Next week Gastronomika kicks off in San Sebastián, Spain, and Eater will be there to cover the festival and chefs' congress. Today, we chat with the respected Spanish journalist Xavier Agulló, one of the event's organizers, about the theme for this year, some of its key personalities, and the state of haute cuisine in Europe.
What's your role at Gastronomika?
I am one of the advisors at Grupo SR together with Roser Torres, who runs Gastronomika. I have various roles: I work on conceptualizing the festival, as well as writing and overseeing the texts that are published for the congress. In addition, I'm present at many of the talks and handle the technical aspect — audio and video.
Can you describe the theme of the festival?
This year is a continuation of what's been happening at Gastronomika since 2008, when Roser took over the festival and set certain things in place. Two principal concerns came into play three years ago: first, the professionalization of the festival, which is to say limiting access to the event and the market and giving the program a very serious register, and second, making the event more international.
Three years ago, it was Japan, last year, it was New York, and this year, it's the three emerging countries of South America: Mexico, Brazil, and Peru. This is the most important leitmotif of the event this year — highlighting the progressive and traditional cuisines of these three cultures.
What do the words "emerging" and "evolving" mean in this case?
"Emerging" becomes easy to understand when we look at these three countries. In Mexico, because of UNESCO's recent World Heritage declaration for their gastronomy; in Peru, because of the astounding revolution that Gastón Acurio started twenty years ago, which has turned food into one of the main aspects of the country's gross domestic product; in Brazil, with Alex Atala as one of its main proponents, the renewed interest in the Amazon. These are three great gastronomic powers with a strong and interesting culinary corpus — both post and pre-Hispanic — and an understudied richness of ingredients.
"Evolving" refers to the group of chefs across these three nations, most of them young, who use these foundations and traditions as a jumping off point to create food that is, one could say, more contemporary or synthetic.
What do you attribute this recent interest in personalities like Acurio and Atala? They have been around and at the top for a while, but at least here in the States, they seem to suddenly be in the spotlight and are treated in some ways like discoveries.
This new interest, which seems recent, isn't actually that new. Things that are done well, that are done with time, and that are done in harmony and synergy end up working well. For instance, taking Peru, it seems ridiculous to me to hear that Gastón Acurio is suddenly hot when this is a man who twenty years ago managed to say to an entire country, "Listen, folks, why are we making French food when Peru is so rich?" That movement is now really taking off, but it's not necessarily just to say that he's suddenly in vogue. It's twenty years of work. It is true that the efforts of the G9 and things of that nature have helped, but let's recall that before opening in New York, Acurio had more than thirty restaurants around the world. For years, he has been a very well-known chef around the world.
How do presenters like Grant Achatz and Heston Blumenthal enter into the equation, when the you say that the focus is on three South American countries?
When we talk about evolution, we have to talk about the great forces in progressive cuisine, those whose achievements and work spread and influence everyone — those that are at the top of the pyramid and whose findings trickle down. One of them is Grant Achatz, who has been able to turn the restaurant into a spectacle, both gastronomic and visual. He is, in my opinion, one of the four or five best chefs in the world. He'll be speaking on a day when we have some of the most exciting avant-garde chefs presenting. Among them are Joan Roca and Heston Blumenthal, one of the great sensory manipulators. Blumenthal is going to be presenting some truly incredible dishes, including a "tobacco" of cocoa. It's quite funny and provocative, considering that all around the world cigarettes are being banned. We'll also have Alexandre Gauthier, who is one of the great hopes for France, a country I think is a bit lost gastronomically. And then there is Magnus Nilsson, who I think is miles ahead, much more extreme, than René Redzepi, as far as a devotion to the local goes.
Can you expand upon what you just said about France?
In my opinion, it still hasn't found it's way into the future. That's my opinion. I want to be careful with this, since I don't want them to ban me from the country. There are the bistros, the neo-bistros, that do food well. But if Le Chateaubriand is the best restaurant in France, as it is on the World's Best List, then there is a problem. I just don't think there are characters setting down a style. France is currently in the valley, but I think that in a short time it will again be at the apex. The history, the foundation, is so strong. Traditional cooking there is impeccable, but what I refer to is the avant-garde — being ahead of the curve.
And now, the obvious question: how would you assess Spain's gastronomy now, especially after the closing of elBulli?
This movement, spearheaded by Ferran Adrià, has at least fifteen or twenty more years to develop. What I mean by this is that all of these chefs who have been touched by that institution and are located throughout the country, have particular visions and will express themselves for many years to come. There is so much left, and it's very exciting.
With so many food festivals and congresses popping up every year, what do you think sets Gastronomika apart?
There isn't one ounce of frivolity. Sure, we are located in a beautiful, vibrant city where we can enjoy, but I must insist on using the word "professional" to describe the event. We don't allow access to the public and we emphasize that this is for professionals. People come to learn new things, new techniques, and to do valuable networking without any silliness.