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Gastronomika 2012: Reappraising France, Old and New

Joan Roca and Juan-Mari Arzak
Joan Roca and Juan-Mari Arzak

[Photos: Bonjwing Lee]

The 2012 edition of the Gastronomika chefs congress kicked off yesterday morning in San Sebastian, Spain. The event is held at the Kursaal, architect Rafael Moneo's prismatic, cube-like structures along the city's seashore, where for three days every fall some of the world's premiere chefs — especially those that are fixtures on the demo and festival circuit — gather to share their newest techniques in front of an audience of culinary students, international press, and their peers.

Last year the focus of the event was on the emerging and evolving cuisines of Latin America, countries that enjoy a rich gastronomic heritage but whose kitchens have only recently embraced notions of technical professionalism and progressivism. This time, though, the theme is the reemergence of France as a culinary force. It's a rather surprising curatorial turn, given that many Spanish chefs, and even the festival's organizers, had recently bemoaned the fact that France had stayed stuck in the world of Michelin, heavy sauces, and butter. "France is currently in the valley," commented Gastronomika's Xavier Agulló in an interview last year. "They still haven't found their way into the future."

But that tune seems to have changed, and quickly. The proponents of bistronomie are the stars of this year's show. Guys like Iñaki Aizpitarte (Le Chateaubriand), David Toutain (Agapé Substance), and Bertrand Grebaut (Septime) are symbols of a current that has been building in France for some years now. It's one that draws from but doesn't aim to totally emulate the trappings of haute gastronomie. Most of these chefs have spent time in some of the world's great, historic kitchens and idea factories, yet they've opened restaurants that eschew the pomp and high pricing in favor of conviviality, freedom, and affordability. There's usually one set menu, no tablecloths, and a price tag that doesn't exceed 60 or so Euros per person. The cooking remains top-notch, if considerably less dressed-up. This isn't exactly news, but it continues to pick up steam in France and around the world.

While the Gallic young guns figure prominently in this year's programming, Gastronomika is also shining a light on the classic, or at least slightly older, generation of French chefs. The three-star cooks Juan-Mari Arzak (Arzak) and Pedro Subijana (Akelarre), for example, among the pioneers who put the Basque region on the gastronomic map and longtime fixtures of this festival, said that France "was the mother country." They spoke of early visits there, exchanges with their great chefs, and the fact that they learned their craft through French books and applying Escoffier's tenets of codification and organization.

There was a screening of Entre Les Bras, the documentary that chronicles the year in which control of the kitchen at the seminal Maison Bras, in Laguiole, is passed from Michel to his son Sebastien. Alain Senderens, who trained giant Alain Passard, was also honored (it's worth noting that Passard, of the three-star L'Arpège, wasn't in attendance, but he did train Grebaut and Mirazur's Mauro Colagreco, two of the younger headliners at this year's congress). Pierre Gagnaire, who presented earlier today, represents for Gastronomika "the bridge between the old guard and the new guard... The man who brought excitement and creativity to cooking three decades ago." The first day's Gallic lovefest concluded with the Catalan pastry wizard Christian Escriba presenting the French delegation with a massive Eiffel Tower made completely of macarons.

That said, the major Spanish chefs played an important part throughout the first day and a half of programming. There was an especially compelling presentation by Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch, the elBulli chefs de cuisine who recently opened an informal restaurant in the picturesque coastal town of Cadaques, Spain. They spoke of the limitations of that restaurant, Compartir, which exclusively does shared plates of classic Spanish dishes. But, through a methodical, impressive, almost overwhelming series of demonstrations, the duo showed how the techniques they helped develop at Ferran Adrià's avant-garde temple can subtly enhance even the simplest of preparations. There was, for instance, a lettuce vinaigrette that added punch to a salad, as well as a simple foam that served as the base of a traditional gazpacho.

Yesterday evening concluded with presentations by Joan Roca (El Celler de Can Roca) and Alex Atala (DOM). Atala, who was part of the Brazilian contingent last year, showed several videos of dishes that represented his emphasis on local and Amazonian products, as well as a more pared down cooking style. "I had for a long time been doing preparations that were technically amazing but ended up being confusing and pointless," he said. As such, some of the videos lasted less than a minute. Roca also demoed a slew of dishes, some completed and others in development, that reinforced his precision and love of seafood and sous vide. One, an Escoffier-inspired piped asparagus cream, layered with black truffle, was particularly appropriate.

Stay tuned for updates from the rest of the festival, which will include talks from Andoni Luis Aduriz, Albert Adrià, Jordi Roca, and non-Spanish chefs René Redzepi and Massimo Bottura.

· All Gastronomika Coverage on Eater [-E-]