Voyage into Creativity, part six
By John Sconzo
My wife and I arrived early at the conference, for a leisurely breakfast and good seats. In fact, we got front row seats. They would come in handy.
The day started with an impassioned talk (In Pursuit of Flavor, Culture and Authenticity: Bringing Spain Home) by Colman Andrews, cookbook writer, former editor of Saveur and Gourmet staffer. According to Andrews, Spain has become a hotbed not only in the US, but also the rest of Europe and indeed much of the rest of the world. He cited examples:
- Gazpacho avec 'quelque chose'” is “one of the hottest dishes in France” of late.
- It wasn’t too long ago that no Spanish chefs were known by name in the US.
- Likewise, few dishes other than paella were known.
What changed? As others had said earlier in the conference, Franco’s death opened the way for a resurgence of regional character and creativity that became obvious to the rest of the world during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, followed by the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the ascendancy of Ferran Adria and his culinary disciples.
Andrews explained what it all meant for the US: Spanish food products such as pimenton, piquillo peppers, olive oil, rice and various conservas are making huge inroads, with other foods -- like iberico ham -- now following; an upsurge of new “Spanish” restaurants, like Tia Pol in New York City in which the food is highly authentic (though its owner is from New Orleans), as well as others that are Spanish in name only. He implored the attendees “to give your audience a chance” and not assume that they don’t want what is right. He said that instead of “taking a variety of items from across Spain, mixing them up and thinking ‘they won’t know the difference’” that it is “better to focus on a few things” and to “trust simplicity.” He continued: don't learn “the wrong lessons” such as “foams are everything;” don't let Calcium Chloride become the “new balsamic vinegar.” He said that Ferran Adria has taught chefs to question why things are done certain ways and whether there may be other ways of doing things. Andrews finished with “don’t try to bring everything home -- leave some things in Spain.”
With an opening like that, the Illy Cafe man could have simply sat down -- additional caffeine would hardly be necessary. Nor would it be necessary with the panel discussion that followed: a veritable who’s who of culinary experts including moderators Richard Clark, Richard Wolffe and Greg Drescher, and panelists Clara Maria Gonzalez de Amezua, Jose Andres, Colman Andrews, Michael Batterberry, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, Thomas Keller, Karen McNeil, David Rosengarten, Dr. Tim Ryan, Gabino Sotelino, Norman Van Aken, Anya Von Bremzen and Clark Wolf. The topic was “Spanish Flavors, American Kitchens: Appetites for Change.” The discussion was dedicated to R.W. “Johnny” Apple, who would have been leading the panel had he not passed away shortly before the conference.
The opening question to the panel was "How much of the creative energy now in Spain is a reaction to it having been closed for so long?" Clara Maria Gonzalez de Amezua, who has lived through those years of closure simply stated that in Spain there always has been "a creative spirit." Anya Von Bremzen added that the current creative surge is not due to "just a bunch of people who happen to be in Spain at the same time." She added that it is "very much (due to) an 'open door' policy" with the exchange of ideas and that the culinary community of Spain is very well organized as exemplified by conferences such as "Madrid Fusion" and "Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia." Indeed she noted that other European countries are picking up on that and holding conferences of their own.
Jose Andres addressed the balance of traditional and creative cooking in Spain. He noted that he started making traditional Spanish cuisine in the US so that the creative cuisine could be understood. He also jokingly said he used Washington political correspondent Richard Clark to write his book so that he could have greater influence in D.C. politics on behalf of Spanish cuisine. Clark answered that that was all well and good, but the "President doesn't like 'wet' fish," a reference to the lightly-cooked fish recipes in Andres's book. David Rosengarten wished that what Jose Andres did was actually happening more in the U.S. as "there is a notorious lack of traditional Spanish food here." He felt that the historical reasons have been a dearth of real Spanish ingredients, but noted the current efforts to change that. Clark Wolf chimed in that just as important as bringing in Spanish ingredients is "bringing in Spanish foodways and style such as 'tapas.'" Nancy Harmon Jenkins mentioned that in Spain, the King "understands cuisine" and that "in every restaurant, the King of Spain has always 'just been there,'" evidence that strong culinary culture begins prior to the restaurant. Jose Andres elicted chucles by offereing to share the King of Spain with the US.
"What is the future of modern cooking in Spain?" Clara de Amezua pointed out that Spanish cuisine is the product of centuries of culture, with various adaptations added along the way, and that its evolution will continue that way. Thomas Keller, who considers himself "a true francophile" asked "what is real 'Spanish food' vs 'inspirational food?'" He added that "Basque is neither French nor Spanish -- it is Basque." He opined that modern cuisine is more "personality cuisine" that "goes beyond borders" and that "inspiration is more important than creation." He said that "this forum (was) a great way to find inspiration" and that after the inspiration comes evolution.
More discussion ensued on the interplay of traditional and vanguard cooking in Spain. Jose Andres noted that the creative chefs are the ones with the vast majority of the limited number of Michelin stars seemingly available in Spain, and that they were necessary to support everyone else. Moreover, it is the vanguard chefs who have been pushing for quality, artisanal produce. Richard Clark noted that when he visited the Adria's Taller in Barcelona everyone ate tortilla Espanola, at which point Norman van Aken asked, "Why not have it both ways?" He said that it was fun to play with tradition and turn it around and likened the process to having both acoustic and electric Bob Dylan. Dr. Tim Ryan stated that the interplay between tradition and innovation was really only pertinent in Spain and Europe right now. He listed obstacles on the path to a higher profile for Spanish cuisine in the US, most the Spanish immigration necessary to create demand for the cuisine; the innovations of Ferran Adria are largely what has captured the US imagination to date.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins asked what the audience could take away from the discussion. David Rosengarten replied: tradition tweaked with personal idiosyncracies is something of value. Karen McNeil noted that the dichotomy discussed is not really felt in the world of Spanish wine -- that there is "a harmony between alta expresion and tradition, as the Spanish are very insular about their varietals." She asked, "What if the greatest wines in the world have yet to be discovered?" (The resurgence of the Spanish wine industry is a major reason for this question.) Anya Von Bremzen agreed that modern vs traditional "is not an either-or situation" so long as they are used appropriately." This theme recurred throughout the conference; indeed, I had heard often in Spain as well, where at El Bulli, Ferran Adria had said that his cooking was based on traditional Catalan cuisine.
Talk turned to the situation of artisanal food products in the US. Thomas Keller called the situation against foie gras "abominable" and that the industry happens to be an "easy mark," upon which Dr. Ryan wondered if we were "at the dawn of a new era of dietary prohibition," asking "what's next?"
The panel finished with Ariane Broadbent stating from the audience that "everything is fusion and evolution over and over again." Gerry Dawes, returning to the theme of modern vs. traditional in Spain, noted that "one of the most important movements in Spain is 'modern traditional.'" Jose Andres concluded by noting that "tradition of today was yesterday's avant-garde and today's avant-garde will be tomorrow's tradition -- the good stuff will survive!"
+ + + + +All photos by the author.