The conference season for chefs took the culinary stars from Spain to Italy last week, as Madrid Fusión gave way to Identita Golose. Sybil Kapoor was there.
Any normal hard-working chef could be excused for thinking that the life of super-chefs is just one long party as they jet around the world from one international conference to another. Last week, Identita Golose in Milan opened its doors, just a week after Madrid Fusión. Identita Golose is smaller and more intimate than Madrid - you not only get a chance to see leading chefs from around the world (such as Massimiliano Alajmo, Massimo Bottura, Alain Ducasse and Daniel Patterson), but you can also taste some of the food they're demonstrating, enjoy lively discussions, drink lots and play subbuteo! Could one ask for more?
Identita Golose was founded six years ago by Paolo Marchi, one of Italy's most famous food writers. "I wanted to create an event where chefs could really exchange ideas and develop their cooking," he explains, adding that until recently Italian chefs were very protective of their innovations and tended to squabble publicly about which culinary methods were the best.
"It's not just that each region believes passionately that it is better than others; it is that every town has its own peculiarities in how something is prepared," he says. Marchi feels that ultimately such attitudes were detrimental to the image of Italian food. "In France, chefs represent French cooking to the rest of the world, in much the same way as a beautiful model sells clothes" he says. "If they quarrel, they do it privately."
After attending Madrid Fusión seven years ago, Marchi realised that a similar event in Milan would allow Italian chefs to share ideas and techniques. Identita Golose was born, and over the past six years he has mixed the best Italian chefs with great chefs from around the world - including Pierre Hermé, Rene Redzepi, Ferran Adriá and Heston Blumenthal - as well as rising stars such as Paco Morales from Hotel Ferrero in Spain. Such is the success of Identita Golose in Italy, that after a trial run in London last year, Marchi and his business associate, Claudio Ceroni, have decided to hold an annual Identita London as well. It will take place on 7 and 8 June this year.
The Milan conference runs for three days. Its theme this year was "The Luxury of Simplicity" - although, as with all cheffy meetings, there were diverse interpretations of simplicity. They ranged from Salvatore Tassa's herring cooked on herbs (literally) to Swiss two-Michelin-starred Denis Martin's bizarre dishes such as his empty bowl accompanied by a silver spoon thinly coated in a transparent film of dill and basil flavoured jelly. But that is half the fun: you're there to be challenged.
The main auditorium had a succession of famous chefs who explained their philosophies as they demonstrated dishes. Well-known Italian food writers introduced them and quizzed them on various aspects of their talk before tasting the final product. Visitors wishing to tackle more practical aspects of cooking could go to a smaller room where workshops were being conducted by well-known chefs with an accompanying expert such as a top butcher in a meat class. Subjects ranged from cooking with wonderful oils such as pistachio and pine nut to exploring the new boundaries of modern pastry making with Frederic Bau (Ecole du Grand Chocolat Valrhona). Questions were asked and food tasted.
This is a meeting that has philosophy and emotion at its heart. Culinary techniques are seen as a means to express these twin values. Thus, when two-Michelin-starred Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana) walked on to the stage to rapturous applause, it seemed perfectly natural that he should expound his "evolution not revolution" approach to cooking. "When we're cooking, we should not get lost in daily problems," he says. "Instead we should try to evolve and spend time researching both products and ideas. The importance of research is often not understood because you don't see the effect initially."
As he demonstrates his fish dish of sardines he explains: "As chefs we're here to create emotions. When I see sardines I feel the deep sea, but they're too strong for my cuisine, which is more delicate." So water is run over the sardines, kept and distilled to make a stock, while the filleted sardine flesh is brushed with some sea urchin purée, topped with a little candied lemon and a mustard leaf before being folded and topped with a small sheet of light vinegar jelly. The raw fish is then placed in a shallow soup bowl, very hot sardine broth is added and the fish cooks as it is taken to the table.
Bottura went on to expound his theories of art and cooking; space, time and movement. He uses symbolism in his food, such as serving tongue (cooked with a seasoning of burnt coal - think meteorite hits the earth) with five different sauces - representing language and culture - from around the world. Finally he urges young chefs to "look inside yourselves and study what you are most interested in as this might one day develop into a passion, travel the world and learn from others, but never forget who you are and where you come from".
