On the stage inside the Palacio Municipal de Congresos de Madrid in Campo de las Naciones Convention Centre, a sea bream in a transparent plastic water-filled bin worked its lips repeatedly. Then chef Ángel León of Aponiente in the Andalusian town of El Puerto de Santa María — one of Spain's most renowned seafood specialists — pulled the fish out of the water, held it flat on the counter, and withdrew a vial of its blood with a syringe. The idea? Keep it alive but use its blood in a classic dish. Back to the water went the fish, and into a pan of melted butter went the blood. An egg stored in plankton for 15 days was cracked into oil, fried, plated, drizzled with blood sauce, and served with dried, salted moray eel. The fish? After chef León passed water over its gills, it seemed just fine.
"I love the Spanish,” a nearby journalist turned to me and said. “They never disappoint.”
Indeed. I could have told you that before I even left New York City at the invitation of Spain ICEX Export and Investments. Why? Because my last name is Bovino ("bovine" in both Spanish and Italian) and before I even was able to get on the plane, Iberia's online site notified me that "Cattle are not registered as a passenger for this booking." I've been told things about my surname over the years (including from a Sicilian that it sounds like a Mafia name), but at no point did I ever think that the technology that allows most people to secure seats would hold the literal meaning of my last name against me. So no, no disappointment.
The first-day sessions came fast. Chef León’s “La Sangre del Mar” was the kick-off demonstration on the first day of Madrid Fusión 2015, whose theme for its 13 year is “Cocinas Viajeres: Una Aventura Por El Conocimento” (Traveling Cuisines: An Adventure Through Knowledge). But the humane and unexpected presentation that he’d researched at Aponiente was just the first of many video-accompanied, out-of-the-box demonstrations that began to quickly follow. Quickly, because with more than 100 cooks from 12 countries participating in this year’s event, chefs only have about 20 minutes to explain their philosophies and present their techniques and dishes.In demonstrations to follow, we saw a machine used to extract the natural essence from a truffle to impart the flavor to other ingredients (including vodka), a chef cooking scallops on a Parisian street tile that had been thrown at police officers in 1968, and one of Spain’s most celebrated young chefs seasoning wines with seawater and making a live eel cocktail while his team was dressed in straightjackets. Parody truly is dead.
Filip Langhoff of Restaurant Ask in Helsinki presented a four-course tasting menu with smoked reindeer heart tartar and fermented carrot with cream of yesterday's bread, demonstrating his philosophy on the balance of protein (20 percent) to vegetable (80 percent) and featuring the importance of root vegetables. “For most people a carrot is a carrot," he said. "But when you have many different kinds of carrots you can discover which ones can be stored in a jar and used in six months and those that can be stored in sand. “
Mugaritz’s Andoni Luis Aduriz showed a video thanking 1,000 chefs and cooks he said had worked for him over the past 17 years. Then he jumped into a presentation on the mechanisms of creativity (“We all have the capacity of being a murderer and we all have the capacity of being a creative person”) that featured self-whisking whisks, a chicken-headed person with a lobster crema catalana, and a guest sitting at a table on the beach, his back to the waves. “If you have bad habits of thinking, you have to create more positive layers that are stronger,” explained Aduriz, who then presented videos of dishes he said were meant to demonstrate his philosophy: a sweet blood sausage (“Everything we can do with blood we can do with egg whites, or vice versa”), fried duck neck skin stuffed with things a duck would eat, lamb perfumed by bark, a cream-stuffed mussel, and an edible handkerchief. “If you can’t be creative in your kitchens, be creative in your lives,” he said before leaving the stage.'If you can’t be creative in your kitchens, be creative in your lives,' Mugaritz’s Andoni Luis Aduriz said before leaving the stage.
A more interactive demonstration followed from Mario Sandoval of Coque, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Humanes, about 12 miles from downtown Madrid. Truffle and seaweed oil were passed out to the audience and out came equipment Sandoval developed while working with Madrid's Institute of Food Science Research on “extracción de fluidos supercriticosto,” an attempt to extract ingredients’ aromas and essence for use as flavorings. “Gastronomic journalists are always against the use of synthetic oil, and this is drawing out the natural oil of the ingredients,” explained the host as a few lucky audience members sampled truffle vodka.
Parisian chef Jean-François Piège prepared two dishes from two of his restaurants, for his presentation on “emotional cooking.” Both featured scallops prepared and presented in interesting fashion. In one the scallop was chopped fine, spread between two Silpats and steam-cooked into scallop skins that could be fried. In the other, chef Piège cooked two scallops on the aforementioned Parisian street tile that had been heated in the oven. “In Saint-Germain-des-Prés there’s not a terroir,” explained chef Piège. “There’s not a culinary tradition. So I wanted to create one by using something that had a cultural imprint.”
Spanish culinary royalty was also present in the form of Elena Arzak, chef of Arzak, the San Sebastián institution opened by her great-grandparents in 1897. Arzak, which has been featured on the San Pellegrino list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 11 times, and currently ranks 8th, has its own culinary laboratory where Ms. Arzak and team create new dishes, try new flavors, and investigate products and techniques. “We need to change our presentation and our way of serving because we don’t always want to do the same things,” she explained, adding, “Arzak takes everything very seriously.” On the first day of Madrid Fusión, that meant celebrating 25 years with three Michelin stars, and a focus on something called La Cocina Frondosa, or “the leafy kitchen,” the practice of cooking and presenting dishes in leaves per traditions all around the world. Lemongrass leaves, bamboo leaves, and huge, dried lotus leaves all made appearances, but other vegetables were also prepared and cut with molds to resemble leaves.