doesn't know that either! Not to mention that, in this profession, there are no possible delays on site! In the building trade, you can tell your customers that you haven't received the tiles, but in the restaurant trade, you can't tell them that you'll receive the fish in two days' time! This is where the restaurant business is sublime, because nobody else builds a business on so many unknowns, on so little data. In each restaurant, there is a kind of small miracle that takes place every day.
Hybridisation must also take place elsewhere: there should be little vegetable garden containers in school playgrounds so that children understand how vegetables grow. No, grated carrots do not grow in the cupboard! There should be compulsory cooking classes at school to teach children how to cook an egg, pasta, simple things. Combine the school and the restaurant! The point isn't to turn them into cooks, but simply into better citizens.
Read the interview on the website of the Jean Jaurès Foundation: https://www.jean-jaures.org/publication/la-philosophe-et-le-chef/