One of the highlights of the show was Alain Ducasse with Franck Cerutti (Louis XV in Monte Carlo). Ducasse was quizzed on his views on "the controversies over molecular cuisine", but refused to be drawn. He also came in for a hard time on the size of his culinary empire: "I am criticised for being an entrepreneur but any restaurant is an enterprise. You have to employ people. Our industry is to make sure that customers get the highest quality of food. I don't sell shoes, I cook every day, write books, train chefs and develop ideas".
Ducasse also revealed how much he enjoyed drawing on local produce and traditions in each of his restaurants, whether it was in London or Tokyo.
The future of haute cuisine was discussed over the entire event. Ducasse felt that chefs had an important role in helping to save the environment by cooking less animal meat and using local produce. "This is a good time to re-establish local roots and local tastes in our food" he says. Italian three-Michelin-starred Massimiliano Alajmo with his brother Raffaele (Le Calandre) took this idea one step further when they described how they had adopted their culinary approach of seeking out the best suppliers and producers to the restaurant itself. Out had gone formal tablecloths and in had come sensual, hand-crafted wooden tables and hand-made glasses. The restaurant was seen as a physical reflection of the food, which the audience readily appreciated as they munched Alajmo's lighter-than-air vanilla and olive oil millefeuilles. No unhealthy cream here!
Carlo Petrini, the influential founder of the Slow Food Movement, made a surprise guest appearance and gave an impassioned speech against cultural complacency. He urged chefs across the world to support local artisans and their rural economies. To illustrate the seriousness of the situation he said that "in Italy, the government's food policy is undermining small farmers, so that now only 3% of the population are farmers - and of those, 20% of are over 60 years old".
Naturally, such conversations spilled over into the evening. Over a lively Identita dinner at Hotel Bulgari, Daniel Patterson, chef-owner of two-Michelin-starred Coi in San Fransico gave an interesting take on how he saw haute cuisine developing across the world. He felt that the future of food lay in location and ingredients.
"I will design a dish around the taste of local carrots, for example, and you won't be able to taste the same anywhere else in the world," he said. (His carrots are cooked with local hay and served with a hay broth, before being topped with alfalfa, clover and radish shoots.) He felt that once all the new "molecular" techniques had become widespread they would create a uniformity of style, so chefs would be able to pick and choose a few techniques that define their cooking. To illustrate his point, he explained that he had now stopped using all forms of jellifying agents, apart from agar agar. As a result, he has found that it takes greater effort and sensitivity to get the correct texture in certain sauces, but that his food now tasted more intense.
As you can imagine, much coffee was needed to keep all the delegates up to speed. The Lavazza bar was particularly well attended, and, being (allegedly) staffed by male models, it kept many entertained while they waited for their espresso. However, the demonstration by two-Michelin-starred Hong Kong-based chef Alvin Leung certainly woke up any dozy delegates. Self-taught and the creator of what he terms X-treme Chinese food, he wittily illustrated how he fused Chinese ingredients and culinary philosophy to molecular techniques.
Leung finished by suggesting that now that chefs had become celebrities and were flown business class rather than economy, they ought to do a lot more for charity. "I've specially created my next dish to raise money for Aids in Asia," he added. "It'll be on the menu on Valentine's Day. It's call Sex on the Beach and it is cooked in the molecular reality style." The plate was sprinkled with powdered shiitake mushroom and sugar sand, before an edible condom (made by setting pink jelling agent around a cigar tube) was partially filled with an emulsion of ham stock and honey and arranged on the plate. Much of the audience was stunned. It wasn't quite what they were expecting - but that's chefs and food for you - fun!
If you'd like to see Alvin Leung's X-treme Chinese interpretation of The Luxury of Simplicity or hear Massimo Bottura's views on how chefs should approach cooking, then you can see them at Identita London on 7 and 8 June. The conference will be smaller and more intimate than its Milanese cousin, allowing for greater audience participation and, of course, gossip - or social networking.
Other chefs booked to appear include Daniel Patterson from California, the ebullient one-Michelin-starred Sat Bains and rising Italian star (two-Michelin-starred) Gennaro Esposito from Torre del Saracino. For further information visit www.identitalondon.com.