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Madrid Fusion 2009: Ingredients, Techniques, and Philosophy at Spain’s International Gastronomic Summit
February 2009

After four days of global food fanfare, from the pre-historic to the post-modern, one is, inevitably, left marveling at the diversity of today’s culinary culture. Those of us with our heads buried in the industry can easily take it for granted. But even the jaded get excited when sea urchin from California and Spain, strange ingredients from the Amazon, Mexican masa, and trompe l’oeil tomatoes share a stage.

That’s not to say that Madrid Fusion ’09 was a blowout gastro-spectacle; if anything, the energy of the gathering was lower than in the past—as much a product of the conference’s age (this was its seventh year) as of the dreary global economy. After enjoying years of economic boom, Spain has recently been pulled into the murky waters of the global economic crisis, and the chefs we spoke with confirmed the prospect of a lean year.

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Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz doesn’t fear for the highest levels of alta cocina—that is to say, the destination restaurants that have the following (and the established economic success) to sustain them. Instead, he thinks it will likely be the smaller, newer restaurants that struggle and perhaps even fail. But across the board, he says chefs are going to have to be more creative in the way they cook their food and run their businesses.

Pierre Gagnaire agreed. One of his newest restaurants is in Seoul, Korea; Seoul is also experiencing an economic crisis, he said, but it’s only going to make for more creativity. “Creativity is more and more necessary…Chefs will have to be increasingly clever,” Gagnaire explained.

Creativity—isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway? It is at Madrid Fusion, at least. The main focus on the stage was each chef’s particular creative vision, as rooted in history, ingredients, and techniques. Each gets the mic for a half hour or so, and talks about what’s important to them. Here’s a look at the inspiring array of chefs and topics and the highlights of the four day event.

Biodiversity on the Plate
Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, the Peruvian-born, Italian-trained chef of Malabar restaurant in Lima, takes traditional Peruvian culinary ideas and ingredients from the Amazon and crafts his version of modern South American cuisine. Through photos and videos, he introduced the crowd to an array of Amazonian ingredients such as the camu-camu plant (which carries medicinal properties) or pijuayo fruit (which tastes like pumpkin and coconut), and several varieties of fish and chilies. Schiaffino then showed how he incorporates these products into the cuisine at his restaurant, demonstrating several dishes, including Blinis with Breadfruit, Ceviche of Tiradito, and Grilled Gamitana Ribs.

Also repping South American diversity was a Mexican contingent consisting of Mexico City’s top chefs: Ricardo Muñoz, Enrique Olvera, Patricia Quintana, and Monica Patiño. With the exception of Olvera, the city’s young “vanguardista” spoke about elements of traditional Mexican cuisine (e.g. sopas, tortillas, and moles), specifically the variety of tradition that remains largely unknown outside the country’s borders. Olvera, the youngest and the most avant garde of the bunch, presented his high-concept renditions of Mexican street food. He plated a deconstructed taco, and a ceviche “cooked” a la minute by vacuum-sealing the fish and green chilies in a Cryovac bag immediately before serving.

Patiño made two of the seven “most important moles”—there are far more than that, she was sure to point out—each the result of dozens of nuts, spices, herbs, and broth. The final flavor and scent of each was earthy and deep. “Smells like history,” she said backstage. Quintana brought a basket of 8 to 10 types of tortillas, each a different texture, color, and size. In a feat of encyclopedic tortilla knowledge, she tore through their background, flavor, and use, while plating a dish that updated three of the forms in the more modern style of her restaurant.

Sotohiro Kosugi (Soto, NYC) worked with California sea urchin and the smaller, darker orange Spanish sea urchin, from the northwest coast of Spain. The chef and urchin master incorporated multiple forms of the sweet stuff—powder, mousse, smoked, and raw—into two elegant dishes that combined Japanese and French ingredients. His composed dishes, unusual for a sushi bar, were presented as “Japanese small plates.” (Note to chefs: Soto cuts his urchin with a ceramic knife because steel leaves a faint metallic taste.)

Soto’s partner in the small plates demo, David Chang of Momofuku in NYC, showed the east-west approach of his New York gastro-bars. When developing a tomato dish, he asked himself, “what if my ancestors moved to America 300 years ago and encountered tomatoes, corn…How would they integrate that?” The result: cherry tomatoes marinated in sherry vinegar and soy sauce with yuba (soy milk skin) and shiso leaf or basil—an Asian-American Caprese salad of sorts. 

Pierre Gagnaire took a seat on the stage’s white Van Der Rohe chairs to talk about his current projects, which are spread across the globe. Gagnaire has restaurants in Paris, Dubai, Seoul, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong—“I am a nomad,” he admitted—and shapes each menu according to the place. “In Seoul, we’ve discovered fish we never knew. The menu has changed drastically as we are learning the area and putting new local ingredients on the menu.”

Visual Diversity: Pass the Faux Cotton Balls, Please
Since Ferran has traded in the cooking demos for philosophical lectures, Dani Garcia (of Calima in Marbella) is the Spaniard who’s expected to show up with new techniques each year. This year his focus was “play food” and the three culinary illusions he presented were indeed plays on traditional bites. The visual stunner of the bunch was gazpacho mousse wound in plastic wrap and frozen in liquid nitrogen to form an heirloom tomato shape. The frozen ball is then dipped in a coat of tomato juice, gelatin, and gold powder. Served thawed, the “tomato” held its shape, but broke open with a touch of the diner’s spoon.

