The Apic Base unit stage left in the main auditorium throughout Madrid Fusión has been its culinary candle, compelling gastronomic journalists to gather with cameras like foodie moths to a modernist flame. Slightly more than a foot wide and almost four feet high, the Apic is an open-air lightbox for food photography. Chefs’ dishes are placed inside under bright light, photographed automatically, and uploaded to the Cloud. Attendees crowd in, in varying numbers depending on the chef and the dish, but at no point in the last two days have more gathered around than after Xiaoyan Zhou’s art of fine cutting Huaiyang-style demo.
“We slice tofu so thin we can place it over a newspaper and still read through it,” chef Zhou claimed. “This is proof of our mastery.” Using a Chinese cleaver, Zhou (a professor at the University of Yangzhou) demonstrated the Suoyi (orchid) cut, slicing a long, thin, green vegetable all the way across without cutting it through, flipping it, repeating the process, then gently pulling it apart to show it looking like a latticed ladder. When placed in the Apic, this vegetable slinky drew nearly 40 photographers taking their own shots (check out all Madrid Fusión Apic Base photos here).
That technique took one of Zhou's allotted 20 minutes, and was the only one he demonstrated, which was a shame — but, then, if the two other techniques that flashed by quickly in video form had been demonstrated live, people may have rioted out of sheer excitement. In one, the chef deboned a fish but left it whole. “Our style of cutting is such that we present the fish whole to guests, totally deboned and completely retained, and when they finish eating they realize, ‘There were no bones!’” In the other, he prepared “three-nested duck,” for which three ducks of different sizes were deboned, intact, then stuffed one inside the other. Ta-da: Chinese turducken. (Duckduckducken?)
The technique theme continued through two presentations. Paco Morales, representing his recently opened Noor in Córdoba with a program he called "La Huella Andalusi en La Alta Cocina" — The Andalusian Footprint in Haute Cuisine — plated three dishes influenced by Arabic cuisine. Lamb wrapped in leaves and baked in sand was arranged with falafel, yogurt, and dots of garlic purée inside a shallow, handcrafted bowl detailed with Arabic geometric patterns in a way that interwove the food with the dish’s pattern. Then Andreu Genestra, from his eponymous Mallorca restaurant, demonstrated caldo de piedra, "stone soup," the first of two references to this traditional Latin American technique of the day (the second was from Joan Roca). He demonstrated the technique he does tableside of cooking a shellfish broth by pouring it over an extremely hot treated volcanic stone from Helsinki placed in the bowl’s center.
Chef Corey Lee of Benu in San Francisco framed his presentation around a day he spent on the volcanic island of Jeju off the Southern coast of Korea while researching his cookbook, but it was also an explanation of his creative process. “We have to actively pursue experiences that inspire us,” he said. “There are times when it happens accidentally, and those are gifts. More often than not, you have to carve out time in a very disciplined way to inform your cooking.”
For Lee, a recent source of inspiration has been the Haenyo of Jeju – women in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s (the oldest was 87) who carry on a dying, centuries-old tradition of free-diving for seafood to provide for their families. The normally private and camera-wary women (he gained access through a photographer friendly with them) inspired three dishes, which Lee categorized by tradition, memory, and habitat. The first was inspired by a catch-of-the-day soup, a fading Jeju tradition made with abalone, sea snails, octopus, and seaweed and thickened with buckwheat cultivated there. “When I travel somewhere as a chef, it’s important for me to get an understanding of tradition,” he added. “Without reference points, cooking is not as meaningful.” His interpretation was a radish-based, roasted buckwheat-infused broth served with abalone from Monterrey, Calif., spot prawns, sea cucumber, geoduck, uni, buckwheat groats, and thinly-sliced radishes.“We have to actively pursue experiences that inspire us,” said chef Corey Lee. “There are times when it happens accidentally, and those are gifts. More often than not, you have to carve out time in a very disciplined way to inform your cooking.”
“My memory of being on the island was of eating something that had just been alive, of harvesting it and cooking it then and there,” Lee explained about his second dish. “I wanted to serve something that was alive, but only possible to serve if it had just been alive. Rarely do you eat fresh jellyfish, but when you do it’s an entirely different experience. It’s very soft, like aloe vera or long-cooked beef cartilage — wobbly. Also, it deteriorates within hours of being killed because it’s 95 percent water. It has great ocean flavor, but it loses that water and body soon after you kill it. You have to have it alive, kill it, and serve it.”
Lee sources Monterey moon jellyfish and serves the middle jelly (what’s left after underarms are removed and the top and bottom is scraped off) in a beef consommé whose flavor echoes the beef cartilage texture the jellyfish resembles. The final dish (inspired by habitat), featured grilled octopus, seaweed, and a seaweed-based broth, and used a yeast rice cake to visually mimic Jeju’s hexagonal, volcanic coastal rock.
An interesting thing at Madrid Fusión 2015 is the baton-passing forward for Madrid Fusión Manila (April 24th through 26th), the first Madrid Fusión to be held in Asia (there has been an annual Madrid Fusión México since 2010). A booth is serving Filipino bites, and last night’s journalist event at Ramses had a Filipino theme to drum up interest). Elena Arzak (Arzak, San Sebastián), Andoni Luiz Aduriz (Mugaritz, Rentería), Paco Roncero (Estado Puro, Madrid), Paco Torreblanca (Torreblanca, Alicante), Francis Paniego (Echaurren, Ezcaray), and Ramón Freixa (Restaurante Ramón Freixa, Madrid) were announced as the lineup of Spanish chefs attending in the Philippines.