How StarChefs and the Trade Commission of Spain Sent
Six Chefs Packing

by Emily Bell and Kathleen Culliton
January 2011

What do you do when the Trade Commission of Spain offers you a first class ticket to Spain? If you’re Chefs John Sedlar, Michael Fiorelli, Thomas McNaughton, Patrick Morrow, Francis Derby, or Dominique Crenn—all of whom told StarChefs.com Spain was first on their culinary travel list—you pack your bags, say your tearful goodbyes to your staff, and you don’t look back.

"I was really excited for this trip because of who I was going on it with," says flour + water's Chef McNaughton of last December's week-long tour. "Spending a trip with chefs is a great experience." It didn't hurt that they were exploring major cities of the gastronomic center of the known culinary universe. “Spain is a very unique country,” says Chef Michael Fiorelli of Mar’Sel in Palos Verdes, California. “It is both at the forefront of progressive gastronomy, and at the same time, there is the opportunity to explore foods that are rooted in thousands of years of tradition.”

The chefs were able to straddle the divide, with avant-garde dinners, olive oil tastings, and even a few pintxos in the Old Quarter of San Sebastián, making their time in Spain a simultaneous celebration of innovation and tradition, punctuated—of course—with copious amounts of jamon.

Preparation of a tapa by Chef Ramon Pineiro of Marques de Riscal in Elciego, Spain at the Welcome Dinner
Chef Jordi Roca and Chef Francis Derby

Michelin-Hopping: Mugaritz, Arzak, and El Celler de Can Roca

When your culinary tour includes three of the best restaurants in the world, one thing is certain: you’re a lucky bastard. In what’s possibly the best first day ever, the chefs dined at El Celler de Can Roca, and followed that up with two more stops in San Sebastián: Mugaritz and Arzak. John Sedlar of LA’s Rivera (who, incidentally, lived in Spain as a child, speaks fluent Spanish, and visits as often as possible) remembers his favorite dish: “Green Colorology” from El Celler de Can Roca with its “various green purées, concentrations, airs, espumas—explosions of flavors and aromas.”

“It was actually a palate cleanser between entrées,” says Baltimore Chef Patrick Morrow of Bluegrass Tavern. “It was a bunch of different sauces and purées of fennel and cilantro; they walk around with a clear liquid—I think it was fennel water. As they pour it onto your plate, it solidifies into a crystallization, like a stalactite on your plate.” How do you eat a sudden stalactite? “You could crack into it pretty easily,” remembers Morrow, “and then you basically pulled the other flavors off the plate with it.”

Francis Derby of New York’s Shorty’s .32 remembers the desserts at Mugaritz (where he had previously staged). “A brigade of waiters circled the table, and at the same time, they “accidentally” dropped what appeared to be an egg on our plates. But when it edible sugar egg broke, it revealed an orange water panna cotta, made with carrageenan. It was playful and whimsical, yet incredibly technique-driven.” The culinary wizardry of Arzak included offerings like “Duck Liver with ‘Tejote’” and “Lobster, Potato and Copaiba,” a South American oleoresin commonly used in herbal medicine.

Local Flavor: Iberico, Olive Oil, and Cheese Tastings

No trip to Spain is complete without a few thorough—read: ravenous—tastings of the country’s marquee exports. Agusti Torello Cellars, producer of bubbly Spanish export Cava, played host to the chefs for a tasting of olive oils, led by olive oil expert Alfonso Fernandez. The chefs tasted four varietals, including a rustic Cornicabra from Toledo and an Andalucian Picual, a fruity oil, with a pleasant touch of grassy hay-like bitterness. Catalonian Arbequina was piquant and nutty, while a Hojiblanca oil, made from olives grown in Cordoba, was fruity, smooth, and gently sweet. “The olive oil tasting was an eye opener,” says Morrow. “You never sit down and actually sip on olive oil and really try to discover the actual flavors in it. You’ve tasted olive oil tons of times but to actually go across six different ones and sit back and sip and discuss, ‘Is it ripe or unripe? Is it green? Is it piquant on the end or do you get this bitterness?’”

Juan Muñoz Ramos led an Iberico and Serrano ham tasting, no doubt a relief to the chefs who’d seen ham everywhere, from tapas bars to boqueria windows. “I don’t think anyone in Spain is a vegetarian,” says Morrow. With good reason. All four varieties of the Iberico had its classic, acorny nuttiness, but the aged variety, remembers Morrow, had a delicate gaminess, tempered by the silky, melting fat.

