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Welcome to San Sebastián, Land of Rain and Chefs

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Wylie Dufresne, David Chang, Drew Nierporent and inexplicably Australian chef Neil Perry from Melbourne.
Wylie Dufresne, David Chang, Drew Nierporent and inexplicably Australian chef Neil Perry from Melbourne.
[Photos: Joshua David Stein / Eater.com]

San Sebastián is a small city with small plates and many chefs. It's also the home to the 12th Annual Gastronomika conference which begins, officially, today. The conference — which we'll be covering extensively — assembles in one large room a galaxy of Michelin starred chefs to kibbitz. In the angular and glowing Kursaal Palace, the Raphael Moneo-designed convention center that forms a bulwark against the roiling sea, legendary Spanish chefs like Juan Mari Arzak (with whom we'll be running an Eaterrogation), Martin Berasategui, Andoni Luis Aduriz and Joan Roca meet American ones like the David Chang, Wylie Dufresne, David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Drew Nieporent. Yesterday there was a welcome thing for the New York chefs. Dancing and cultural exchange were involved.

In a large and packed auditorium, Nieporent, Chang and Dufresne were led up to the stage. [So was, strangely, non-American chef Neil Perry of Melbourne.] A camera was trained on their faces and their faces then projected largely behind them. Drew Nieporent took the microphone, "We're in a New York state of mind," he said, making a Billy Joel joke that flew high and true above the heads of the crowd, "but we realize we are in the center of culinary culture," he continued in English. A translator took over, "He says 'New Yorkers think they know everything...'" The crowd seemed nonplussed. "But that he is very happy to be here." That smoothed things over a bit. The Chang-Dufresne coalition remained silent.

A small man in white pants and shirt, his waist tied with a red sash and head covered in a red beret appeared before the chefs for traditional Basque dancing. In the corner a woman played fife and drum to accompany. He performed many leaps, entrechat quatres, entrechat cinqs, a couple cabriolets and a few jetés assembles. [Strangely, I didn't see any pas de Basque. Then he shook hands with the chefs who, by this point, had been on stage for a good fifteen minutes.

Then the auditorium filled with a marching band in the aisles. On one side, the band was dressed as soldiers. The other side, the band was dressed as chefs and housewives, and carried wooden spoons and tiny barrels-cum-drums. Each side was led by an old man. The soldiers by a grand looking Nutcracker type. The chefs were led by a mournful looking Basque carrying a giant spoon, wearing a white chefs toque with a sprig of baby carrot greens pinned to his chest.

The tradition — called the Tamborrada —goes back to the Second Carlist War, where the chefs of San Sebastian mocked the occupying forces by parading around. [Another theory I heard is that they once fought off Napoleon's army using only spoons but I'm dubious.] The music played on and the crowd clapped enthusiastically. It is hard to imagine such enthusiasm for marching band music in the States, and equally hard to imagine gastronomic culture so deeply ingrained that there would be a tradition of dressing up as chefs and doing a drumline with wooden spoons. But this is San Sebastian, where gastronomy, football, and the sea are the tripartite passions.

The chefs were led off the stage. The audience filtered out. We all took siestas.

· All Gastronomika Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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