Created four years ago by Spanish food critic José Carlos Capel of El País newspaper, Madrid Fusión has become the final word in gastronomic gatherings. Each year the conference takes a new theme, and this year it set out to showcase the cuisine that has emerged from the USA over the last couple of decades - recognising chefs, food and wine critics, and members of the publishing world.
Among the US cooks, Charlie Trotter (Trotter's) and Thomas Keller (the French Laundry, Per Se) were cast as the youngest elder statesmen imaginable. For the even younger whippersnappers, Wylie Dufresne (WD-50), Homaro Cantu (Moto), Josh DeChellis (Sumile) and Ken Oringer (Clio) whipped and snapped admirably.
The Spanish cast was no less impressive: Ferran Adrià (El Bulli), Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena (Arzak), José Andrés (Minibar), Martin Berasategui (Berasategui), and Andoni Luis Adúriz (Mugaritz) all gave demonstrations exhibiting new or unusual techniques, approaches, ingredients or equipment.
A schism still runs through the cuisine of Spain. With such a history and wealth of traditional foods, and such a fierce and revolutionary creativity, the chefs still seem compelled to do both the past and future simultaneously. It makes for a sometimes precarious balance and only a few have found a vibrant centre ground.
If Jordi Herrera took to the stage to demonstrate a "latest generation griddle" (an iron maiden-type device which impales and punctures the meat with a dozen red hot spikes), then Joan Roca brought a prototype of a distillation machine for extracting vapours.
Where on one side Dani Garcia showed the benefits of deep-frying a whole baby turbot in olive oil - steaming the internal flesh rather than frying it - which he served with a confit of Iberico pig snout, then by contrast young chef Quique Dacosta gave a remarkable demonstration of his avant-garde use of aloe vera and silver powder - a dish of glazed "Guggenheim Bilbao oysters" shimmering on a bed of barnacle stock, aloe vera, agar agar and powdered silver, reduced into a sauce, with wisps of aloe vera silver leaf as a garnish. It was a challenging and beautiful dish.
Many of the presentations were eagerly anticipated, but none more so by the visiting Americans than that given by Adúriz, who made his British public debut last October at Caterer's Chef Conference, demonstrating his revolutionary method of extracting natural gelatine from cod. His restaurant, Mugaritz in the San Sebastian area, has just won its second Michelin star.
The three-Michelin-starred chefs of Spain also made their presence felt, including the grandfather of modern Spanish cooking, Arzak. Together with his daughter Elena, he gave a demonstration of their recent work with beeswax, using it in ice-cream and a powder to accompany a "milk pastry" dessert. They also showed the delegates a remarkable monkfish dish which used parts of the fish usually discarded. The spine, for instance, is frozen, then sliced, paper-thin, and fried to make a crisp garnish. The liver is incorporated into a paste to spread over the monkfish fillets. The skin is simmered until it breaks down (in a similar way to a pig's trotter) then covered in breadcrumbs and, like the spine, fried. Even the marrow is extracted from the fish's spine and served as an accompaniment.
If Arzak is the grandfather of Spanish cuisine, then Adrià - appearing at his fourth Madrid Fusión - showed everyone who the daddy is. Presenting a manifesto of 23 points, he expressed a desire to start a debate on the nature of the new-style cuisine of which he is the acknowledged standard bearer - the "first evolution after nouvelle cuisine", as he put it.
Neither he nor Arzak knew what to call this new style, but Adrià presented the manifesto "just for us to talk about". He added: "The way we work, I call it Kleenex creativity. You use it and throw it away." Adrià outlined the complete history of El Bulli's use of different caramels, from the earliest croquants, incorporating artichoke slivers or green tea, to candied quail yolks, up to the present day, discovering sweetener isomalt through his friend Arzak and other compounds to create different effects in food. "In the 1980s we just spoke about taste. Now we talk about the senses," he said. "Maybe one day people will come to my restaurant not for nourishment, but for an intellectual experience." Some would argue they already do.
