Madrid Fusión 2013: Micro Regionalism, Global Inspiration, and the Continued Creativity of Spanish Chefs

by Caroline Hatchett
Caroline Hatchett
February 2013

Top 10 Moments of Madrid Fusión

  1. Getting wrapped up in the rock and roll intensity of David Muñozand DiverXO
  2. Seeing the inner depths of Joan Roca’s creative inspiration
  3. Watching Andoni Luis Aduritz make shrimp tempura with canned batter
  4. Starting the day with neighbor and Rising Star Chef George Mendes, sharing his Portuguese cooking and American perspective with Spain’s best chefs
  5. Witnessing chain-saw wielding Stefan Wiesner carve a fish curing vessel from cherrywood
  6. Sucking on a white chocolate boob to extract nutty, faux mother's milk with the scent of baby powder hanging in the air and infant cries on the loudspeaker—gracias Dominique Persoone
  7. Getting fermentation lessons from Pascal Barbot
  8. Discovering a new culinary product—in all its potential—though the eyes of Elena Arzak and Dani Garcia
  9. Learning new techniques for preparing fish from Vienna Chef Heinz Reitbauer, who pours molten beeswax over filets to gently cook them
  10. Giving literal meaning to sex on a plate as Lorenzo Cogo “fertilized” a dish of trout spawn with trout milt

The theme of the 2013 Madrid Fusión was as much an affirmation as a call to action: Creativity Continues. In the face of a declining economy and political scandal, Spain still holds her gastronomy and chef community on a pedestal—and rightly so. This year’s congress not only showcased Spanish chefs’ passion and innovation in the post-El Bulli food world, it proves that Spain and Madrid Fusión have what it takes to inspire the global chef community.

Health and Science in Cooking

Two young chefs from different continents are using scientific data to help drive their cuisine and diners’ experiences. Chef Juan Manuel Barrientos of El Cielo in Medellin, Colombia hooks test subjects up to monitors, recording body temperature, sweat rate, pulse, and micro facial expressions as they eat his dishes. It’s his goal to get diners in touch with their pre-reasoning reptile brains; in a signature dish, he takes guests back to childhood as they lick chocolate off their hands.

Italian Chef Lorenzo Cogo of El Coq in Emilia-Romagna composes dishes around ingredients known to decrease diners’ stress levels—including his dish of trout spawn, trout sperm, sour cream, capers, watercress, ground white beans, algae, and mushrooms. “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food,” he says. Cogo hopes his approach will go as far as inspiring pregnant women to eat healthier, reducing embryonic stress and cravings. (Easy for a man to say!)

Changing the Way We Eat Seafood

As Ángel Léon demonstrated at the 6th Annual International Chefs Congress, chefs have only tapped the surface of the ocean’s species. “We take inspiration from known products on land (such as pig, ox, lamb, and pigeon) to introduce unknown products of the sea.” Léon applies these techniques to trash fish, or fish traditionally used as animal feed or in manufactured products. He cooks tuna collars like oxtails, makes cracklings of stingray skin, and stretches “burrata” with the pliable heart of the Sapo fish. He marinates little-known fish in earthy beets or even pigeon offal to impart terrestrial flavors. “We can't treat the sea like a fashion show, only using the most fashionable fish,” says Léon.

Trout Spawn, Trout Milt, Sour Cream, Capers, Watercress, Ground White Beans, Algae, and Mushrooms from Chef Lorenzo Cogo of El Coq – Vicenza, Italy

Trout Spawn, Trout Milt, Sour Cream, Capers, Watercress, Ground White Beans, Algae, and Mushrooms from Chef Lorenzo Cogo of El Coq – Vicenza, Italy

Colombian Chef Jorge Rausch of Criterion in Bogata agrees. He’s on a crusade to rid Colombian waters of the invasive Lionfish species. (U.S. Chefs Norman Van Aken and Randy Evans are on similar missions for the Atlantic and Gulf, respectively.) With backing from the Clinton Foundation, Rausch is showing home cooks and diners how delicious the destructive fish can be—and paying local fisherman a premium to catch and distribute them, hopefully into extinction.

