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Gastronomika 2012: The Grand Finale With René Redzepi, Andoni Luis Aduriz, and Albert Adrià

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Elena Arzak, René Redzepi, Juan-Mari Arzak
Elena Arzak, René Redzepi, Juan-Mari Arzak

[Photos: Bonjwing Lee, except where noted]

The 2012 edition of the Gastronomika is over, and so the demo kitchen has been packed up, the United-Nations-like translators have left their booths at the Kursaal, and bookings and traffic at the pintxo bars and temples of high gastronomy across San Sebastian have eased up. But this year's was a full and varied program, beginning with a tribute to France (a spirit which percolated throughout with demos from different Gallic cooks like David Toutain and Bertrand Grebaut), and ending with headlining performances by some of Spain's, and the world's, most forward-thinking chefs.

In symbolic fashion, the world's greatest male chef and world's greatest female chef — at least according to San Pellegrino — took the stage on the last day of the congress. And so Elena Arzak, now the face of the restaurant made legendary by her father Juan-Mari, presented a dish of clawed lobster, hemp cracker, and mustard, with clothespins made of lobster. Then followed René Redzepi and Lars Williams, of Copenhagen's Noma, discussing the restaurant's new staff quarters and "intuition kitchen," as well as the restaurant's recent interest in insects and animals that don't usually make their way into the Western diet. There was talk of ants, as well as grasshopper umami bombs.

"Mostaza de Cañamo y Bogavante" [Photo courtesy of Arzak]

Also taking to the stage during the final stretch of programming was the Italian Massimo Bottura, who explained that for chefs, "our dishes are the answers to our questions." In his case, the questions have much to do with art and tradition. As he's explained many times before, a crucial aspect of his approach is respecting the past while also being practical and critical. "The heritage of the past takes you into the future," he argued. He spoke of artists like Ai Weiwei and the need for the chefs of the future to have a sense of culture. But amidst all that, he emphasized flavor. There was a dish, a monochrome of parmigiano reggiano, designed to let the diner focus on the taste of the preparation above all else. "I want people to eat with the palate first and then with the mind," he said.

Bottura is one of the more active chefs on the international festival circuit, so much of his presentation echoed what he's brought to past appearances, especially his recent speech at MAD. What was new was his explanation of this season's menu at Osteria Francescana, "Vieni In Italia Con Me," which shifts from focusing mainly on Modena to drawing from all the regions of Italy. It starts with a take on the cappuccino that nods to Sicily, for example, and includes a baccalà that brings you to the north.

The congress was filled with ambitious, well-orchestrated demos from Spanish chefs. It seems almost a requirement these days for those who cook in Spain to be able to produce flashy videos and get up in front of hundreds of people to explain the latest developments in their restaurants. While to some these can be monotonous and self-serious, the onslaught of presentations from Spanish chefs here — Dacosta, Berasategui, Roca, etc. — ended up suggesting that the country's food scene is as vibrant and varied as ever. Some had said that elBulli's shuttering marked the end of Spain's great gastronomic boom, while others feared that a struggling economy would threaten creativity at idea factories that don't tend to make much or any profit. But the country's leading practitioners of high cooking, of which there are many, seem especially emboldened.

There was Albert Adrià, brother of Ferran, who spoke of one of the more ambitious projects of his post-elBulli phase: 41 Degrees Experience, a 16-seat restaurant in Barcelona that serves extended tasting menus and features an art installation. Adrià had unveiled the new incarnation of the project at the Mesamerica festival over the summer, and at Gastronomika he added further explanation. See the new video on the project below:

Video: "41º Experience, Albert Adrià"

41º Experience, Albert Adrià from Visual13 on Vimeo.

But Andoni Luis Aduriz's presentation for his restaurant Mugaritz seems to have provided the strongest proof of Spain's gastronomic relevance. In the minutes leading up to his speech, the room packed up to the point that many attendees had to settle for standing room along the aisles and passageways of the auditorium. The chef's 40-minute presentation featured a series of dishes from the new season at Mugaritz (currently ranked #3 in the world). Never one to shy away from the intellectual — he did collaborate on a book with the philosopher Daniel Innerarity, after all — Aduriz spoke of provocation, of combining ingredients that are usually thought of as unpleasant or that seem incompatible at first blush. He presented a "gamey macaron" made of pig's blood and chocolate. It looked exactly like what you might find at the Ladurée on Boulevard St. Germain, with a delicate, dark reddishness to it that suggests a classic fruit macaron, but Aduriz's prepartion entered the realm of the savory, offal, and completely unfamiliar.

[Photos: Bonjwing Lee]

It would be hard to label his dishes as silly or whimsical. Each one had a logic and an argument behind it, as well as a minimal aesthetic that bordered on the Japanese. There was a raviolo filled not with dairy or a protein, as is usually the case, but with fragrant herbs. There also was a dish of four or five "grapes" — really melons rendered to look and feel like grapes — and each one was filled with a different spiced seed. Aduriz's videos, as usual, were highly technical, absurdist, and visceral (the one for the macaron, in which a young girl, her face painted as if in the wild, hunts for the product, wasn't unlike the video for Duran Duran's "Hungry Like The Wolf"). After pretty much every single one, the room would erupt in chants and applause, with most people getting up from their chairs.

Many thanks to Kevin Patricio for additional reporting.

· 41º Experience, Albert Adrià [Vimeo]
· All Gastronomika Coverage on Eater [-E-]