"Madrid Fusión is so chefs can come and tell you what they're doing, and how, and why," proposed Joan Roca — chef and co-owner of El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, currently classed as the world's best restaurant by the San Pellegrino/Restaurant Magazine gang — and while that's an incomplete definition of the scope of this big annual gastronomic conference and exhibition, it does get to the heart of why a lot of people come.
The theme of this, Madrid Fusión's 12th annual edition, is "Comer en la Ciudad: La inspiración está en la calle" (Eating in the City: The inspiration is in the streets"), which would seem to suggest a celebration of street food — though curiously two of the first programs on opening day were called "When the city looks to the country," with the subtitle "Gardens in the metropolis" and had nothing whatever to do with street food: one with Pascal Barbot of the Michelin three-star Parisian haute-bistro L'Astrance and Asafumi Yamashita, whose Le Kolo in the Paris suburb of Yvelines, is actually located on a small vegetable farm; the other with Eneko Atxa, the Basque chef whose Azurmendi, in Larrabetzu, near Bilbao, has also been thrice garlanded by Michelin. Demonstrating a dish of lobster dressed with a sort of mayonnaise made with a species of miniature chard that can be eaten raw, he noted that at Azurmendi, he doesn't want customers to just sit at the table, eat, and then leave, so he encourages them to walk around his herb and vegetable garden, visit his scientific center, and so on.
Before Atxa and Barbot and Yamashita (and the Belgian chef Gert de Mangeleer), the first presentation in the main auditorium in Madrid's Palacio Municipal de Congresos — where everybody is very happy to find themselves this year, after last year's unpleasant detour into one of the cold and cavernous Feria de Madrid convention halls nearby (the Palacio was undergoing structural repairs) — was Turkey's most famous chef, Mehmet Gürs. He spoke winningly of his efforts to rediscover, revivify, and modernize (at least a little) traditional Anatolian cuisine at his Mikla in Istanbul, and revealed that to help him in this mission, he employs a fulltime anthropologist, which might be a restaurant first.
Joan Roca's program went off into the countryside, too. "Sometimes when we tell our mother what we're doing," he said, "she gets very…ironic. As when we told her that we wanted to investigate what I call our green environment. Our grandmother cooked and ate many local plants. Our mother knows some of them, but we're trying to rediscover all that we can — herbs, flowers, leaves, roots. We have identified 300 such elements, and are beginning to learn how to use them."
Noting that the region of Girona is home to "many invasive species [of plants] that are modifying our landscape," Roca says that while the Spanish government has programs to eliminate them,"We want to see how we can eat them." One example is the prickly pear cactus, which covers whole hillsides overlooking the Mediterranean in the area. He freeze-dries the roots and thinly slices them into a base for a sorbet made from the cactus pears. He showed such other creations as a purée of wild wood-smoked chestnuts, formed into a kind of "carpet," which became a backdrop for smoke eel; salt-cured mackerel belly with wild pepper; and baby octopus poached with onions and with sorrel leaves and flowers. "Cuisine is the landscape in a cooking pot," he says, quoting the Catalan author Josep Pla.
The next act up, Dylan Jones and Duangporn "Bo" Songvisava of Bo.Lan in Bangkok, couldn't have been further from Roca's technologically savvy, frequently tweezered cuisine. The couple, who met while working at David Thompson's now-defunct Michelin-starred Nahm in London and joined up with the idea of opening "the best restaurant in Bangkok," demonstrated a simple dish of raw vegetables with the chile relish called nam prik. Simple but, well, multi-faceted. Working with an oversize stone mortar and pestle while Songvisava narrated, Jones made a paste of salt, coriander root, red chiles, garlic, dried prawns, tiny smoked and dried fish, shrimp paste, boiled jackfruit, and grilled tomatoes.
