San Sebastián Gastronomika 2010: Culinary Currents on Spain’s North Shore

by Jessica Dukes
January 2011

San Sebastián Gastronomika 2010: Thomas Keller, Ferran Adrià, Anthony Bourdain, and Martín Berasategui—pause to take a breath—Juan Mari Arzak, Wylie Dufresne, Daniel Boulud, Joan Roca, Carmé Ruscalleda … is there anybody out there with a knife in one hand and a microplane in his or her back pocket who wouldn’t be happy to see 50 Michelin stars ruminating over naturalism, their latest and greatest ideas, and the proper way to cook fish? Anybody dreaming of the perfect stage who doesn’t want to hear what each of these leaders has to say about food and dining right now? Many of our readers followed our play-by-play from Gastronomika on Twitter, but we took away so much from our journey to Spain that we had to devote an entire issue to what we saw, heard, and ate.
Maybe Juan Mari Arzak said it best: “we’re all a little sick of foie,” which at Gastronomika accounted for the heavy emphasis on vegetarian and pescetarian dishes, dashi (from the New York delegation), and oh-so many silicon molds, extractions and distillations. And experiential cuisine is finally making inroads on the international stage. The culinary movement, pioneered by Spanish chefs like Joan Roca and Andoni Luis Aduriz,  takes aim at the diner's heart: by sparking certain irrepressible waves of emotion through food and the dining experience. 
Gastronomika, since its inception in 1998, has been a gastronomic snow globe: an ever polished, three-day, miniaturized and crystallized version of what’s cool among chefs right now, with (just for luck) a healthy sprinkle of rebellion swirled in. 

Preparation of a tapa by Chef Ramon Pineiro of Marques de Riscal in Elciego, Spain at the Welcome DinnerDay 1: “Complex Natures” with Chef Martin Berasategui

Gastronomika 2010: Welcome Press Conference and Gala

Basque Chefs Juan Mari Arzak, Martín Berasategui, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Pedro Subijana,and Hilario Erbaitz, and Gastronomika organizers Pilar Zorilla, Roser Torras, and Xavier Agulló presided over the press conference love-fest to kick off the event on the evening prior. Chef Subijana set the tone: “May everyone leave here full and happy.” The press conference merged into a short cocktail hour featuring Iberian ham from Carrasco Guijuelo (direct from the arguable capitol of Spanish ham production), and then a gala with 15 of the Basque region’s most eminent young chefs providing the tapas. Standouts included an Oxtail “Ravioli” by Chef Eneko Atxa of Azurmendi in Bilbao.

Day One: Rapid Fire Demos by Spanish Generals

You want  inspiration from culinary giants and some sexy Spanish cadence? You got it with Mainstage presentations from Carmé Ruscalleda, Martín Berasategui, Quique Dacosta, and Juan Mari and Elena Arzak on day one of San Sebastián Gastronomika. New to this year, lucky audience members in a roped-off section up front were invited to taste the results of each chef’s demonstration. Carmé Ruscalleda—the only woman in Spain to rock a fist-full of Michelin stars—took the audience through a vegetarian ravioli, visually textural with vivid multi-hued stripes: healthy, crunchy, and smooth with its various strips of raw and blanched vegetables and a pouch of puréed raw filling.
Boletus Mushroom at the Product FairBoletus Mushroom at the Product Fair
Martín Berasategui demonstrated dishes from his eponymous restaurant in Lasarte, the spooky basement of which is reported to bunk the very (lucky) stagiares who got to tweeze onstage. And although we may have seen his demonstration of fish scales, made edible by scalding them with boiling oil, at the 5th Annual International Chefs Congress last September in New York—we didn't mind getting a second chance to do a double take.
Direct from his palm-tree fringed El Poblet in the ancient Phoenician trading post of Denia, Quique Dacosta, reigning culinary count of Spain’s Eastern Mediterranean coast, led the audience through a dish pairing chocolate and langoustines, and monkfish liver and skins with prawns. A “raw egg” of chicken stock, white asparagus and egg yolk, sealed and then rolled in sautéed chicken skin “shell” was inspired by the age-old query, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

Homage to The Best Thing You Can Do (With Your Pants On)

An entire generation of Spanish grandmothers has a date with a chef at 2pm every Monday through Friday, and his name is Karlos Arguiñano. The lovable TV cook is just as at home playing the clown as he is sitting down with regular guest Juan Mari Arzak to discuss tips on making yogurt at home or foraging for mushrooms. His lifelong pals, the Michelin-starred elite of San Sebastián, joined in honoring him for his work in promoting healthy Spanish cuisine to millions of Spanish households. A notable quipster, Arguiñano lived up to audience expectations: “Eating is the most fun you can have with your pants on,” he cheered to mucho applause, and received a kiss from Juan Mari Arzak, who called him “the most important chef in alive today.” 

