Going beyond avant-garde to discover soul in food

Kathy Moran (The Philippine Star) - February 3, 2016 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines – Cooking over an open fire, exploring the countryside in search of the best ingredients — Madrid Fusion 2016 turned Madrid’s Municipal de Congresos into a showcase of culinary ideas, experiences, innovations, and became a meeting point for chefs around the world.

Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena opened the three-day event, now on its 14th year. “The theme ‘The Post Avant-Garde Language’ will bring together over 100 chefs from 14 countries to discuss new creative paths,” she said.

And so it was.

There was so much to digest at Madrid Fusion 2016, where the world’s best chefs gathered to share — and to learn — from one another just how small the world really is when it comes to preparing cuisine that has become renowned the world over.

Listening to the many presentations made by these rock-star chefs made me ponder one question:

Could it be that post avant-garde cuisine is really preparing cuisine by tracing it back to where it all began?

For chef Virgilio Martinez of Central Restaurante in Lima, Peru (one Michelin star, No.1 with distinction as one of the world’s and Latin America’s 50 best restaurants), who spoke about “Rescantado los Origenes” (Retracing Origins),” it was a journey back to the hinterlands of Peru, where he found what true Peruvian cuisine is about.

The chef found that he had to discover a wide variety of ingredients, much like how the Andean people in pre-Hispanic times discovered them. It was chef Martinez’s curiosity and a desire to trace his roots that led him to where he is now.  “I want to know about all ingredients,” he said in an interview with Philippine media. “We don’t use sugar anymore or we don’t use salt if we don’t know where they come from. So if we want to make something sweet, we mix different fruits to come up with a sweet flavor.”

For the presentation of chef Martinez, which he did together with Mauro Colagreco (Mirazur, France) and Jorge Vallejo (Quintonil, Mexico), who banded together to form Origenes (Origins), the three showed how their cooking is going back to their native culinary roots. They recreated onstage an open fire and smoldering earth as they cooked the natural ingredients they’d discovered in their trips to the hinterlands — cooking the way their ancestors did in the past.

“I like combing our geography; we work with lots of ecosystems so it’s important to move around and not just be in the kitchen,” added Martinez. “I don’t believe a supplier should come to me, but that I should build a relationship with him, his land and products.”

Gallery Vask chef Chele Gonzalez’s presentation on Philippine street food was definitely a moment of pride for Pinoys in the audience. His topic? “Creatividad Española, Inspiracion Filipina.”  He showed a film clip of the trip he made to the Ifugao communities and also to Mindanao in search of ingredients and the best seafood, which he uses for his dishes at Gallery Vask. 

Chef Chele narrated that at the start of his stay in Manila, he would import ingredients from Spain. But that changed as he got to know more about the country and fell in love with the Philippines. It was that love and passion to produce the best cuisine that made him go beyond Metro Manila in search of the best ingredients for his cuisine at Gallery Vask.

In his journeys to different parts of the Philippines, he discovered just how Filipinos prepare their food and how he could use some of these techniques to enhance the food he prepares at his restaurant.

“Our journey has led us to work with local farmers and fishermen,” he says.  Chele describes his cuisine as anthropological, “where history, culture and traditions are translated into flavors wherein we create our own language.”

The world’s No. 1 chef Joan Roca spoke on “Nuestro Universo Intangible,” focusing on the techniques he has been using at his restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in Spain. 

Although the presentation seemed very technical, there was one aspect that caught my attention: Once a week, he shared, they close the restaurant so that he can spend time with his staff and talk about life and the cuisine they serve.

In his presentation, chef Joan shared that the success of his restaurant comes from doing the same things over and over again on a daily basis. These include working together with his staff, who have been with him for years.  He added that success has come because of the values that are instilled at El Celler, which can be traced to his Spanish ancestry.

The fact that he still lives in the same place he has stayed in for a long time has also kept him in touch with his roots, he muses. This is the place where he grew up, so he knows all the people there. The people in the market are still the same people; so too are those he meets on the street daily. They know him and his parents as well.

“The best meal I have had was any one of the meals prepared with love,” said chef Roca in an interview. “The best meals I have prepared have been those prepared for the ones I love.”

I wondered, as I listened, just how I would define “the post avant-garde language” of cuisine?

If this 14th edition of Madrid Fusion 2016 is to be analyzed, then I guess I would find what is beyond avant-garde by going back to basics — where the people who till the land, fish the seas and cook from nature are — and so, too, it is to be found in meals that are richly prepared with the ingredients of passion and love.

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