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Sun October 30, 2011
The Picture Show

Food For Thought: Chefs Pick Their Last Meal On Earth

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:17 am

In the restaurant world, even the most famous chefs have to be concerned with what's next: the next meal, the next dish, the next customer. But what if they took a step back to think about what's last — for themselves?

That's the question photographer Melanie Dunea posed to a group of chefs in her 2007 book, My Last Supper. What would some of the world's great chefs want for their final meal on earth?

Although the answers were surprising and sometimes humorous, she didn't get in everyone she wanted. So this year, she has a new collection: My Last Supper: The Next Course.

"Yes, there was a lot of foie gras, a lot of caviar," Dunea says, "and there was a lot of fried chicken, too! I tried to match their answers with a photograph, so in one case, I might have gone to a restaurant ... I photographed a chef making illegal moonshine ... I sort of went all over the world and tried to show who the chef really is, both in his words and visually."

"There was a great juxtaposition between comfort and memory — and then just, 'Yummy, let me stuff my face with glorious things.'"

The chefs' responses run the gamut. David Chang just wants a Bud Light. Tom Colicchio would want his mother's gravy. Bill Telepan of New York City's Telepan Restaurant envisions a picturesque white house on a farm, big sky, blueberries and a slow-cooked, cumin-rubbed, citrus-y pig, and his father making ice cream.

"We all like to cook with our techniques and our different styles that we have," Telepan says,"but in the end the ingredient is so important and I think that showed in this book."

Have you given it any thought? What would your last meal be?

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the restaurant world, even the most famous chefs have to be concerned about what's next - the next meal, the next dish, the next customer. But what if they took a step back to think about what's last for themselves? That's the question photographer Melanie Dunea posed to a group of chefs in her 2007 book, "My Last Supper." What would some of the world's greatest chefs want for their final meal? Although the answers were surprising and sometimes humorous, she didn't get in everyone she wanted. So this year, she has a new collection. It's called "My Last Supper: The Next Course." And Melanie Dunea joins me now from our studios at NPR West. Melanie, welcome to the program.

MELANIE DUNEA: Hello.

CORNISH: And joining us as well is one of the chefs profiled in the book, Mr. Bill Telepan, the owner and chef of Telepan Restaurant in New York City, where he's in our bureau there. Welcome to the program, Mr. Telepan.

BILL TELEPAN: Well, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Melanie, other than featuring different chefs, how is this book different from your last one?

DUNEA: This book is really a wonderful evolution, I think. You know, the world of food has changed and this time, I also included some of the TV chefs. And I even included a chef who has a food cart.

CORNISH: Well, the thing is asking a chef what their last meal would be, it's a pretty big question now, right? And I noticed there were a lot of truffles - I'm just going to put it out there for people. A lot of people wanted truffles; a lot of people wanted caviar. And there's nothing wrong with that. But it's also - this book is about the pictures. So can you describe for our listeners how you photographed some of the chefs, and why you shot them the way you did?

DUNEA: Well, what I did was, I went to each chef and as they revealed their answers - which, yes, there was a lot of foie gras, a lot of caviar; and there was a lot of fried chicken, too - I tried to match their answers with a photograph. So in one case, I might have gone to a restaurant. I photographed a chef making illegal moonshine. I photographed Mr. Telepan, who joins us today, with a big, 2,000-pound pig. I sort of went all over the world and tried to show who the chef really was, both with his words and visually.

CORNISH: And Bill, she's got you standing calf-deep in straw. There's a pitchfork; there's a giant pig; and you're in your pristine, white chef's jacket.

TELEPAN: And I just had knee surgery so...

CORNISH: And you're standing.

TELEPAN: ...Spanky was, you know, worrying me there, so - it was a lot of fun doing it.

CORNISH: Well, help us match up, then, the story behind this photograph. What would be your last meal on Earth?

TELEPAN: The vision I have of like, the setting is very important, I think. And there's this one French farmer who has this great white house, picturesque white house, on a lot of land overlooking the whole valley in upstate New York - with a pond, and they have a giant garden that they get food from. And it's just that whole idea of that big sky, kids running around, blueberries and, you know, meat on the grill. It's just the perfect setting for me.

CORNISH: I want to read some of what you said here because it sounds amazing, OK? (Reading) The pig would be rubbed with a lot of cumin; a lot of chili powder and paprika; and oranges, lemons and garlic. It would sit for like, five days - salted - and then cooked slow so that the skin has that golden color and it's just kind of crackling.

CORNISH: The thing I noticed about yours, over even other people in the book, you have an emphasis on slow. Like, you're really stretching out that moment of your last supper. You're in no rush.

TELEPAN: Oh, yeah. I just want to make sure I get to talk to everybody, hanging out with everybody.

CORNISH: Yeah, even your dessert is back-turning vanilla ice cream.

TELEPAN: I picture my dad doing that, who is just - you know, he's not a cook at all. But he loves to eat also. And it's just having him back there, like, churning it. It'd be kind of fun, so...

CORNISH: And it's really interesting: the chefs who had the emphasis on the kind of communal and family and atmosphere, versus the folks who basically say, I would be there, you know, in my kitchen and making perfect filets of salmon - or something like that.

DUNEA: Well, there were really two camps when I was interviewing the chefs. There were the ones that had sort of the memory meals. The ones, you know - Tom Colicchio said, I really want to have my mother's gravy. And then Grant Achatz had a very fancy last supper. And then at the end, he said, but how can I have this meal without my mother's chocolate cake? So there was a great juxtaposition between comfort and memory; and then just yummy, let me stuff my face with glorious things. But, you know, the drinks were interesting as well. David Chang said, just give me a Bud Light and let me get drunk. And somebody else said, let me have champagne with ice in it. And I thought, really, do you want me to publish that?

CORNISH: Once you had all the answers and you're flipping through, did you at all worry about how it would look, in terms of sort of how high-end the meals were?

DUNEA: There were lots of things that I've never even - I don't think I'll ever get to eat, or I've never heard of, as I interviewed. I said, how do you spell that, and what's that? No, I didn't because through me, these chefs are revealing themselves. So it wasn't for me to judge, or it just was for me to allow them to be who they are.

CORNISH: And they sort of reveal our aspirations, right? I mean, if this is what the best of the best would eat at the end, right? Does that make sense, Bill?

TELEPAN: Well, I guess it shows that, like, after hours and hours of serving these high-end meals, in the end, oh, I want oyster with no condiments. I want caviar on toast. You know, very simple ingredients. It shows me, I think, we all like to cook what are - techniques and our different styles that we have. But in the end, the ingredient is so important. And I think that showed in this book - a lot.

CORNISH: Bill Telepan is the owner and chef at Telepan Restaurant in New York. And he joined me from our studio there. And Melanie Dunea is a New York-based photographer. Her new book is "My Last Supper: The Next Course." Thank you both.

TELEPAN: Thanks for having me.

DUNEA: Thank you.

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CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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