Having just emerged from a mega gastro-binge courtesy of Madrid Fusion, Spain’s annual convention of all things foodie and drinkie, I decided a few thoughts about chefs and their chosen paths were called for. The get-together is a rare opportunity to see multiple Michelin stars all a-glitter in one place, packed into a three day program, talking about discoveries, passions, science – plus a bit about cooking. The majority of them took the convention theme “post avant-garde” and ran with it – in all directions. And that is what made me question the role of super-chefs today.
Most were home-grown, Spanish to the hilt, whether Catalan, Basque or Andaluz. Luckily a few foreigners permeated the hallowed gathering, from a brilliant Portuguese chef, Leonardo Pereira to the amiable Brit, Simon Rogan of L’Enclume, a sprinkling of Thais (Thailand being this year’s invited country), a Frenchman, Alexandre Gauthier (famed for banning photos in his restaurant), and a handful of South Americans – some of whom made a fiery installation on the stage with weird and wonderful indigenous ingredients and wild grasses (below).
So there were plenty of contrasts, and even talks by academics such as the extraordinary Quico Sosa, “archaeologist of the palate” whose hand-out detailed a timeline of cooking trends from paleo through the centuries to nouvelle cuisine and post nouvelle cuisine to arrive, finally, at the post avant-garde.
Then there was the renowned pastry chef Jordi Roca, one of three famed brothers who have turned the Celler de Can Roca into the world’s top restaurant (vying with Noma). Josep’s bizarre post avant garde talk embarked into science to present the “Music of Flavours” – though I’m not quite sure how that works in the restaurant.
Theoretically the idea interested me, particularly when a young blonde man (Neil Harbisson, above) dressed in a sky-blue jacket and chrome yellow trousers, his outaspace antenna wobbling, stepped onto the stage. Jordi demonstrated how Harbisson, who was born with achromatopsia i.e. his vision limited to black and white, was able, thanks to a sensor implanted in his skull and via his antenna, to “hear” colour. Tuning into their frequencies, he listens to colours so, by extension, colourful food becomes like musical notes – he “eats songs”! Apparently purple aubergine (eggplant) has a sonorous bass note. Wild stuff. He calls himself a ‘cyborg activist’ and you can read more about him here as he’s getting pretty well known on the art circuit.
Jordi Roca’s point was how, at the Celler de San Roca, they work with all sorts of artists, for example connecting desserts with perfumes and, in Harrisson’s case, with colour. But how exactly does it affect the food I asked myself? I supposed I’ll just have to go there to see. I did go once, in the late 1990s, well before fame struck.
Another brother, Josep Roca, the sommelier, also had a slot, in his case entitled “The Turkish Way”. Most of this was a short film (in fact most chefs used film as presentations, some very arty, others more suited to commercial advertising) sponsored by a major Spanish bank (BBVA which he repeatedly referred to), showing the brothers enjoying food, markets and restaurants in Istanbul as well as vineyards in Thrace. “For 21 years we’ve been working in our family restaurant, able to stay close to our roots” he said. “Travelling the world is the best way of escaping the paralysis of success, of getting us out of our box”. He then announced that there’ll be three dishes on this year’s menu directly inspired by the Turkish trip.
But I know what making a documentary is about – lots of hanging around, waiting for the right moment, rehearsing and re-shooting scenes etc etc. Not much time to talk to the locals then. This year, according to Josep, they’re envisaging whisking their entire team of 40 on a round the world trip taking in Thailand, Shanghai, London and Santiago de Chile…. Not exactly focused, nor in depth.
“We live these experiences and tell everyone at the restaurant – we owe it to our customers.” Travel as duty? All that feels wrong to me. When you eat at this famed restaurant, you pay around 200€ + wine for what sounds like a phenomenal tasting menu. But how self-indulgent is it to whizz round the world for so-called inspiration – and 40 of you to boot? And of course BBVA will be sponsoring another film – imagine the logistics and cost! Why not come to London – we have it all here!
