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The Flemish Primitives 2011

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I was lucky enough to be one of the very few Americans in attendance at last month's The Flemish Primitives food festival in Ostend, Belgium. Top chefs from all over the world -- Redzepi, Bras, Bottura, etc -- came together to share with one another and with us their latest ideas, concepts, techniques, successes and failures. Meanwhile Belgian chefs showcased what's happening in gastronomy in their neck of the woods right now. Overall it was an awesome event. My experience there is below. My pictures are here: http://pocketfork.com/events/the-flemish-primitives-2011/

“You owe me, bigtime.”

Those four words appear frequently in conversations between my girlfriend and I. By pure coincidence, I’m always on the receiving end.

Her eyes alone shouted them at me now. Some curious little man, cracked out on Spanish ham and Russian caviar, had just swiped an Italian sparkling water bottle from her hands and flashed it before the Danish gentleman standing next to us while his curious little friend photographed the crime.

The guy next to us was René Redzepi. And those two sneaky bastards were either chef groupies or desperate PR reps, maybe both. This was my poor girlfriend’s introduction to The Flemish Primitives, a food festival held last month in Ostend, Belgium. It was my introduction to the doghouse.

She and I found ourselves there on the invitation of a very gracious buddy of mine. A smooth talker, he’d managed to convince somebody that we both deserved press placards, which meant full access to everything. The first afternoon held back-to-back Master Classes, each with a different topic and different teachers. Consistent with the festival’s concept this year — Exchanging, Engaging, Exploring — the lessons were collaborative efforts. Jack O’Shea, meat maven from London, was slicing a cured beef “ham” from Flanders as we walked into the first session. The sizzle and smoke of roasting flesh floated up from the grill and griddle on either side of him. Here butchers would meet chefs would meet us, the carnivorous public. This was Meat: Aging, Preparation, and Cooking Techniques.

More reminiscent of prosciutto than bresaola, that ham had a mineral tang, a certain sweetness, and fat that melted into an instant of happiness. I enjoyed four such happy moments. Such are the advantages of sending a pretty girl to ask for the samples.

Equally exceptional was a côte de boeuf dotted with olive oil from chef Giorgio Nava, whose cattle (and olives) came from Italy via South Africa. The grass and wild plants they eat on his ranch lent the meat a complex flavor I could neither pin down nor get enough of. Meanwhile from every direction came more treats — Kobe beef cheeks cooked for 70 hours at 70 °C and finished on the plancha, oxtail rillettes, veal crudo served with octopus, a fillet flipped every 15 seconds as it was cooked on the (dubious) premise that its moisture would be better-retained. It was pretty wonderful, all this “learning” we were doing.

Seeking further snackage education, we took a cursory glance in the other classes. Spectacularly boring, they were, apart from a mille-feuille of ice cream the Passion Pâtisserie guys were making. All the classes were small enough to encourage questions and interaction, large enough that we secured seats early for the second session: Fermentation and Pickling.

Here Sang-Hoon Degeimbre of Belgium gave a fascinating (if confusing) run-down of the various fermented soybean products from Korea and how he utilizes them in his kitchen. So if you ever want to have a heart-to-heart about the differences between gochujang, doenjang, cheonggukjang… well, ask him, because I didn’t quite absorb the intricacies.

Now there I was, innocently eating some excellent pineapple-gochujang sorbet. I looked over and what did I see, but my girlfriend checking out a blond dude across the room! He had eighty-five different pickled things in front of him, and she wanted them. A vinegar fiend, she had spotted her next fix. Her dealer was Magnus Nilsson of Faviken in Sweden.

With humility and reluctance, he admitted that he originally hadn’t wanted to do this class. He was no expert, he thought. Like breathing, pickling is a necessity in his neck of the woods. But like singing, he treats it as a satisfying pursuit in and of itself, a way to be more in tune with the changing seasons. This made him, of course, exactly the right man for the job, and we both decided we should pay him a visit in the near future.

After a cursory glance at the rest of the second-session classes — the coolest of which was a Pascal Barbot solo — chance brought us to a press conference with René Redzepi. The grace with which that man fields asinine questions (“Do you drive a Porsche?”) and the wit with which he answers them (drawing brilliant parallels between Lady Gaga and Michel Bras, for example) are exemplary, I must say.

From there, it was off to the Gala Dinner, a mash-up of some of the top toques in Belgium, a fifteen-course affair that ran into the wee hours. So how was the food? Well, the company was excellent. Oh, and the desserts. The desserts were very good. Right. Moving along…

Day two was the main event, but from the groggy faces in the room early that morning, you wouldn’t have known it. Chefs and scientists from all over the world presented in pairs and trios, sometimes with a common link between them, sometimes with no apparent connection at all. Naturally, some of these collaborations were more successful than others.

To my mind they saved the best for last, when Brazil met Belgium. Alex Atala blew our minds with raw ants (wildly flavorful! like sansho pepper, lemongrass, ginger, eucalyptus…) and a native Amazonian fruit called cupuassu. He pureed the pulp with whiskey and curry powder and made a paste from the roasted pods, creating a delicious mock chocolate. For show-and-tell he brought the tongue bone of the biggest Amazon fish, an indigenous people’s grater, and some yellow-fleshed cassava. Highly toxic in its raw state, Amazon cooks have learned that by boiling the root for literally a day, it becomes a highly effective food preservative. Meanwhile Dominique Persoone, Belgian chocolatier, provided accompaniment and surprise — with chocolate “sausage” after Atala’s blood sausage, and a “poisonous” chocolate frog laced with an anesthetic drug (“a mild one, I promise!”) to rub on our lips before consumption.

On the breaks throughout the day we were assailed with food samples of every size, shape, and variety. Boiled baby shrimp, every kind of Italian prosciutto and Spanish jamón, cheese, chocolate, caviar, cookies, coffee… It was excessive in a way I fully support. We ate well that afternoon.

The most star-studded session of the day was also the most challenging to watch — photographers, cameramen, and the hopelessly obnoxious stuck their backsides in the face of the crowd as René Redzepi, Michel Bras, and Sergio Herman took the stage together to talk about several dishes they’re working on right now. My girlfriend decided to take matters (and her press pass) into her own hands and join the mêlée. I was just so proud of the ladylike grace with which she threw elbows up there and snapped some great photos. It was a special moment.

As for the rest of the day, I can only say that it was overwhelming, but in a good way. Kobe Desramaults, Alexandre Gauthier, and Massimo Bottura all piqued my interest. Chris Young gave us a slideshow overview of his and Nathan Myhrvold’s tome, Modernist Cuisine. A scientist showed us heat transfer maps for single- and double-fried potatoes. And a band of Belgians shared the stage for an hour, teaching us about the state of gastronomy in their neck of the woods. I only wish they’d gotten more time, and more attention.

But time, and my girlfriend’s patience, were about up. I think the chef groupies – and their more demented brethren, roadies — we’d encountered had taken their toll on her. The caloric onslaught those two days had probably done the same. But if we’d earned a few grey hairs and packed on a few kilos, it was all for a good cause. I was honored to have been invited, so very pleased to have met so many great new friends in so short a time. To Exchanging, Engaging, and Exploring, I would add Enriching — to me, The Flemish Primitives was exactly that. I drove back to Paris with a satisfied smile on my face.

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