When the poet John Donne wrote that “No man is an island” in 1623, he stated something both obvious and enlightening. Today we see the fruit of collaboration all around us, but it’s also easy to retreat into our protectionist corners of rugged individualism and arrogant isolationism. For Adam Evans, the acclaimed chef at The Optimist – one of the country’s top restaurants – the opportunity to partner and work with other chefs is practically a necessity for self-improvement, innovation and even good business.
“For me, working with someone else – even a competitor – is about the opportunity to achieve something greater and learn something new,” said Adam. “When you collaborate well with someone, everyone has to put their egos aside. You recognize that there’s something much bigger than what you’re doing on your own – and you both hopefully grow from the experience.”
Humility, growth, innovation, achievement, strength and meaning – these are all potential benefits of collaboration – benefits Adam has received from other chefs over the years that helped him get where he is today. “Anytime you get a chance to work with someone who is the master of what he does, you should seize that opportunity. Maybe it’s a new technique you discover – whatever it is, you’re getting the experience in a shorthand version. You take something from each chef, learn it and then interpret it in your own way.”
Such will be the case on February 3 when Adam will prepare a special meal with Chef Philip Krajeck at Nashville’s Rolf and Daughters. Incidentally, both chefs were recently recognized by Bon Appetite magazine, ranking them among the 10 best restaurants in America.
“With Philip, his thing is pasta and whole-animal, among other things, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with pasta and learn from that,” says Adam. “You’re learning from the source and seeing how others put their own spin on your craft. And beyond just learning and growing, there’s a sense of camaraderie that adds to the enjoyment of your work.”
But what about competition, business secrets and doing what’s needed to make a venture viable and sustainable? “Sure you’re competing, but it’s a healthy competition – it’s a level of respect. I don’t really believe in secret recipes and not sharing knowledge. To me it’s all about the technique and how you’re executing what you’re doing. Anybody can have a recipe, but can they pull it off and create it flawlessly?”
With so many one-off collaborative dinners, cocktail mix-ups, special partnership cooking events and fundraisers, perhaps we can all learn something about healthy collaboration from the food and beverage industry. “When I think about food, it’s something everyone needs every day, and so it matters what you eat and the lifestyle that you choose. Chefs share that perspective and passion. We can come together around our greater desire to care about what someone is putting in their body.”
“You don’t just do your work because you need a job. You really should have a desire and recognize that others share your passion. I love learning from someone else and also teaching someone younger than me. It’s all rewarding. What I get out of it is that I’m pushing someone else, I’m passing things down that I’ve learned from others. It’s making a difference in someone’s life, and you’re doing what you enjoy together.”
Photos by Andrew Thomas Lee