San Sebastian Gastronomika
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San Sebastian Gastronomika 2010

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Basque chefs, New York chefs, and "coffee" made of ham

The 2010 edition of Gastronomika, the big Spanish food and wine conference and fair held annually in San Sebastian — the handsome, mid-sized city on the Basque coast often called the food capital of Spain — kicked off Sunday night, Nov. 21, with an inaugural "dinner" at the Parque Tecnológico, a contemporary conference center on a hill outside town. This year's event honors New York as a dining capital, with culinary Gotham represented by Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, David Chang, Wylie Dusfresne, Anthony Bourdain, and Drew Nieporent.

 

DAY ONE:

I put "dinner" in quotes because the affair in fact consisted of a panel discussion involving superstar local chefs — among them Juan Mari Arzak, Pedro Subijana, Martín Beresategui, Andoni Aduriz, and Hilario Arbelaitz — followed by a rather desultory press conference. (One question from Bouley that I think was about the use of sustainable seafood and progress; one from American Spain expert Gerry Dawes that was more a statement than a question, stimulating a brief conversation about the importance of grilling in Basque cuisine.)

Then, a free-form walk-around reception arranged in two parts: First, upstairs, an indulgent array of Cantabrian anchovies, bellota ham from Guijuelo, salmon loin, foie gras, and locally caught red tuna (made into sushi by a Basque chef!); downstairs, pintxos (as the Basques call tapas) from 15 up-and-coming chefs from around the region.

The standouts were a cold soufflé of Idiazabal cheese with olive oil and herbs from Ramón Pinero of the Marqués de Riscal hotel in the Rioja wine country; a speck of morcilla (blood sausage) with bits of winter vegetable drizzled with acacia honey from Roberto Ruíz or El Frontón in Tolosa; a witty "café de jamón" (ham coffee) with sweetbread "cookies" from Edorta Lamo or A Fuego Negro —the trendiest new-style tapas bar in San Sebastian; and a reinvention of the classic pintxo called the Gilda (after the Rita Hayworth movie of the same name), made with anchovy, green pepper, and olive, from Rubén Trincado of the Mirador de Ulía.

To drink, there was plenty of Catalan cava plus wines from Catalonia, Rioja, and Galicia. One curious thing: The water was San Pellegrino and Panna from Italy, as if to say that Spain (much less the Basque country) had no decent bottled water of its own.

 

DAYS TWO & THREE:

Martín Berasategui demonstrating half a dozen dishes in 45 minutes, bang-bang-bang, most of which involved many, many steps…

A galaxy of Basque star chefs on stage to honor Karlos Arguiñano, the amiably goofy TV chef (Juan Mari Arzak, noting "I know you hate it when I kiss you", kissed Arguiñano on the cheek)…

Ferran Adrià (who may actually be slightly less well known in Spain than Arguiñano) making an unusual number of references to his critics; showing the audience several sequences of related dishes (and revealing that the liquid-cheese-filled "blini" he serves with his white truffle presentation are actually little pan-fried and steamed brioche buns); admitting that there is still much he hasn't figured out about the future of El Bulli and calling its next stage "magic" and "an adventure;" and eating a lunch of some of Spain's best ham at the Joselito stand before rushing off to fly back to Barcelona…

Lunch for a small group of participants at Zuberoa, where Hilario Arbelaitz, one of the most genial of chefs, served us everything a very strange oyster with pepper jelly in homemade stout to wonderful langoustines with ginger gelée (but why the vanilla?) and cumin-braised pig's feet that even the non-pig's-feet-eaters devoured…

A New York day, starting with Drew Nieporent offering his own view of New York restaurant history (and bragging a little about his grosses) then featuring David Chang, who seemed a little nervous and had to fight a recalcitrant induction burner….

Daniel Boulud, who explained how a "great chef" approached the hamburger and demonstrated his famous version made with braised short rib, foie gras, and truffle (samples were passed to the VIP section); Anthony Bourdain with an offhanded digression on his own changing tastes and the challenges of writing

about food…

David Bouley and Wylie Dufresne (separately) demonstrating apparently effortless technique; Thomas Keller on "the philosophy of elegance;” and myself in there somewhere talking about my Ferran Adrià biography while trying to hush up a gaggle of gabbers just offstage…

A massive pastry and marzipan tableau of a fantasy New York City, masterminded by Barcelona pastry chef Christian Escribà, wheeled out while the New York contingent was trotted out…

A knockout lunch at Akelare (which offers Atlantic vistas of stunning beauty) attended by Nieporent and Boulud among others, at which Pedro Subijana produced one surprise after another, from his hotel-amenity-tray appetizers like onion sponge with tomato "bath gel," cava and pomegranate "mouthwash", Idiazabal cheese "moisturizer", etc. to his cod tripe with white tomato juice and grilled lamb with crispy wine lees…

Most of the American contingent (myself included) headed home Wednesday morning, missing the last day of the event so that they don't miss Thanksgiving at home – a conflict the otherwise deft Spanish organizers of the event apparently failed to take into account, unless they just figured they would have had enough of us after three days…

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