THE FLYING COOK
Karim Blanc moved to Vienna three-and-a-half years ago. He finds it difficult to tell where he is from. Born in Tehran to French parents, he lived in many different places during his childhood. From the heat and sun of the Mediterranean to the snows and never-ending winters of Scandinavia and North America, he makes his home wherever he goes.
You have had a pretty nomadic life, how do you adapt to new surroundings?
I do not consider myself to be a nomad. I have always lived in places for a long time. In that sense I am not a traveller either, because when I'm in a place I don't move around a lot. But itʼs true that I've lived in very different places all my life. My father worked for the French embassy, so we had to move from one city to another every four years. We went from Iran to Algeria, then to Burkina Faso, Lebanon and after that to Norway. When I was a teenager, we moved back to France, where I finished my studies and then I moved to Canada on my own to study art.
I think a nomad is someone who doesn't stop moving and his culture is based on nomadism, whereas the difference with me is that I always try to merge with the local culture. Because I stay there for a long time, I get used to the food there and the kind of life they have. I learn the local language, I befriend local people and live their life, meet their families and try to live the local culture. I don't stay with the expat groups for example. I don’t find it interesting.
When I knew you in Montreal you had just finished your Master of Fine Arts. You were working as a designer, but you were also making art and exhibiting your work. What made you leave art and design and start cooking professionally?
After Montreal, I went back to the South of France where I bought myself a house and made my studio there. Doing art or design is a very solitary activity. I spent a lot of time alone in my studio. I don't know why, but [in] my 40ies I started to feel the loneliness of it much more strongly than earlier in my life. On the other hand, I always had fun cooking, talking to people, exchanging ideas. So, once a month, I started organizing soirées of food, art and music for about 40 people. I would invite artists who would exhibit their work, musicians to play and I would cook. I slowly realized that the idea of the white cube wasn't enough for me. It has never been enough. I never understood why art is so 'out of life'.
I thought maybe working alone in the studio wasn't really for me or possibly I changed with age. As I spend more and more time cooking, I realise that my creativity flows into this process and it makes me very happy and fulfilled. I don't have the feeling at all I'm missing out on anything, because I'm still creative, I use my drawing and painting skills, I still design objects.
How does one make this leap between art and design and cooking?
I often worked in gastronomy. I learned a lot from the parents of my ex-wife. They had a hotel and a restaurant in Provence in France, where I often helped out. They taught me about quality of food and wine and all there is to know about good French cuisine.
Recently you have put all your energy and creativity into the Flying Cook Project. How does it differ from a regular catering business?
The problem for me was to cook everyday in the same place. That's why I offer my services as a flying cook, that is, cooking in different kitchens around the city. I cook in three different office spaces, which provides the variety that I need. For special projects, I also travel to other cities even countries. Recently, I was invited to participate in a poetry reading tour in France. I was asked to interpret texts of contemporary French poetry and translate them into... food. I was interested at the time in the phenomenon of synaesthesia. The concept of experiencing the stimulation of one sense through another sense, like being able to smell sounds, taste colours etc... It was really inspiring to link the texts to taste and visual [forms].
Could you tell us about the cookCase you designed? As you said before, it’s not just about the cooking.
I made the cookCase for the poetry tour in France. I had no other choice. I was told that the readings were taking place in libraries, cultural centres and that it was not sure if there were any cooking facilities. So, I decided to build my own portable kitchen and this is how the cookCase came about. Its original name was actually synaesthetic suitcase.
CookCase Photo: Karim Blanc
CookCase Photo: Karim Blanc
Suitcases seem to be a reoccurring theme in your life and work.
That is true. In Montreal I made an art project portraying the lives of new immigrants by photographing suitcases and their contents. This inspired me later on to build suitcases that were something between a piece of furniture and at the same time an actual piece of luggage. You could call it a mobile piece of furniture. For sure the interest in luggage as an object has something to do with the fact that I have moved a lot - I calculated recently that I moved 35 times in my life. So, I ended up having a lot of suitcases, trunks and other pieces of furniture on wheels that are easy to move around.
You also designed another beautiful object which you use as a buffet. It makes me think of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland.
The buffet is a result of my fascination with the idea of a picnic. Some time ago I wanted to organize a picnic in a park or somewhere in nature. I had this image in my head of plates and other dishes floating above the ground on sticks in the middle of an open field or meadow. I still haven't realised this idea but converted it instead to an indoor installation, called “My Grandma's Nightmare.”
My Grandma's Nightmare Photo: Ewa Stern
My Grandma's Nightmare - detail Photo: Ewa Stern
What kind of food do you cook?