Play food part two was with Denis Martin of Le Château in Switzerland, a chef that takes the theme literally, saying that humor in a restaurant makes a dining experience that’s fun for the whole family. His dishes ranged from clever (e.g. a pear and red wine dish in which the pear tastes of wine, and the foam, which looks like wine, tastes of pear) to goofily interactive—like a glass container filled with “cotton balls” of spun sugar, which the diner dips in a makeup compact of edible powder. Silly, yes, but Martin says it works for him. “With the economic crisis, people tend to abandon serious gastronomy… But perhaps it’s not just the money, it’s that it is too proper, intimidating, and snobbish. So, we started having people eat with their fingers.”

Jose Avillez, the young chef of Portugal’s oldest restaurant, Tavares, founded in 1784, wanted to breathe new life into the restaurant’s old gastronomy, but couldn’t go quite so far as cotton puffs. He updated the restaurant by giving it a new look—not the dining room, which remains gilded and dripping with crystal, but the food, which now comes from a sous vide bath in the kitchen, and is served deconstructed on sleek plates. To balance past and present, Avillez aims for “apparent simplicity”—that is to say, an appearance of approachable simplicity that belies the complex technique behind a dish. He doesn’t dumb it down too much, though, with plates inspired by the Portuguese coastline and the sea, as viewed through a submarine window.

Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena presented two dishes inspired by unlikely muses: musician Thelonius Monk, and the skyline of New York City as seen from Central Park. His jazz dish was all black, making every flavor a surprise.“It leaves everything in the dark, but the palate is lit,” Bottura commented. And Central Park’s skyline, based on a photo he took on a summer day, was re-created through a row of traditional Italian stew meats with parsley foam standing in as foliage. “We’re all part of a great revolution,” said Bottura. “We’ve come too far to return to the ovens of our grandmothers….”

Elena Arzak (Restaurante Arzak) discussed using color as a tool of innovation on the plate. Color was the main player in her three dishes: an abstract “vegetable garden,” squid in red ink, and a red cabbage-walnut dessert. She looked back (to the historical use of bicarbonates and copper to preserve color) in order to look forward, using sodium bicarbonate to change the color of a red cabbage broth at the table.

Now co-chef of Michel Bras, Sebastian Bras presented his updated version of his father’s plating—and his “neo-naturalism” was as spectacular as the original. Bras interpreted a childhood memory of eating cheese and jam into a dish of local fresh white cheese with dark jam, dried milk skin, pureed citrus, and “niac,” a bright seasoning blend specific to the Bras kitchen.

A Dose of Philosophy
An especially lively discussion brought some of Europe’s top chefs (Ferran, Andoni, Carlo Cracco, Joan Roca, Quique de la Costa) before a tribunal led by the journalist-MCs Juan Manuel Bellver and Jose Carlos Capel. The critics had fun poking at these chefs, bringing up a few of their old dishes and asking: “Why? What were you thinking?” The chefs were called on to explain the decision making process behind some less-than-stellar dishes—and on the whole they were good sports.

A service-focused panel with four FOH personalities (Marcelo Tejedor, Francis Vega, Javier Ferradal and Didier Gilbert) was an entertaining blend of service philosophy and absurd service scenarios pulled from movies (via Madrid Fusion’s partnership with Cinegourland, Spain’s gastronomic film festival). The panel discussed service as a privilege and an art, and the role of servers as a direct link to the kitchen. One main idea—that it’s essential for the front of house to know what’s going on in the kitchen—was echoed by Juan Mari Arzak, who joined in on the discussion to press the point.

One of the most anticipated segments was a discussion between Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Harold McGee and Italian scientist Davide Cassi, vaguely titled “Does Molecular Cuisine Exist?” Unfortunately the title proved to be too vague, and the conversation quickly reverted to a defense of science in cooking—chocolate is science! Sugar is science! What’s the problem?—and became mired in the past rather than the future. With Adrià’s cajoling, the group agreed that 2000 could be cited as the beginning of this new style of cuisine, though there was no agreement on what it should be called.

As it turns out, McGee was partly responsible, along with Herve This, for the damnable phrase. The two planned a science and food gathering in 1992: “The original title was ‘science and gastronomy’ but the director wanted a fancier title because it was being held in a scientific meeting area with conferences with impressive titles. So ‘molecular’ got thrown in.” The group consensus, if any, was that “molecular” misleads by adding an estranging element of cold science to cooking that is usually anything but cold. They agreed that no matter the name, the future of their cuisine lies in the normalization of the relationship and continued collaboration between gastronomy and science.

The last stage presentation closed, appropriately, with a look to the future. Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago presented the idea of a restaurant as a seamless integration of cuisine, service, and design—an idea that is realized in Alinea. To help explain the concepts, he called on the designer of Alinea’s customized service ware, Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail design, and Bradley Smith, a leader of his service team. In tracing three dish ideas from conception to service piece design to table service, they showed how a modern restaurant can be home to more than just culinary creativity.

They ended with a few ideas for the future: the table being used as a plate; juxtaposing modern and traditional, elevating both in the process; involving the guests in the creative process by allowing them to choose characteristics of their dish. The concepts aren’t developed yet—they were meant to provoke thought and, perhaps, more creativity.