For Peruvian Chef Héctor Solís of Fiesta in Lima, fish and ceviche are a way of life. “Fish is what has always moved me. In Peru you can have fresh fish every day,” he says. Solís demonstrated six types of ceviche on the Madrid Fusión main stage, and he’s developed at least 50 over the course of his career. The world at large, he explains, views ceviche as a dish—a marinated tumble of seafood and tiger’s milk. But for Solís and his Peruvian peers, ceviche is a concept. And that concept continues to evolve as chefs learn more about indigenous cuisine. “Ceviche has a 1500-year history,” says Solís. “It’s everyday food for Indians made from the products grown in rice patties—clams, snails, fish, and duck.” It’s an ancient cuisine ripe for exploring and revolutionizing.

Micro Regionalism

The culinary philosophy embodied and popularized by Rene Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen has spread across Europe, the United States, and as far-flung as South America. Chefs the world over, now cook from their immediate environments, inspired by native flora and fauna, history, and singular moments in time.

On the Madrid Fusión main stage, Brazilian Chef Alex Atala of D.O.M. created a dish inspired by a barren post-storm landscape. “Nature feeds us in the harshest moments,” he said. His main stage composition focused on seaweed and coconut apple, the spongy center of a germinating coconut—two products readily available after a storm. Atala also highlighted native products, including massive vanilla pods (“I only get 10 per year.”), honey, trance-inducing herbs, and rare chile peppers. His access to indigenous product has grown as he has worked with social scientists, who teach his team how to create mutually beneficial relationships with Amazon tribes.

Simon Rogan of L´Enclume in the northwestern Lakes region of England eliminated all foreign ingredients from his menus. He forages for sea herbs, lettuces, and mushrooms;  feeds his animals in the forest; and makes homemade mead from honey harvested from an onsite apiary. To guarantee fresh vegetables in Britain’s frigid winter, he clamps root vegetables—harvesting them and covering them with hay and soil. His philosophy carries over seamlessly to his dish creation, as demonstrated in his dish of clamped vegetables, salsify purée, hay custard, malt flour soil, and cheese “snow.”

Chef Wojciech Modest Amaro of Atelier Amaro in Warsaw not only demonstrated dishes and ingredients that told the story of his native Poland but also spoke about the new role of chefs cooking at the height of micro-regional cuisine. The modern chef is more than a culinary craftsman; he or she also has to have a working knowledge of technology, hunting, foraging, animal breeding, cultivation, fishing, food processing, food design, and diner psychology.

Global Embrace

Micro regional food is bringing new culinary integrity to regions that have never gotten much attention for their cuisine—Chile, Poland, Brazil, for example. And though the movement is arguably improving the quality of food worldwide, some of the most innovative chefs at this year’s Madrid Fusión looked beyond their immediate surroundings for culinary inspiration.

Closed off from the greater culinary community, Stefan Wiesner cooks in an isolated region of Switzerland at restaurant Gasthof Rössli. Instead of looking entirely inward to his landscape, he takes Asian principles and applies them to the natural world around him. In one of the most extreme demos of Madrid Fusión, Wiesner wielded a chain saw on stage to carve a cherrywood curing vessel for salmon. Presenting a dish in haiku, substituting 17 syllables for 17 aromas, Wiesner crafted an ode to the cherry tree. He layered salted cherry branches in the aforementioned curing tray to impart the wood’s flavor into a fish. And on the plate, he built flavor with ground cherry pits, cherry wood ash, cherry buds, and distilled cherry liqueur. To bring the Asian concept full circle, he carefully dotted wasabi on the plate—a bold exclamation point to end his haiku.

Americans have long blended flavors and ethnic identity in food—it’s the very essence of our mixed-up national fabric. American Chef and 2009 Rising Star George Mendes  reminded the audience that global cuisine and flavors once defined and helped build European cuisine. The Portuguese brought black pepper, cinnamon, and tea to Europe and, along with their Spanish counterparts, introduced the continent to potatoes, corn, tomatoes, peppers, chocolate, and coffee. Mendes now cooks modern Portuguese food at Aldea in New York City, and he draws menu inspiration from the history of globalization in food, as in his signature uni appetizer: a baguette slice topped with cauliflower cream, mustard seeds, sea urchin, wasabi, mustard oil, soy sauce, shiso, nutmeg, lime zest.

