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Food Utopia with Lena Ghaninejad

Franco-Iranian and Paris-based chef Lena Ghaninejad not only has a flavourful story about the meaning of cooking, but also a deep spiritual connection with the surrounding. Known on instagram for merging food with art, her work is way more profound than mere kitchen creativity and styling. Her oriental depth of style in her thoughts leave me inspired and curious to discover more.

Tablescapes by private Parisian chef

After a few technical zoom issues and a couple of greets later, Lena and I start laughing immediately. We start on the right foot. I already adore her. She introduces herself by geo-localising her past: she lived everywhere: "I was born in Australia, moved to Paris, lived in London and Amsterdam and now I'm back in Paris - the city where I belong" - I of course interrupt her and tell her "it's funny you mention this because I also feel like I do not belong in New York but somewhere like Paris or Milan" - Lena promptly affirms "it's because it's more European"

Our shared love for our continent immediately rises and I proceed to ask how can she define her profession: "I'm a chef and use food as a medium to translate ideas and concepts into edible form. I have the constant pursuit of creation and research, for a sense of connection and for building bridges between people and guests, the environment and the ecosystem as well as knowledge, culture and history. And we cannot certainly discern politics from food".

What do you mean by that? How important is associating these things together?

As a chef I have so many questions! And so little answers! (she laughs) but I wonder about what are the best diets for a sustainable society? How can we best share our resources? What is the cultural relevance of what we eat? I think these are all stimulus to ponder upon and as a chef it comes natural to do so. Cooking is a fascinating tool for exploring the unravelling of connections made through the act of eating."

So are there any resources worth suggesting to our readers to dive deeper?

Lena so spontaneously asks me "do you mind if I go take a look" and despite the screen in front of us I get a feeling as we're in the same room drinking tea. She comes back with Eating to Extinction - the World's Rarest Foods and Why we Need to Save Them by Dan Saladino: "it reads like a novel and it has interesting stores about food and provokes us to see and eat things in a more of holistic way". We discuss how crazy it is that we have foods from all over the world year-round and Lena highlights "it's a point of concern because all of this is just the illusion of abundance - it feels very old world: I attempt a more scarce and sober aesthetic."

Table setting in Paris

So I assume you go hand in hand with seasonality?

Absolutely. I am obsessed with radicchio veneto at the moment.

Have you tried radicchio gorgonzola and walnuts?

Oh yes I love that. I'm also eating lots of citrus, orange things like squash. I'm gorging on kale and slow cooked meals that are earthy and warm.

What is your favourite cookbook?

The ultimate iranian cookbook called Food of Life - it's like an Encyclopaedia written from the heart: there is no hype, no trend, it's way more elegant, sophisticated and generous because Iranians make everything spritual. She smiles.

Cherry in jelly

How do you get inspired for your mise en place?

I usually receive a brief in the form of concept, idea or mood board and will sit with it and start writing associations that come to my mind such as colours, textures, aesthetic. It's like mapping my own interpretation of the brief and will derive bites of food or elements of the dish and it's an intuitive process.

How did you develop this mastery?

Through practice and cooking in testosterone kitchens 10 years ago before the #metoo movement. These were tough environments but I was surrounded by knowledgeable people that provided me with invaluable training in professional kitchens. I needed this classical training to understand that I did not want to work like these guys and wanted to do things my own way. I wanted to create my own kind of work relationships and a more collaborative management style.

Since you look like a very spiritual, rooted and wholesome persone can I ask you how you get in so much depth of things?

It's a matter of getting a sense of the implicit rather than the explicit, think about the symbolism that comes from my culture of poetry and my strong Iranian background. My education was infused with that: I learnt not to bee too literal or "premier degré" (read: face value) creativity opens a world of possibilities.

Woman with hair tie

So what is your favourite poem?

At the moment i'm really inspired by Forough Farrokhzad, a modernist poetess and iconoclast.

And speaking of women in business, what role did you have when first starting?

In many ways I felt very out of place because I was a minority. The mode of communication, the relationships, the culture did not fit me or my personality. It's men making a business out of it and finally that is shifting and transition to wider diversity and I think that is fucking fantastic! I observe there are more femme and female voices and diversity that practice the craft of cooking.

And how did it all start for you?

When I finished my bachelor in Art History I had an immediate epiphany that I did not want to work in the office or keep searching for gallery jobs that did not pay enough. Then I fought to work in a restaurant I had an eye on in London without any experience but grit in my pocket I started very spontaneously to work in hospitality. The restaurant was Il Trullo where I understood the beauty of Italian dining: simple ingredients but treated with so much care. Now I'm finishing my master's thesis in Agro-Ecology about labour conditions in farms because it's a very overlooked topic: we always talk about the finished product, the vegetables but never on the how.

What is your favourite recipe to make for your loved ones?

Slow cooked lentils with a lot of warming spices - I treat them like a blank canvas that you can finish with ferments, pickles or different toppings.

What’s your favourite place to eat in Paris?

I love Krishna Bhavan, a low key Indian eatery close to where I live, near La Chapelle. Unpretentious, accessible, generous, real, outside the trends.I also want to give a shoutout to Esu Lee, my favourite chef in Paris. He hails from Korea and has been cooking on the Parisian scene for a few years, mostly residencies. His food is the best I've had here since I came back. In London, I love Brawn: very modern representation of British food culture that has never disappointed me.

What is a piece of advice you would give to your younger self?

Don't try to conform. Practice and explore. Experiment what sticks. I only started knowing where i was going when I was 30 and its very different for everbody. BY THE WAY she looks nothing like she's in her 30s!!! So in your early 20s you're just starting your career.

What song are you listening to at the moment?

Ebi - Pooste Shir, a melancholic Iranian song because I was feeling melancholic today !

What's your go-to place to shop these days?

Nishikidori, Japanese store near Rue Sainte Anne with all sorts of magical ingredients including cherry blossoms.

Beyond your neighbourhood, what other areas in Paris do you fancy?

I love the 13th where i grew up as a child - it's the historical chinatown, very protected and authentic.

Why food utopia?

Because I think food can be a force for imagining better ways of producing, sharing, and relating.

What is your Passione di Vita?

It must be human connection and food is just a way to reach that.

Orchids, radicchio, Brawn London, citrus, table setting
Orchid drawing and oriental stews
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Libra aesthetic, radicchio veneto, table scape

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