In contrast, the showman José Andrés who, after bringing tapas to the US, became America’s favourite Spaniard, was pretty straightforward about his mission. With over 20 restaurants under his belt, his latest venture is a chain of vegetarian fast-food joints – ironically named Beefsteak after the eponymous tomato. Much of his veg comes from urban rooftop gardens, so is ultra fresh – even in downtown Washington. So however clown-ish his style, at least the man is ethical.
At the other end of the spectrum, Simon Rogan, a rather shy and nervous two Michelin star chef, waxed extremely lyrical about his 12-acre farm near his highly rated restaurant, L’Enclume, in Cumbria and how it has transformed his cooking. His latest baby is hemp – 47% protein and good for cholesterol. He was fervent about growing methods, climate change and sustainability – all rather earnest and, sadly, … boring. Has he converted to full-time farming? Not so the Portuguese Leonardo Pereira who, after working abroad for 10 years including at Noma, has returned to his roots to open his dream restaurant in Lisbon later this year. With his charisma and burgeoning permaculture farm, you can imagine life will be rosy.
Pereira also worked at Mugaritz, and of course its genius owner-chef, Andoni Aduriz was there too. He at least was honest enough to say how difficult things are today as the world is so competitive. Creativity was his theme – apparently he, or his team, devote 15,000 hours a year to it. “It’s like digging” he announced. “Every time we respond automatically, creativity should respond differently”. From then on though, his talk became increasingly obscure, veering from a recipe for solid bubbles to high science. What I did like though (and understood) was his quote from Paul Valéry “Serious people have fewer ideas” – i.e. humour inspires. Yes!
It was pretentiousness that I found particularly galling. Why does Susi Diaz (a popular Spanish TV-chef) of La Finca feel the need to call her cooking ‘fractal”. It’s a term that emerged from French mathematics in the 1970s and suddenly became intellectually fashionable, denoting fragmentation and asymmetry. But then she cooked a divine little rice dish, typical of the Valencia region (her restaurant is in Elche), quoted her grandma “Be sweet to rice!” and stated the obvious “Cuisine is infinite – we can change anything into something else.” Errr – not quite fractal.
Best of all though was Angel Leon (above) – a two-star chef who on stage appeared to be talking to god. In fact it was the recorded ‘voice of the sea’, direct from the deep, as Leon is a true man of the ocean, born and based near Cadiz with a restaurant, Aponiente in the salt marshes. He is totally obsessed by underwater life – from plankton to prawns, saline plants and seaweed. This was science aimed at the palate – for example extracting virgin oil from the salicornia sea bush, and discovering daphnia, a tiny organism with a new taste similar to seaweed. “We put it in a kind of empanada – it’s quite sugary, so strange to start the meal with.” They’ve also obtained a powder from sweet plankton which becomes a marine taco.
Above all, at Aponiente they use by-catch – “It’s always been my fight; we have to camouflage it as no one wants to eat it!” He then nodded sagely as his alter ego, the voice of the sea, responded encouragingly. Last time I saw Leon he produced light on the plate from plankton, in true magician style. A man to watch – third star coming soon.
Finally, the wonderful Massimo Bottura of the much lauded Osteria Francescana in Modena, sparkling with three Michelin stars, was invited to receive an award as Europe’s chef of the year. He kicked off talking about “cooking without ego, for a wider audience”. Excellent. For him, the trend for tasting menus opened doors for a while, but now choice should be given back to the customer. And “it’s our duty to turn waste into food”. His recent Refectorio project during Milan’s Expo 2015 was exceptionally generous and clever, transforming leftovers from the various pavilions into gourmet meals for the underprivileged. A brilliant idea, and he even persuaded other top chefs to join him, feeding 96 people daily over the 6 month period. His next step is to export the project to try and use up the millions of tonnes of food waste in the developed world. Much more impressive than round the world trips it seems to me.