Day Two: Kooky Video Presentations

Video presentations are a heaven-sent solution to the shy chef: take Pastry Chef Jordan Kahn, video-presentation mastermind and shrinking violet, who silently wowed the 2010 ICC. They also work when what’s done in the kitchen has a natural presence on the big screen. Massimo Bottura opened the session, taking the viewer on a magic carpet ride through dishes from his Osteria la Francescana in Modena, Italy, including cotton wool wrapped-beef. Andoni Luis Aduriz showed two tongue-in-cheek videos highlighting the playful camaraderie and commitment to passion and ideals that characterizes Mugaritz. Follow the link for a replay of the trials and tribulations of Dr. Exactus.
Tamarind at the Product FairTamarind at the Product Fair

Experiential Cuisine

Chef Joan Roca took the stage to demonstrate a series of surprises based on his experiential cuisine at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona. In slides, he talked the audience through a dish inspired by his “Cocina de la Memoria” (The Cuisine of Memory), wherein he plays with “primitive flavors and aromas that beckon to us from our past.” He touched on sound as an element, pairing the sound of sheep’s bells with the clanging of spoons scraping the bowl of a sheep’s milk dessert. The audience got to enjoy an old favorite, a dish from brother Jordi Roca’s “Chromatic” period (circa 2003), in which he employed colors as prismatic provocateurs. The “Green” dish combined the fresh, verdant elements of cucumber, Bergamot, chartreuse, and lime zest with the thermal sensation provided by distilled eucalyptus. Maintained at a constant temperature of -5°C, the liquid, when poured tableside over strips of frozen green melon, produces a surprising physical effect—a tower of ice spontaneously emerges in front of the guest, a result brought on by the clash of temperatures.
“We search for emotions,” said Roca, and finished up his presentation with a current dessert that has garnered a lot of attention. In an experiment with euphoria, Pastry Chef Jordi Roca found it in an exciting dessert that raised goose bumps among those who’ve experienced it at the restaurant and moved the crowd, some of us to goosebumps.  Roca summed up the dessert by saying, “this comes at the end of the tasting menu—we want our guests to enjoy themselves and have a laugh.”
Juan Mari and daughter Elena Arzak wound up day one at Gastronomika with specific instructions handed down from Juan Mari’s mamá on the proper way to cook bonito del norte, the tuna that migrates through Gulf Stream waters and skirts the north coast of Spain in late June. He finished the dish by fitting it with a glass dome to trap the aromas of Whiskey barrel, wood ember smoke, and Spanish eucalyptus. When released, the fragrant vapor transports the diner to the salt-sprayed Spanish woods that surround Arzak, a restaurant Anthony Bourdain called a place of “belonging.”

Ferran, Ferran, Ferran

New York Day at Gastronomika Day 1: “An End and a Beginning” with Chef Ferran Adria
Ferran Adrià’s presentation, a combined demonstration, secret-sharing fest, and showcase of his wares, like the edible coffee project he’s working on with Lavazza, spilled over into a press conference that centered on, what else?— El Bulli. He announced again (after first shattering eardrums worldwide with the announcement at Madrid Fusion 2010) that El Bulli will close and be converted over the next two years into a “creative space,” where the work of a rotation of visiting chefs, including both he and brother, Albert Adrià, will be fully accessible online. Just as Albert forewarned back in September, their next two projects together, Snackería 41º,the gastrobar that just opened in recent weeks in Barcelona, and Tickets, due to open in Barcelona in a few weeks, are all about returning to classical Spanish roots. And much like Bar Inopia, the restaurants will seek to improve upon classic Spanish dishes with the purest and best raw materials available.

New York, Represent!

Day Two found Chefs David Chang, Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, Wylie Dufresne, and Thomas Keller, as well as restaurateur Drew Nieporent and authors Anthony Bourdain and Coleman Andrews hovering over a gift courtesy of Barcelona pastry Chef Christian Escribà. A chocolate sculpture of the isle of Manhattan was unveiled to the tune of “Empire State of Mind” by Alicia Keys and Jay-Z. WE were nearly impressed as much by the very with-it Spaniards as with the conglomeration of culinary talent around the chocolate metropolis.
Highlights were plentiful and included the by-now much-tweeted musings of Anthony Bourdain. He wondered aloud about the spiritual ramifications of foodie-burnout, in other words, is there a special circle of hell for those who yawn over a plate of foie gras and truffles? While inadvertently defending foie gras (foie lovers rejoice!) after the verbal beating it got from Juan Mari Arzak, Bourdain then pondered, “Should food writers have term limits?”—thus reviving a blogosphere debate that surfaced with Frank Bruni’s resignation from the New York Times back in ’09.
The day ended in Getaria, capitol of Getariako Txakoli wine production, with pairings provided by local wine producers and a decadent feast provided by Chef Aitor Arregui (including rare local, wild turbot) at famed grill haven Elkano. Most of the New York chefs could be found secluded in a semi-private dining area, although Daniel Boulud and Drew Nieporent mingled with Spanish chefs, among them Albert Ventura of Barcelona’s must-visit Coure. The night closed with a stirring rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” by a gutsy and gorgeous Spanish chanteuse, and a standing ovation at the end of service for the restaurant’s weary staff.

