Chef Madison Cowan’s Alluring Voyage through Flavor and Soul
He runs through remote and foreign landscapes, hunting and gathering ingredients, and creating meals in the same style and taste as the locals – all while being followed by a camera. But New York based Chef Madison Cowan, one of three stars onBBC America’s new television show No Kitchen Required, doesn’t stress at all about working with unusual ingredients in remote places. Within the first few episodes, he creates a spin-off of the classic chicken and waffles meal, involving crow with cheddar, bacon, and Japanese maple syrup. In another, he cooks bat, sautéed with tomato, onion, soy sauce, garlic and herbs (ironically, during the taping of the show, he was bitten by the same bat he was chasing with a net for the meal). Are these dishes appetizing, disgusting or just an experience from a very different culture? In essence, they’re an amalgam of the bunch, but to Cowan, despite their eccentricity, they’re quintessential meals that are worthy of trying at least once.
“Most things were considered strange for me, but a daily staple for our hosts. You can’t judge the traditional practices of others really, so if rat or Tasmanian devil is the special of the day, you just get stuck in [it],” Cowan said.
No Kitchen Required, which aired its first episode earlier this week, mixes competitive cooking and reality television by documenting three chefs who are placed in the wilderness and are required to cook native dishes in the same fashion as the indigenous people do. He competes alongside New York Chef Michael Psilakis and Chef Kayne Raymond, who also starred on Chopped Champions with Cowan.
“It gives a renewed perspective and appreciation when purchasing meat from the shops or sitting down to a meal,” Cowan remarked. “The life of one was sacrificed for many.”
Wayfaring is nothing new for Cowan. In fact, he is quite familiar with traveling and exploring new cultures. As someone who has trekked the world and cooked in countless countries, including England, France, Jamaica and Japan, he enjoys the opportunity to learn and do something out of the ordinary. But despite the many interesting places Cowan has ventured to, he still considers the American South to be just as striking of a culture as places in the likes of France and Japan, if not more.
“I’ve always tried to absorb or learn as much as I could from everywhere I’ve been,” Cowan said.
Yet even with his recent successes, experienced between the upcoming release of his new book and starring on the one-of-a-kind competitive cooking show, Cowan is just as familiar with the complete opposite – the frailty of human triumph.
At one point in his life, the now highly-demanded chef lived on the streets of New York and Paris, occasionally eating out of trashcans. He described Paris as welcoming, with plenty of free food and company from strangers. New York wasn’t as kind; Cowan recalls the streets as cruel and harsh. However, he believes his experiences made him all the wiser. “Even if you’re talented, sometimes you’re unlucky,” he laments of his battle with homelessness.
If anything, the two-time experiences he had on the street have turned Cowan into a better chef, one who understands the importance of independence in both oneself, and in what one eats.
The celebrity cook, who has prepared meals for the likes of Woody Allen, Halle Berry, and Anthony Anderson, says his inspiration comes mostly from his rough past as well as his assorted family heritage. Born to a Jamaican father and an African-American mother, the British native was predisposed to diverse cultures from an early onset, inclusive of their eminent meals.
Cooking started for Cowan at an early age beside his mother, who shared her love and passion for gastronomy with him. She wanted him to be independent and to not be forced to rely on others for a good meal. “She was really the determining factor,” Cowan said about her unseen impact on his choice of profession. To this day, he calls her for advice when something is missing from his recipes. According to the resourceful food connoisseur, there was a time when a certain cornbread recipe kept posing a problem for him; an ingredient seemed to be absent that would acquire that distinctive tang that he desired, but he couldn’t put his finger on the solution. His mother suggested placing nutmeg into the recipe – and it made all the difference. Suffice to say, the unpretentious ingredient created a sensational end result.
Hoping to continue the cooking tradition passed down from his mother, the family man has been patiently and diligently teaching his eight-year-old daughter how to cook. Like his mother, he wants his child to be self-sufficient, and wishes for her to never know hunger, as he once did.
Subjected to and overflowing with love for the soulful comfort food of the American South, Cowan predictably defines his style as “soulful.” In his eyes, the love, soul, and creativity that go into cooking are more important than the methods and ingredients. “It’s as simple as that,” Cowan said explaining his passion for minimalism and personal stance. “Getting to the place where one is comfortable doing that, effortlessly, is the thing.”
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