Alimentaria '06
Juan Mari Arzak on

Juan Mari Arzak lectures on the history of cuisine during his demonstration.







Experimentation on the Back Burner?

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 on
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 displaying a white asparagus on
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.

Charlie Trotter's Caesar Salad on
Chef Charlie Trotter's Caesar Salad
Andoni Luis Aduriz's Salad on
Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz's Salad


Andoni Luis Aduriz on
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 flavor.

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.

Candido Lopez on
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.

Candido Lopez and Joan Roca cutting suckling pig on
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.

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   Published: March 10 2006