French chefs have long had love affairs with Asian ingredients. Pierre Hermé mused in a 20 minute chat about his first experience with yuzu back in the early aughts. He fell in love with the citrus in Japan but couldn’t reliably source the now-ubiquitous ingredient to his Parisian shop for years. Chef Pascal Barbot finds great inspiration from Korean products and fermentation techniques. “I don’t do terroir cuisine,” said Barbot. Barbot demonstrated dishes with fermented cranberries, preserved oysters, and house-made black garlic, which he smokes in hay, sprinkles with beer, ferments at 60°C, and then air dries. “I’m striving to bring world flavors into the French dining context, all while staying rooted,” he said.

Young Spanish Chef David Muñoz of Madrid’s DiverXo wants his cuisine to be unpredictable, pure rock and roll. “We are truly open to the world. We are open to everything,” said Muñoz. His pantry and techniques are shamelessly global. “The most important thing for us is for customers to make the ‘mmmm’ sound,” he said—even if that means combining fried fish battered in fermented duck egg sabayon, charred garlic, spaghetti, Mandarin orange powder, and dried bacon. The effect is less chaotic than a measured effort in challenging the senses. Muñoz—who executed 10 wildly different dishes on the main stage—smashes rules, makes his own, and lets pure passion and wonder propel his food.

Spanish Resilience

Muñoz may very well represent the future of Spanish cuisine and innovation. But the figures who first catapulted Spain to gastronomic dominance continue to evolve and inspire.

Joan Roca led attendees through the inner depths of innovation at El Celler de Can Roca. The seasoned chef presented four dishes grounded in four distinct sources of culinary inspiration: cookbooks, Catalan tradition, wine, and memory. Roca shared the processes of dish creation that any chef—regardless of style—could apply to his or her cooking. Spanish Grand Dame Elena Arzak built a playful structure resembling a green paper maché globe. Built with gelatin sheets, she flavored the globe with parsley-rye juice, formed it over a balloon, and hardened it by pouring hot oil over the top. Chef Dani Garcia also played around with fried gelatin, making an edible plate for a dish of seaweed and shrimp. He also presented an ode to Daniel Humm’s famous carrot tartare, layering ground carrot into a savory “carrot cake” with powdered carrot, cream of carrot, and a crunchy base.

Spanish Resilience

Garcia, who opened his first New York restaurant this month, is one of a handful of chefs creating new business models and looking toward other markets to ride out Spain’s economic ills. Pastry Chef Albert Adrià discussed opening a casual bar concept, as well as a Mexican restaurant with brother Ferran. It’s a move many Spanish chefs are watching—as the brothers who were at the forefront of the world’s culinary innovation look to revolutionize the way fine-dining chefs do business in Spain. “We’ve never been good at making money, but we've stuck to our principles,” said Adrià.  “My generation has shown great deal of self respect; now is the time that we need to move things forward.”

In one of the more surprising and confounding demos of Madrid Fusión, Spanish Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz shared his new project—spray canned foods—and the process behind developing the technology to make canned churro dough, tempura batter, pancake batter, cream cheese, and pastry cream. “It seems simple,” said Aduriz. “But it’s complicated to put food and flavors in a can.” Partnering with a Spanish grocery chain, the project took several years and $30 million euros to bring to fruition. But after market research, the canned goods are available in 100 points of sale, meaning common home cooks can make perfect shrimp tempura backed by Aduritz’s R&D seal of approval. The cans are also being marketed to hotels and chain restaurants to help cut labor costs—and potentially keep businesses afloat.

It’s less about the product, said Aduriz, and more about the will to bring about change and innovation—especially in Spain’s current economic climate. Chefs from Spain and all over the world shared that sentiment at this year’s Madrid Fusión, continuing a culinary conversation and giving chefs a shot of inspiration to last them until next year’s congress.