Get 15 food writers together almost secretively in luxurious surroundings and let them shoot their mouths off for a day-and-a-half about the state of gastronomy over the past two decades in their respective bailiwicks, then ask them to subsequently write and talk about everything that went on… Sounds like a crazy idea. The kind of idea that might be hatched by somebody like, oh, I don't know, maybe Ferran Adrià.
"Today has been one of the most exciting days of my entire career," Adrià said around 7:30 last Saturday evening at his Culinary Conclave at LeDomaine, a luxury hotel in a converted monastery adjacent to the Abadía Retuerta winery in Spain's Ribera del Duero region. The legendary Catalan chef has been known to invoke hyperbole on occasion, but he did indeed seem genuinely pleased. "This is," he reminded us, "the first gastronomic conference I've attended in three years."
The Conclave was conceived by Adrià and his fellow chef Andoni Luis Aduriz — whose two-star Mugaritz in Errenteria (next to San Sebastian) is considered one of the standard-bearers of the post-elBulli Spanish avant-garde, and who also supervises the food at LeDomaine — as "in a way" (according to Adrià) "the first event of the elBulli Foundation." The idea was to invite a small group of journalists from Europe and the Americas to discuss the past 20 years, years that "changed the order and paradigm of gastronomy," according to the invitation to the event.
As it turned out, the event was Anglo-Saxon heavy. British (or U.K.-based) gastronomic writers included Xanthe Clay, Neil Davey, Farhad Heydari, Allan Jenkins, Ryan King (whose home base is Milan), Bill Knott, and Guy Woodward. The U.S. was represented by Lisa Abend, long resident in Madrid but now living in Copenhagen; Howard Chua-Eoan (editor of the controversial Time Magazine "Gods of Food" section); Saveur editor-at-large Sofia Perez; Russian-born writer Anya von Bremzen (who divides her time between Istanbul and New York); and myself. The outliers were Marco Bolasco, from Rome; Ole Troelsø from Copenhagen; and Nina Wessely from Vienna. A Brazilian food critic, Josimar Melo, made it to LeDomaine, but fell ill and spent the weekend in bed. A German gastronomic writer, Jürgen Dollase, originally announced, was unable to attend. No Spanish journalists were invited, because Adrià and Aduriz wanted to get international coverage, not just local press. (The French? "Not one French person answered our invitation," said Adrià. "Some wouldn't even answer their phone.")
Each of the 15 actual participants spoke for about 20 minutes, sometimes on topic, sometimes not, with Ferran taking the floor after each presentation for one of his trademark stream-of-consciousness, non-sequitur-filled, ceaselessly fascinating disquisitions.
Some of the most interesting remarks from the participants had to do with their perceptions of signal events in the development of the restaurant scene in their areas. Marco Bolasco, a veteran of the Slow Food movement and the Gambero Rosso publications and now director of food and wine books for Giunti Editore, cited the surprising impact of the 1985 Piedmont wine scandals, when some producers were found to have adulterated their products with methanol, killing as many as 30 people. "This had the result of changing the way people made wine," he said, "and we had lower consumption but higher quality, and one result of this was that gastronomy flowered. You cannot speak about Italian gastronomy without mentioning wine." Today, he added, the old distinctions between haute cuisine and trattoria cooking were disappearing.
Author and freelance food writer Neil Davey said that to him a key event in the development of gastronomy in the U.K. was Euro 96 — the 1996 European Football [soccer] Championships, held around England. "It was all so efficient, so friendly," he proposed, "that even though we didn't win, it was something we could be very proud of. Suddenly you were allowed to be British. Suddenly you could wave the English flag without people thinking you were a skinhead, or in the National Front." This native pride helped people to accept the validity of British cuisine, he said.
Anya von Bremzen, whose most recent book was a memoir winkingly called Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, posited that "Soviet cuisine was born out of Stalin's mad indsutrialization drive. This created an absolutely modern, almost visionary canning and preserving industry, and industrialized food production."
Nina Wessely, who edits the Austrian food magazine Rolling Pin, pointed to the importance for her country's gastronomy of an Austrian chef, Eckart Witzigmann, having become the first German-speaking chef, and only the third chef outside France, to win three Michelin stars — although it was for his Aubergine restaurant in Munich. Sofia Perez pointed out the significance of the fact that when José Andrés was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2012, it was as an activist, not a chef.
Picking up on a common theme at the conclave, Adrià said "We need to know how gastronomy affects society. When i started cooking in 1980, it was unthinkable that people at a gastronomical conference would talk about anything but food. But we need context." He added, "This event is going to be historic. We have taken part today in the history of gastronomy." Then he added "Maybe next time, we'll do a day-and-a-half of work and a day-and-a-half of party."
(I'll be distilling some of Adrià's remarks and those of some of the presenters into other articles in the next few days.)