Along the way, he offered mortar-and-pestle tips: Work the pestle in a steady motion that crushes ingredients against the side of the mortar as well as the bottom; if the process makes too much noise, you're not doing it right; and, at least with Thai chile pastes, smell the tip of the pestle to decide when it's time to add the next ingredient. Once the paste was (apparently) finished, Songvisava fried it in pork fat, while Jones added, in succession, shreds of banana leaf, minced pork, coconut sugar, fish sauce, tamarind, garlic deep-fried with its skins ("That's how we do it in Thailand," she said), and kaffir lime zest. Then they dished up a big scoop of it next to an arrangement of vegetables — "Not what we get in Thailand, but good Spanish vegetables," including leeks, mushrooms, asparagus, and cucumber — and scattered pork cracklings over the top. In closing, Jones spoke of the quality of the ingredients used at Bo.Lan, and — again in seeming contrast to the stated theme of Madrid Fusión — seemed to diss street food a little, maintaining that "It may taste very good, but it's often bad for the environment, because it uses mass-produced ingredients and you don't know where it comes from."
America's own José Andrés (he recently became a U.S. citizen) fairly bounded onto the stage, with a "You don't know how wonderful it is to be here!" for a presentation called "The Apogee of Bars: Businesses in Haute Cuisine," which was basically a brief history of minibar, his avant-garde Washington D.C. establishment, which he called "the heart of our operation" (of 15 restaurants nationwide). "I want to dedicate this session to Ferran and Albert Adrià," he began. "I wouldn't be anything if I hadn't met them 25 years ago. I tell Ferran, don't give me anything for my birthday. You have already given me so much."
He showed images of some of his better-known creations for minibar, including slices of jamón ibérico wrapped around spoonfuls of caviar ("Is this creative cuisine or not? No. Or maybe yes. I don't know") and his deconstructed Philly cheesesteak. (This is lighter-than-ether "air bread" filled with cheddar cheese sauce, with a piece of rare Kobe beef draped over it.) "Dishes that we create for minibar often go on to other restaurants of ours, where they cost less. We sent the Philly cheesesteak of Bazaar in L.A., and now we make 70 thousand of them a year. We have three people fulltime who do nothing but make Philly cheesesteak."
Then Andrés screened a curious video about minibar, starring a woman named Kim. "I apologize in advance for this," he said, apparently referring to the fact that the video begins with the attractive young lady taking a bubble bath and dressing before heading off to dine you know where. Scenes of Kim and an unidentified gentleman enjoying various treats at minibar (their silent expressions of surprise and enjoyment echo those of Bob and Antonella Noto, elBulli's steadiest customers, in a film Adrià had made of them dining at his restaurant) are intercut with process shots of such dishes as dumplings with cotton-candy "dough," spherified mojitos, and sea urchin roe mixed with dashi, kombu, tapioca, and soy sauce, blended, frozen, then shaved into petals. Someone asks what it costs to dine at minibar, and Andrés replies "$250 for about 30 courses" — adding that there are 22 employees for a restaurant that only serves 24 people a night. "If every restaurant were like this one, there would be no unemployment in the world," he said. Then he joked "I would love to go out with Kim, but as you know, I'm married, so I can't." The video ends with Kim and her date riding off in a taxi. The taxi driver turns around and says "That place is incredible. Did you have a nice dinner?" It is of course José Andrés.
Later in the afternoon, I snuck into one of Madrid Fusión's "Brilliant" workshops (journalists are not allowed, for some reason) to watch Nando Jubany, of the underrated Can Jubany in Calldetenes, near Vic in interior Catalonia, construct a mar i muntanya (sea and mountain) dish of angulas (miniature eels, one of Spain's priciest delicacies) with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, presented in the form of a dark risotto made with roast chicken stock and vi ranci, a Catalan sherry-like fortified wine, and canelons (cannelloni) filled with chicken and topped with béchamel and shaved black truffles. Later, Pedro Subijana of Akelare in San Sebastián, one of the founding fathers (with Juan Mari Arzak) of modern Basque cuisine, rang new changes on that most traditional of Basque ingredients, salt cod. He showed how to confit the fish in tomato water, then separately shredded so-called salt-cod tripe (actually the fish's natatory bladder) very finely and dried it in the oven until it took on the appearance of straw. The confit salt cod was served atop the shredded, dried tripe. "I tell people 'Now you can say you've eaten straw,'" said Subijana.
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