There was an election last night in Spain. In the thick of an economic shitstorm that shows no signs of letting up, the conservatives crushed the incumbent socialists. There has hardly been a mention of that over the last 24 hours here on the bay in San Sebastian, though, where Gastronomika is now one-third of the way into its 2011 program.
Instead, hundreds of chefs, cooks, and members of the press from across the world have filled architect Rafael Moneo's "cubes," formally known as the Kursaal Palace, to experience what its organizers have more than once referred to as the the world's first gastronomic congress, and its best.
Among those chefs are, naturally, the Basque pillars: Juan Mari Arzak, Pedro Subijana, Karlos Arguiñano and, of the slightly younger generation, Andoni Luis Aduriz and Martin Berasategui. Together they serve as the face of the festival, sitting together in the first row of the auditorium, receiving nods from nearly every presenter visiting from outside the region. Here, too, are the other Spanish staples, from the Roca brothers and Carme Ruscalleda of Catalonia to Ramon Freixa of Madrid to Quique Dacosta of Valencia — all in attendance to meticulously present their latest technical achievements and to demonstrate (occasionally) mind-bending dishes, in ways that owe much to that raspy, gesticulating guy who for years ran a restaurant on the bay of Cala Montjoi.
The core group of Spanish chefs — and the festival program itself, which shows a strong emphasis on both classic and progressive restaurants — convincingly present the case that the traditional and the avant-garde easily co-exist. In his headlining presentation, Aduriz argued for one potential reading of the relationship between the two forces, citing Michel Bras citing Jean Cocteau: "For tradition to be considered as such, it needs to constantly modify itself and adapt to the times in which it exists." Tradition, as the Mugaritz chef explained, will always be at the foundation, and new ideas won't threaten that.
But already the most compelling aspects of the event appear to be those having to do with this year's leitmotif, "the emerging and evolving cuisines of Brazil, Mexico, and Peru." Today, Brazil was in the spotlight. "We are Indians/we are black/we are slave and hangman/conquerors and conquered" read the lines in a poem Helena Rizzo (Mani Restaurant, Sao Paulo) prepared for the occasion; "We are primitive and we are modern," declared Alex Atala (DOM, Sao Paulo) at the start of his demonstration. Right off the bat, a defiant embrace of terms and descriptions once — and in many ways, still — pejoratively assigned to certain cultures.
And the embrace is present in various forms in the cooking of all five Brazilian chefs who were there today. First and most obviously, in the form of a devotion to local, once ignored products, like tucupi, arrowroot (Rizzo originally knew it as the stuff they'd make fake blood with for the movies), and yellow broad beans, which Rodrigo Oliveira uses in a chicharron stew at his traditional restaurant Mocoto. It's a popular tendency in cooking these days, and as is the case in places like Copenhagen, it's a crucial part of a broader goal: to be able to do authentic, good food — both classic and contemporary — without having to look elsewhere.
There remains one major roadblock to these efforts, one most clearly expressed by Atala: "Unlike in Spain, the government does not help us at all." It's an issue that also seems to apply in Mexico and was one of the main points of discussion in an intimate tertulia focused on the careers of Enrique Olvera (Pujol, Mexico City) and Bruno Oteiza (Biko, Mexico City). Olvera described how he had to call in favors and ask colleagues to travel with him to San Sebastian, and he shared the hilarious, surreal anecdote of how his improvised team flew in with fourteen pieces of luggage filled with local ingredients that customs agents almost confiscated.
One of participants of the interactive Olvera/Oteiza talk, a local man, suggested there might be a way out: banding together and naming a movement. It seems to have worked out pretty well for the chefs sitting in the front row.
In the next two days, Gastón Acurio, Grant Achatz, Heston Blumenthal, Enrique Olvera, Magnus Nilsson, and many more will take the stage. Stay tuned for more coverage.
[Disclosure: As was the case with Eater's correspondent last year, Gabe Ulla is at Gastonomika as a guest of the Spanish Tourism Institute.]