Perhaps because he's had a peripatetic career, Jean Luc Figueras isn't very well-known outside Spain, but since the days when he cooked at the lamented Eldorado Petit in Barcelona through his comings and goings at a wide range of other establishments, he has remained one of the best chefs in what might be called the modernized-traditional style. He was on stage at Madrid Fusión first thing this morning, in the auditorium at the city's Palacio Municipal de Congresos, with Alain Guiard and Óscar Escanciano of Babette Catering, a firm based in Sant Cugat del Vallés, next door to Barcelona, that took first place in last year's World Catering Championships in Lyon. Figueras, who helped his colleagues demonstrate one of the winning dishes — sea bass tartare with chorizo gelatin and caramelized orange peel — was there because he had worked with them temporarily in preparing for the competition.
After he came off stage, Figueras told me that late last year he had opened a place in the new Mercer Hotel in Barcelona, called Mercer Restaurant Jean Luc Figueras. Here, he's serving the kind of updated French-accented Catalan food he's known for (chicken and chestnut cream soup with foie gras and coxcomb "popcorn," oyster and pig's foot ravioli with sultana polenta, sea bass with salt cod tripe and blood sausage, and such).
Elena Arzak gave a demonstration in her usual style — calm, lucid, technically impressive — this time focusing on those trendy new ingredients salt and pepper. Quique Dacosta, whose eponymous restaurant in Dénia, in the Alicante region, won its third Michelin star last year, fielded a team of six cooks working at five tables to turn out almost 20 little bites in 20 minutes' time — he kept watching the countdown clock ("We have 55 seconds left, work quickly!") — including tuna belly atop tiger-nut milk solidified in gelatin, with shallots and Korean red pepper paste on top; strawberry turrón (the famous nougat of Alicante) with vinegar; cones of oven-dried pasta filled with wild basil mousse; blue cheese and rosemary blossoms wrapped in rice dough; warm olive oil ice cream (a dish Dacosta first presented at last year's Madrid Fusión) topped with shards of black truffle–potato waffle cone and caramelized chicken reduction; a marinated monkfish and smoked butter "taco" made with coca (flatbread) dough instead of tortillas; and a "meat" dish consisting of several immense garrofó beans (think butter beans on steroids) in rabbit and thyme sauce.When de la Serna asked Bras his opinion of "star chefs, top chefs, cuisine as media phenomenon," he answered, "There are good things and bad things. It's good because the chef's trade is becoming well-known. It's bad because people start to think that cooking is being a show, a program. Star chefs? Yes and no."
Madrid Fusión has guest countries every year, whose cuisine and products are spotlighted. This year, there are several — Flanders (not a country per se, but the Dutch-speaking portion of Belgium) and the Andean nations of Peru, Chile, and Bolivia. Flemish chef Kobe Desramaults (below), who runs the small In de Wulf in Dranouter, on the French border in western Belgium, continued the conference's stated theme of "Eating in the city" by, er, talking about his small family farm, the fields and forests he forages in, and the five neighboring farms he buys from. He demonstrated his take on a traditional Flemish dish of potatoes puréed with buttermilk and white cheese, topped with freshly grated horseradish and with young garlic shoots, field cress, and sorrel, which he proudly announced he had picked that morning from Madrid's vast El Retiro park — probably illegal, but admirable.
Flemish chef Kobe Desramaults
The legendary French chef Michel Bras — another decidedly non-urban culinary creator — didn't do a demo but sat for an on-stage interview by the noted Spanish food writers Víctor de la Serna and Borja Beneyto. Bras is diminuative in stature and modest in his assessment of his own achievements. "All I did," he said, "was to start putting the vegetable garden in its proper place in cuisine." He went on, "What is most important, what I'm proudest of, is that for me, being a chef is not a business. It's a way to write my history. It's my music, my painting. My cuisine is my life." He bemoaned the fact that to be taken seriously as a chef today, "one has to provoke and surprise." After making clear that his success is not his alone, but must be shared with his wife — "My story is not the story of Michel, but the story of Michel and Jeannette" — he advised younger chefs not to "torture your brains" looking for something new all the time, adding "Technique should be at the service of cuisine, not the other way around." When de la Serna asked Bras his opinion of "star chefs, top chefs, cuisine as media phenomenon," he answered, "There are good things and bad things. It's good because the chef's trade is becoming well-known. It's bad because people start to think that cooking is being a show, a program. Star chefs? Yes and no."