Off the Mainstage

At Gastronomika, the sleek and modern Kursaal event center was brimming over with a double-decker Product Fair with kitchen equipment, produce, Iberian ham and seafood purveyors galore, as well as an entire wing devoted to wine, including varietals from Navarra, Huesca and other smaller wine production regions. There were also tourism, hotel, and restaurant management workshops, as well as more intimate demonstration workshops with many of the chef-presenters, like Thomas KellerJuan Mari Arzak, and Andoni Luis Aduriz. And for the first time this year, Gastronomika hosted its own version of the Somm Slam, a Gin and Tonic competition, and a Grill-off.  
Grilling Wild, Local Turbot at <em />Elkano — Getaria, SpainFifteen Michelin Stars

Eating and Drinking, Óle!

How could we visit Spain and not visit Catalunya (and not just because the Catalans have risen above the Basques this year as Spain’s most star-struck populace, Michelin-wise)? We swung by Quimet & Quimet to get our fix of classic Spanish tapas, and hit El Celler de Can Roca, headquarters of experientialism, El Bulli, where dinner was a passionate dreamscape, seesawing between lucidity and spectacle—and lasted six (amazing) hours—and Coure, where Chef Albert Ventura wowed us with his exquisite handling of fish and exciting flavor combinations.
In Bilbao, we met up with Chef Josean Alija Martínez of Restaurante Guggenheim, where he showed off his latest experimentats with the Gastrovac and the lean protein casein, a milk by-product he’s playing with to promote low-fat healthy cooking. His message broadcasts loud and clear in his dishes: a focus on purity and locally sourced ingredients, and a rapt embrace of produce. The Gastrovac is a Spanish-patented vacuum cooker that acts as a sponge to rapidly absorb liquid once atmospheric pressure is restored at the end of the cooking process. From what Chef Alija showed us, it opens the door to new realms in intensity of flavor. A not-so-simple lentil soup was prepared with a type of lentil hand-picked from over 200 varieties for its aroma. Given the Gastrovac treatment, the resulting translucent lentil broth looks like a far cry from the traditionally chunky, porky (though also delicious) version. But the taste was lentils as reimagined for Broadway: over the top, show-stopping pulse succulence. We savored the use of wood-ember charcoal in his dish Tomatoes Filled with Aromatic Herbs and Caper Broth—among Spain’s elite chefs, it seems woodsmoke is the way to go.
El Lagar, a tidy bodega bar in the old quarter of San Sebastián, run by Chef Kike Garcia, showed off their young Rioja wines. And Chef Roberto Ruiz of El Frontón presented the guests of Gastronomika, among them chefs Joan Roca and Daniel Boulud, with a tasting menu based on duos of products from two culinary hotspots in Spain: the Basque Country and Castilla y León.
Anthony Bourdain shared not only a lot of material from his book Medium Raw but also the revelation that he wouldn’t mind if his last meal before dropping dead were taken at remote, hidden grill Shangri-la Etxebarri. There, humble and at-peace Chef-Owner Viktor Argibobo contracted a local craftsman fashion to fashion him an impressive adjustable grill where woodfire rules. The grill room is a small shed (both brightly lit and spotless) set apart from the restaurant and ringed by a stony church, a handful of stone houses, and tall mountains that provide the raw material for it all. Wood branches are stacked in piles, nearly concealing the entrance. And the dishes, like grilled woodcock, head intact, were mind-blowing. The effect is—damn you, Anthony Bourdain!—enough to make one misty-eyed.
After yet another gastronomic life-changing experience at another grill-mecca, Elkanoa place described by many in attendance as the best place to get fish in Spain, StarChefs visited Azurmendi in Bilbaothe enormous kitchen of which is presided over by Chef Eneko Atxa. The fall tasting menu exhibited, once again, naturalism and experientialism, each dish a tour of the region’s terroir and the damp cling of autumn decay. A pigeon dish titled “Pigeon in the Woods” came with a terrarium filled with earth and wet decaying leaves, spritzed with a distillate of the same; diners were asked to breath in the seasonal aroma of the woods surrounding Bilbao—no potpourri about it. An oyster dish came with dry ice and a distillate of sea water, emitting a briny vapor. And the actual flavors of mold and decaywere present in two dishes, in which the flavors of local herbs were employed to recall rot. Pairings from house bodega Gorka Izagirre stood out among many of the pairings that we tried during the trip—maybe it's time for Txakoli wine to take the world stage?