By Antoinette Bruno and Kelly Snowden
From Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia to Madrid Fusion, innovation has
always been at the forefront of Spain´s annual chef conferences
that attract participants from around the world. This week in Barcelona,
BCN Vanguardia at the annual Alimentaria conference broke this mold.
Although innovation was evident during certain demonstrations –
most notably Ferrán Adrià’s extensive presentation
– the main focus of Alimentaria was ingredients and respect
for product. Chefs repeatedly spoke about cultivation, storage and
treatment of produce, with an emphasis on methods that harness their
innate flavors. Almost every chef mentioned the value of knowing
how to judge the quality of product and using that knowledge to
guide their preparations. Freshness and taste were valued above
all else, with many chefs displaying a regional pride by acknowledging
their local farmers. Spain’s legendary father of the alta
cocina revolution, Juan Mari Arzak, used much of his demonstration
to celebrate classical techniques used to make regional dishes,
stating that “the ambition of every cook is to have his dishes
permanently incorporated into the cuisine of his country. “
Ferrán Adrià talks about juicing whole oranges
to make a cream.
On the first day of chef presentations, Ferrán went on the
defensive, addressing his critics´ claims that he uses artificial
products in his cuisine. He spent more than half of his 90-minute
presentation articulately describing the contents of his cookbooks,
which represent an historical look at El Bulli. People came from
around the world to see a dazzling performance from Ferrán,
and, after a 45-minute lecture, they got it. Some of Ferran’s
first demonstrations were relatively simple, like juicing mandarin
oranges with their skins on to create a kind of orange cream for
desserts or soups, or putting a walnut through a pressure cooker
so that it takes on the texture of a bean. As Adrià said
in his presentation, “the most spectacular techniques are
not always the most important ones.” On the more complicated
end of the spectrum, Adrià demonstrated how to create large
sugar balloons which he served as bread with olive oil. Despite
criticism from some, no one can deny Ferrán’s contribution
to gastronomy. As Toni Monne, Editor-in-Chief of Comer y Beber,
put it, "Ferrán is like Picasso, a genius. He only comes
along once in a lifetime."
Ricardo Gil displays a white asparagus.
Vegetables, rice and pasta were the topics of the other first-day
demonstrations, and many chefs spent much of their time praising
small farmers for their dedication – and often overlooked
– efforts to grow produce. Ricardo Gil showed slides of asparagus
farms in Navarra and spoke about the correct time for harvesting.
Perhaps the most brilliant contrast of mood and method occurred
during the simultaneous presentations of Spanish chef Andoni Luis
Aduriz of Mugaritz and American chef Charlie Trotter.
Chef Charlie Trotter's Caesar Salad
Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz's Salad
Andoni Luis Aduriz openly admired Michel Bras during his demonstration.
While Trotter made his latest interpretation of Caesar salad –
in essence a concoction of pulverized lettuce, anchovy ice cream,
topped with an egg covered in breadcrumbs – Andoni displayed
the flowers and other herbs from his garden, which he picks fresh
every day with his staff. The recipe that Andoni presented was a
heartfelt homage to Michel Bras’ legendary recipe, Gargouillou,
a composed vegetable dish with a slice of ham thrown in for extra
One of the most talked about demonstrations was presented by Chef
Bitor Arguinzoniz, who seemd to straddle the worlds of innovation
and classic cooking techniques. Working with custom-made pans in
varying shapes made of a laser micro-mesh, Arguinzoniz was able
to cook a variety of ingredients on a barbecue, including risotto
and eggs. He uses different woods for the meats, the fish and the
vegetables, in order to invoke specific flavors and subtle notes
in the final product. Although barbecuing is nothing new to the
world, Arguinzoniz created revolutionary cooking tools that expanded
the potential application of barbecuing.
The second day brought the focus of the presentations to the sea,
with emphasis on fresh catches and preparations designed to accentuate
seafood’s natural flavor. Chefs prepared plates that highlighted
the flavors and textures of different types of seafood, including
sea urchins, barnacles and turbot. US-based Chef Jose Andres compared
and contrasted different seafood styles in Spain and the United
States, praising soft-shell crabs in America and shrimp from Malaga,
Spain. He brought live specimens with him from the United States,
preparing his lobster in a simple gelatin of its own juices to heighten
its mild flavor. Again moving from the simple to the sublime, Andres
then showed his more technologically advanced “tears”
of olive oils, in which he combines isomalt sugar with olive oil.
Cándido López prepares a traditional Spanish
dish, suckling pig.
On the final day of the demonstrations, chefs offered presentations
on meat, poultry and game. Second to Ferrán, perhaps the
most compelling demonstrations came on this day from the duo of
chef Candido Lopez of Mesón de Cándido in Segovia
and chef Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca. Chef Lopez wowed the
crowd with a riveting demonstration of the traditional preparation
for Spanish suckling pig. To complete his demo, he used 4 different
suckling pigs, each at different stages in the cooking process,
as the actual preparation of this dish takes all day long. Taking
the first pig, he broke the backbone, flattened it out, and fitted
it into a casserole, ready for the oven. The second pig represented
the partially cooked meat, which Lopez removed from a combi-oven.
He covered the ears, tail and trotters with foil and cooked it again.
When he brought out the finished product, he and Chef Roca cut the
pigs with a plate in the Spanish tradition (in other words, the
meat is so incredibly tender that it cuts with a blunt object).
Chef Lopez’s demo was superbly contrasted by Joan Roca's
preparation of the same suckling pig using sous vide technology;
Joan Roca had been to Candido's restaurant and wanted to replicate
the flavor of traditional suckling pig. He spoke about the problem
of many smaller restaurants not being able to consistently sell
an entire pig if it’s not their specialty. Roca's solution
was to prepare sections of the pig in individual vacuum-packed portions
and cook them to order. Because Joan Roca didn't roast the pig in
its entirety, he was able to prepare the trotters separately as
a delicacy on request.
Cándido López and Joan Roca cut the suckling
pig with plates to show how tender the meat is.
BCN Vanguardia at Alimentaria, which was a smaller chef event than
its rivals Madrid Fusion and Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia, bills itself
as a gastronomy congress where the best chefs of the moment come
together to share the “theory and practice of the latest gastronomy
trends.” Although most preparations were far from simple,
the purity of the product was the clear emphasis during the majority
of the demonstrations. After a week of demonstrations, we were left
wondering, has Spain’s passion for culinary innovation been
moved to the backburner? Not necessarily so. Monne commented that
“even if Spain is leading a Revolution, techniques and experimental
process must always be in service to creativity in order to respect
the quality of product.”
The Revolution that has been raging in Spain, largely led by Ferrán,
has clearly positively impacted gastronomy around the world, and
has especially inspired what chefs in America are doing now. But
what may have gotten lost in the process of assimilating Ferrán’s
concepts (surely as much to Ferrán's dismay anyone else's)
is the critical humility and respect for ingredients that every
chef must have. Alimentaria clearly drove the point home.