Madrid Fusión Day 1: Great Spanish Chefs, Korean Condiments, And Artisanal Cava

The theme of this year's edition of Madrid Fusión, the 11th annual incarnation of this culinary extravaganza, which began today, Jan. 21, is "La Creatividad Continua" — The Creativity Continues. This may not have been the intention of the event's organizers, but for anyone who follows the Spanish food scene, this slogan probably suggests a coda: "...after Ferran." ElBulli has been gone for a year and a half now as a restaurant and Ferran Adrià, who was the star not just of most earlier editions of Madrid Fusión but of Spanish — hell, international — gastronomy, no longer comes here. But there are obviously plenty of other world-class chefs to take his place. This year's assortment of Spanish stars includes Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter, Elena, as well as Albert Adrià (Ferran's brother, increasingly seem as his successor as a restaurateur, through his efforts at the soon-to-expand 41º in Barcelona), Quique Dacosta (Spain's newest three-star chef), Dani Garcia, Pedro Subijana, Joan and Jordi Roca, Martín Berasategui, Andoni Luís Aduriz, and Sergi Arola. And that's just the Spaniards. Among others, France is represented by Pierre Hermé and Pascal Barbot, Russia by Anatoly Komm (who brought "molecular gastronomy" to Moscow), the U.S. by George Mendes of Aldea in New York City, and Brazil by Alex Atala (whose D.O.M. in São Paulo was named the fourth best restaurant in the world this year by Restaurant Magazine) and a host of young chefs from Minas Gerais.

The bad news is that this year Madrid Fusión has moved away from its usual home — the Palacio de los Congresos, which is undergoing renovations and safety code upgrades — to one of the Madrid Feria pavilions a few blocks away. The Palacio was as warm and manageable as a large exhibition-and-lecture space can be; the Feria pavilion is cold, unfriendly in design, and just generally pretty soulless — despite the warmth of many of the people selling their wares or demonstrating their talents within.

Madrid Fusión is part trade show, part gastronomic seminar program, part cooking demonstration series, part competition. There are always a number of those strange panel judgings where a distinguished group of chefs and other food experts sit behind a table on a stage and taste things that the audience doesn't get to sample, then make various pronouncements on their quality. I watched Pedro Subijana help judge a "cheese-based tapas" competition and Martín Berasategui weigh in on a one for "bocadillos de autor," which might be loosely translated as "creative sandwiches." I also went to hear Quique Dacosta — whose eponymous restaurant in Dénia, near Alicante, is one of the most original eating places in Spain today, simultaneously tradition-based and avant-garde — speak on "Mediterranean Flavour." Or so I thought. One of the important sponsors of Madrid Fusión is Sempio Foods of Seoul, and specifically their line of Jang condiments (soy sauce, soy-and-chile sauce, soy paste, chile paste, etc.), and Dacosta's session turned out to be basically an infomercial for the line, praising the versatility of the condiments and their harmony with Mediterranean flavors. An accompanying video featured the Roca brothers, Albert Adrià, and Korean-Belgian chef Sang-Hoon Degeimbre also touting the products.

More interesting by far was the demonstration given by David Muñoz, whose DiverXo is the hottest restaurant in Madrid right now. A young, slender man with a landing-strip haircut ending in a small braid and a bone through one of his ears, Muñoz was intense and deft as he showed one delicious looking plate after another — white asparagus caramelized in brown butter and covered with sheep's milk skin as an accompaniment to little rounds of rare hare loin; wild boar neck with fondant potatoes, pa amb tomáquet (the Catalan classic of grilled bread rubbed with tomato) as the base for a dessert of raspberries and strawberries...

Out in the exhibition hall there are stands devoted to everything from Alaskan seafood to Parmigiano-Reggiano to various specialties from Columbia, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil, as well as all the usual Spanish wines, hams, cheeses, and more. Among my discoveries this year: the exquisite, beautifully packaged, terrifyingly expensive canned Galician seafood specialties (tuna, sardines, mussels, cuttlefish, baby clams, anchovies, and more) from Cuca; the acorn-fed Guijuelo Ibérico ham from Arturo Sánchez, made from pigs that have had two seasons of feeding on acorns instead of the usual one, giving their cured meat a particularly round, sweet flavor; a lovely dry malvasia "volánica" from Bodega Stratus on the Canary Island of Lanzarote; and the cavas of a small Catalan producer (5,000 cases a year) called Rimarts — specifically a wonderfully lean, crisp brut nature made from the classic cava grapes (macabeu, xarel-lo, and parellada), a creamy reserva especial that's 100 percent chardonnay, and a real curiosity called Rosae, 100 percent pinot noir but smoked (yes, smoked) in collaboration with Carpier, one of Spain's leading producers of smoked fish. This is really a wacky wine, unexpected, hard to get a handle on — "very gastronomic" in the words of Rimarts proprietor Ricard Martínez — but if it reaches the U.S. (and I heard Martínez talking to an importer who was genuinely interested), I predict it will be a hit.

Much more to try tomorrow (including a couple of Catalan caviars, if I can pry any loose from the guardians of their stands), and some programs and demonstrations that I hope won't make me feel as if I'm watching QVC.