Courtesy of Madrid Fusión
Alex Atala works with anthropologist and native Brazilian communities to learn about indigenous ingredients that he then uses in his São Paulo restaurant, D.O.M.—named 4th on the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
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Madrid Fusión Focuses Beyond Technology

Anne McBride / February 4th, 2013

The 11th edition of Madrid Fusión, which took place January 21-23, focused less on dazzling with technique and more on expressing sensitivity to one’s physical and cultural environment. It can be safely assumed that immersion circulators, rotary evaporators, and other modern technologies are very much part of the everyday repertoire of the chefs featured, and that for most of them, “creativity continues”—this year’s theme—beyond technology, especially in times that call for responsible economic and sustainable decision-making.

“We have to be more sensitive about what we eat,” said Lorenzo Cogo of Italy’s El Coq, describing his food as a different type of avant-garde and stressing that chefs control the well-being of diners from the kitchen. “We can perhaps be less technical, and more responsible to our diners’, and our, health.”

Some of the conference’s most memorable moments came from first-time presenters. Heinz Reitbauer of Austria’s Steirereck perhaps best captured this year’s ethos: In a demonstration that focused around fish from the mountain lakes and rivers of Austria, he used beeswax melted to 75°C (167°F) to cook saibling, encasing the fish in a mold that delicately perfumes it—a “technological” revelation for most in the audience, well rooted in nature. The Swiss Stefan Wiesner, of Gasthof Rössli, arrived on stage with a chain saw and started by chopping wood to make a mold for his dish, while Poland’s Wojciech Modest Amaro explained how he works with a “calendar of nature” divided, not into four seasons, but into 52 weeks. At the beginning of each week, he and his team write down all of the ingredients available in eight areas (meadow, mountain, farm, river, field, forest, lake, sea), which become their pantry; the 39th week of 2012 yielded 538 different ingredients.

Madrid Fusión is first and foremost a celebration of Spain’s gastronomy as the best in the world and an embrace of its most acclaimed homegrown chefs, who show their appreciation with their yearly participation no matter what—Dani García flew in from New York City just for the conference, with his American restaurant slated to open shortly after. Awards are fervently distributed, including this year to 14 Spanish chefs—including José Andrés, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, and Martín Berasategui—for “exporting Spain” with their restaurants abroad. But it's not a chauvinistic gathering, as it showcases talent and cuisines from all over the world with matched enthusiasm, both with the official invited country (this year, the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil) and presenters from lands as diverse as Colombia and Russia.

Heritage and the geography of the region very much influence the cooking of the young chefs from Minas Gerais. Rafael Cardoso of Atlántico, inspired by the common fare of the region’s miners, gilded pork with gold leaves and buried it in cocoa powder to mimic digging for gold. The Brazilian star, however, was unquestionably Alex Atala of D.O.M. in São Paulo, who received the most applause of any presenter at the conference after giving a passionate ode to his country’s indigenous ingredients, including coconut, manioc, wild vanilla, and an uncommonly tart honey from wild bees. “My everyday mise en place starts with natives, with small-scale farmers,” said Atala, who collaborates with anthropologists in his exhaustive research of traditional Brazilian ingredients and techniques, as a humble summary of his creative process.

While the general tone was upbeat and the energy vibrant, the effects of Spain’s economic crisis were perceptible in the presentations of some of the country’s top chefs. Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz, Quique Dacosta of the eponymous restaurant, and David Muñoz of DiverXO—probably Madrid’s most talked about restaurant—all stressed the need to continue to innovate and be entrepreneurial in difficult times. Aduriz demonstrated a line of canned spray products that he developed in association with AZTI-Tecnalia, stressing the need for collaboration and practicality, while Muñoz’s staff set 10 tables and artifacts from the restaurant’s dining room on stage, allowing the chef to showcase a 10 course tasting menu in his allocated 30 minutes in a conference highlight.

The lone American presenter, George Mendes of Aldea in New York City, showcased dishes influenced by his Portuguese heritage, including a petisco, or Portuguese tapa—the food of Lisbon’s beer parlors—of cream of cauliflower and sea urchin spread on a thin slice of baguette, topped with wasabi, soy sauce, and shiso in a nod to his passion for Japanese cuisine.

As their profession continues to evolve, shaped by external factors as much as their own creative impulses, the presenting chefs ultimately shared a simple message: Keep learning, looking back as much as forward, and creativity will carry on.