I would call it international cooking with southern French flair.
And what is that exactly?
It is a typical Mediterranean cuisine, a lot of vegetables, herbs, olive oil, wine and, for the international part, I have been influenced very much by food in Montreal which is often referred to as fusion cuisine. It is a mix of Asian, Mediterranean and local American. Basically anything goes.
Is there a Flying Cook speciality?
It's difficult for me to say what is my speciality, because I improvise a lot. Things come out slightly different every time I cook. I do not use exact measurements. There are no strict recipes. I imagine the different tastes, I mix them in my head, maybe like a musician who arranges notes together to compose a piece of music. I usually write the main ingredient and the spices, have some kind of idea of the dish I will cook, but then I let my intuition guide me through the process of cooking. So it’s never the same amount of garlic, ginger, herbs or spices.
Now that I have been a flying cook for a year and a half I'm redoing some recipes. But every time I try new combinations, I try to improve, always challenging myself not to get bored.
Photo: Karim Blanc
Photo: Karim Blanc
Photo: Karim Blanc
What happens if someone hires your catering services and asks for a specific dish that you cooked in the past?
If people tell me, for example, that they really liked the caramelized beef strips I can make approximately the same dish, but there will never be the same quantities of garlic or ginger, so in the end it will taste slightly different. As I said, I do not work with measurements, I do not use scales, so taste varies slightly, but I do not think people really notice.
What is your favourite food? Your comfort food...
Definitely Asian food. I can eat it everyday. You never feel stuffed, left with this feeling of heaviness afterward. On the contrary, while eating Asian food, I think often of what they say, that food is the best medicine.
Of course, when I say Asian, I do not mean the greasy noodles that are sold in all these fast food shops. I'm not a big fan of Chinese food as it's cooked and sold in Europe. Mostly I like well prepared and authentic Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese. I love Sapa for their rolls, Nguyen Pho House has the best Pho soups and Bunbo, and of course I love the little Japanese family 'imbiss' Kuishimbo on Naschmakt. Then for real dinners On Market is quite cool... Recently, I discovered the Kiang Winebar on Yppenplatz.
What is your favourite drink?
Really!? Also in winter.
No, no of course not, now that I live in Austria I really love Austrian white wine, I’m a big fan! I completely gave up drinking red wine here. I don't know why. It seems to be too heavy and it doesn't fit this city. I became a white wine drinker now.
What is your favourite place to hang out in the city?
It depends if I'm alone or with others. Every day after cooking lunch I need some time alone and if it's sunny I love going to Yppenplatz or the Naschmarkt. I have two or three places there where I like to have coffee or tea. On warm summer days I love sitting in a park, surrounded by nature. In the evenings there are many places I like going to, but I'm mostly in the 5th, 6th and 7th, sometimes in the 2nd.
I find the biggest variety of restaurants, bars and cafés in those districts. There is a lot of good Asian food there. The 1st district is way too touristy for me, so I almost never go there. although I think there are quite a few very nice places. I love Kleines Café. But to eat out, I go mostly in the 5th, 6th and the 7th.
When someone comes to Vienna for a short city break, what do you show them, where do you take them to?
The tour I generally make is from Naschmarkt through the Ring down to Donaukanal and then of course you can't avoid the 7th district.
Why can't you avoid the 7th?
The 7th has plenty of little designer shops with great stuff produced here. It is also very laid back, although very 'bobo', but at the same time it has a very nice atmosphere, there are not too many cars, there is not much traffic, you can circulate easily on your bike. There are plenty of bars and cafés where you can sit outside when the weather is nice.
How do you move around the city?
I'm always on my bike. When friends come to visit, I always organise them a bike to follow me.
Is it easy to use the bike in Vienna?
In this city it is the best way of moving around. That is a big plus in Vienna, and one of the reasons why I decided to stay here.
Do you think that you will stay in Vienna for good?
I don't now if I will stay in Vienna forever, but right now I'm not thinking of moving. I'm starting my new life here and everything is running pretty well, so there is no reason for me to move away and I really like it.
Since we would love to keep you here for ever we want to make sure that the city lives up to your expectations. Tell us what are the 3 things you would change about Vienna?
Firstly, Streetfood should come to the streets! Then we should oblige Kebab Stands to offer real home cooked food instead of the bad quality kebabs! And last but not least I think that every weekend the city should be closed to cars in order to turn it to a playground for skaters, cyclers, roller bladers and people stralling leisurly etc…
All right, we'll make sure that the right people take care of these. Thank you for talking to us and all the best!
If you interested in hiring Karim's cooking skills, contact him at email@example.com