The lesson of the Spanish cheese tasting was a loud and clear emphasis on the power of culinary regionalism. A soft goat’s milk cheese Garrotxa had a thin layer of mold from the high, thick forests of the Gerona province; Navarra and the Basque country’s long-fermented Idiazabal was robust and sharp; the raw sheep’s milk for the runny, intense Torta del Casar is protected by the Denomination of Origin (meaning it can only be made with sheep milk from the Entrefina and Merina varieties that only produce 75 liters of milk per year); and Queso de Valdeon is a rich blue cheese that mixes cow and goat’s milk, also protected by the recently established Geographic Denomination Queso de Valdeón.

Preparation of a tapa by Chef Ramon Pineiro of Marques de Riscal in Elciego, Spain at the Welcome Dinner
Calzotes over the grill

Calzote and Culinary Memories

The trip was a grand culinary hopscotch between the restaurants of Barcelona, Madrid, and San Sebastián, but some of the most vivid culinary memories were the simplest regional specialties. “I ate so many different types of cuisine while I was there,” remembers Fiorelli. “But the standout for me by far was the calzote." In fact all of the chefs cherish their calzotes memories; it's the perfect admixture of rusticity, fire, and the kind of culinary simplicity chefs, even high-concept chefs, love. "Prunings from the fields are collected to start a blazing fire," remembers McNaughton. "We grilled these young green onions," says Fiorelli, "then steamed them in newspaper. We made the classic, romesco and aioli sauces to dip them in then stood outside in the mountains eating the calzote and drinking cava. That,” he says (we can almost hear the wistful sigh) “was probably the most memorable experience of the trip.”

In fact traditional, deliciously rustic Spain made quite an impression on the chefs. “Tom, Dominique, and I went out for lunch the first day we were there,” remembers Derby. “We searched for the most Old World, authentic place to eat. The restaurant we ended up at involved walking through an open kitchen to get to the dining room. A kitchen with coal burning flat tops, and a kitchen staff averaging about 50 years old—something you would just never see in New York City. The food was simple and delicious.”

Smuggling

Of course, not every chef is content with memories. Sometimes—probably more often than Customs officials care to admit—a passionate chef will smuggle product between international borders. And while we’re not naming names, we had to ask our chefs—what Spanish products would you risk your toque for? “The jamon! The jamon! The jamon!” says Fiorelli.

“Does the Iberico ham I brought back tucked away in my carry-on in between a few books count?,” Derby wonders. “Or the Cuban Rums and cigars?”

Preparation of a tapa by Chef Ramon Pineiro of Marques de Riscal in Elciego, Spain at the Welcome Dinner
The chefs sharing pinxtos

What Have You Learned, Dorothy?

Whenever fate—or StarChefs and the Trade Commission of Spain—whisks you away on a fantastical trip, your only job is to come back having learned something. For some chefs, like Sedlar, the flavors and techniques of Spain have long been part of his culinary repertoire. “I have an entire dining room dedicated to the history and complex dishes and ingredients of the Iberian Peninsula: olive oils, Iberico ham, quesos, piquillos.” The trip for him was like research of an advanced scholar: refining his expertise for a culinary Ph.D. “I am also the director of a new museum to be built next year in Los Angeles that features many foods and food stories from Spain, including our next exhibition ‘Molecular Gastronomy.’”

Morrow plans on incorporating more Spanish flavors into his already charcuterie-heavy program at Bluegrass. “That’s what I’m excited about,” Morrow says, remembering the meat. “We don’t have a lot of Spanish influence in what we’ve done. I want to get to the point where we do have a nice chorizo, a nice lomo, obviously a nice cured ham.” 

“All in all, this trip was inspiring on many levels,” says Derby. “Seeing the classics, the modern techniques, the people, and the general feeling of the food. The Spanish idea of food is based so heavily in the traditions and its products. It is modern but still always finds its way back to the classics. Since I've been back, there has been a new energy to the way I think of food. I look forward to the spring market with ideas for new dishes and new techniques to try!”

For McNaughton, the timing of the trip couldn't have been better. "I have really started to do a lot of research for our upcoming project Salumeria. This will house a lot of imported goods from Europe, focusing on Italy and Spain. I have started the relationships to be able to bring in some lesser known cheeses and cured products from Spain. These relationships," says McNaughton, "are irreplaceable."