The Americans once might have felt they were drifting behind Europe in both avant-garde and classical styles of cooking, but the emergence over the last few years of Chicago, California and New York as culinary centres of note has left chefs around the world watching to see what will happen next. Madrid showed that advances in American cuisine have not only been technical, but conceptual as well.
The first American chef to cause a real stir was softly spoken Homaru Cantu, from restaurant Moto in Chicago. If modern Spanish cuisine depends on high chemistry, Cantu was clearly more interested in high physics. "You know, we're just like any other restaurant. We depend on using only the best ingredients, pay attention to the small details… oh yeah, and we use a sealed Class 4 industrial laser," he pronounced, going on to demonstrate a magic show of new dishes, processes and equipment.
Cantu, whose father was an aerospace engineer, holds the patent on several new devices, including what he called a "food replicator". This turned out to be a machine into which he fed a digital photo of a given food - he demonstrated with popcorn - fed a few pieces of the popcorn into the gadget as well, and printed sheets of edible paper with the image and flavour of the popcorn. Both Arzak and Adrià were keen observers of Cantu's demonstration - and Adrià was planning a trip to Chicago to see the methods in practice.
Cantu trained under Trotter for four years, so it was interesting to see what his old boss would bring to Madrid Fusión. Trotter hit the food world's consciousness 15 years ago, but he was anxious to show delegates his own process of evolution. During his demonstration he remade several dishes from that book, first in their original form, and then with exactly the same ingredients, but with more modern flavour profiles and techniques.
Regular readers of Caterer were introduced to New York's molecular-leaning Wylie Dufresne last year and his continued pushing of the boundaries is watched closely at his appearances in Madrid. He demonstrated a very Spanish "tomato sherbet", olive oil powder and toast (a traditional Madrid tapas is toasted bread smeared with garlic, oil and crushed tomato), as well as a "fried egg" of carrot purée and coconut using potassium chloride to hold the purées together.
Opportunity The big-ticket US name of the event was undoubtedly recent three-Michelin-star recipient Thomas Keller. "I'm a really true believer in the universal mind - that many people are thinking about the same things at the same time," he said. "To be able to share ideas, to share techniques, opens up a whole new opportunity for everybody."
Clearly that sentiment is echoed at Madrid Fusión. In less than half a decade it has established itself as the dominant international event for classical and avant-garde cuisine. At the conference the lowest can mingle with the highest, ideas abound, and there's a palpable excitement in delegates' and participants' reactions to the culinary ideas and techniques being demonstrated.
Its failings are small ones: a few rough translations, a little shaky camera work. Get out there and book yourself into next year's event.
Chefs to watch
- Andoni Luis Adúriz (Mugaritz) Widely considered a genius and future member of the three-star club. Uses interesting flora and fauna in his cooking.
- Joan Roca (El Celler de Can Roca) Leading member of the avant-garde, pedagogue and author of internationally acclaimed tome on sous-vide cookery.
- Quique Dacosta Emerging from the small town of Denia on the Mediterranean. Still young, but altering the already-outrageous Spanish rule book of fish cookery.
- Juan Antonio Zaldúa (Baserri Maitea) Basque specialist of extraordinary grilled meats, mixed with modern Spanish temperament.
- Homaro Cantu (Moto) Mad rocket scientist meets mad chef with a classical background. Deeply inventive tasting menu of delicious food.
- Josh DeChellis (Sumile) Deeply into unusual ingredients, served with a Japanese monk-style aesthetic. Check out his seared, blackened toro, sealed by pastry and slow-roasted with pine branches and bonito broth.
- Ken Oringer (Clio) In a dark town for food - Boston - Clio is burning very brightly indeed. French-Asian combinations and cooking styles considered among the most original in America.
- Wylie Dufresne (WD-50) Hippest chef of the downtown New York scene, serves bizarre but always exceptional modern fare in diner-esque surroundings.
Ten most influential chefs over the last decade, voted for by members of the food and wine press attending the show.
- Ferran Adrià
- Alain Ducasse
- Heston Blumenthal
- Juan Mari Arzak
- Michel Bras
- Pierre Gagnaire
- Nobu Matsuhisa
- Charlie Trotter
- Thomas Keller
- Tetsuya Wakuda