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Mesamérica, Day One: Innovation, Corn, and Chocolate

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Osteria Francescana's Massimo Bottura
Osteria Francescana's Massimo Bottura

The second annual Mesamérica Festival kicked off yesterday in Mexico City, where chef and organizer Enrique Olvera (whose restaurant Pujol climbed to number 17 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list this year) welcomed internationally renowned chefs and industry types to gather and talk about Mexican cuisine and the future of gastronomy. Beyond the announcement from New York City restaurateurs Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli about their new chef artist residency in Brooklyn, there were impassioned speeches about the power of gastronomy, expressions of artistry on the plate and of the plate itself, plus explorations of cacao and maize. Here's a look inside day one:

Carlo Petrini, founder and president of Slow Food, started things off with a passionate speech about how gastronomy can be so much more than food itself and how it can be a force when it comes to the political economy. As he said and has made the rounds on Twitter, "Gastronomy isn't just techniques or recipes. It's agriculture, history and politics." Petrini also discussed the importance of Mexican products and got big applause when he took up the slogan of the Mexican national campaign "Sin maíz, no hay país," which seeks to re-assert the country's food sovereignty.

Before they introduced their Brooklyn chef residency RES, Castronovo and Falcinelli talked about how they got started in the industry and their first restaurant Frankies Spuntino. Castronovo noted that they didn't want to have a restaurant that "felt ironic" and then Falcinelli outlined the hallmarks of a true neighborhood restaurant: accessibility, sense of kindness, hospitality, value, quality, and authenticity.

Chicago designer Martin Kastner's presentation on how food and design inform one another was naturally accompanied by a slideshow of the many whimsical plates and vessels he has created for Grant Achatz at Alinea and The Aviary. These ranged from methods for serving spherified ice or dishes that are hot and cold to the short-term cocktail infusion vessel/Kickstarter-fueled miracle that is the Porthole. Kastner noted how his creations have not only created conversations at the table but also promoted human interaction with servers and guests. Also apparently people have no shame and are totally willing to bust through the many compartments of his "honeycomb" design at parties when they know there's food inside.

Gastón Acurio's presentation was the first after lunch and the crowd was still trickling in, but the Peruvian chef talked about how designing a dish is like telling a story. He also proselytized the importance of creating and keeping tight the bonds of a chefs' community for the future of gastronomy, saying that chefs can no longer shut themselves in their kitchens and hide their recipes but they must share.

Mexican pastry chef and chocolatier Luis Robledo brought some of his bonbons from Tout Chocolate and walked the crowd through how he makes them. But Robledo also began his presentation talking about the need to reinvent chocolate and professionalize it as a commodity the way that has been done with coffee and wine as "it's exquisite like wine." He also brought up Mexico's diabetes problem (with 650,000 diabetics in Mexico City alone) and acknowledged that those who produce sweet things need to be aware of their effects and think about how to introduce rational consumption.

Spanish food writer Pau Arenós — who coined the Ferran Adrià-embraced term "techno-emotional" cuisine — brought his book La Cocina de los Valientes to the stage to discuss the rise of elBulli, the cooks of the future, and the false friction between tradition and innovation. "Without tradition, there is no modernity," he said. In Mexico, Arenós said, there are the conditions for a great modern movement in food with Enrique Olvera in the lead.

Venezuelan chef Carlos García demo'd dishes such as a cocoa tongue dessert from his Caracas restaurant Alto while talking about the various projects he and his team have undertaken in homage of Venezuelan cuisine. First there was a project compiling essential Venezuelan recipes and now he's working on connecting chefs and political leaders so that the latter can see local food from the bottom up. As he explains, "Our country is fractured and needs our help."

Amado Ramírez, owner of the Oaxacan corn-celebrating restaurant Itanoni, spoke about the importance of remembering the past and how corn is "not just produce but a symbol of life in rural communities." Trying to understand it was like trying to understand himself, he said, and urged the need to confess what has been done wrong with the essential ingredient and begin to repair the damage.

Sergi Vicente Puig of Barcelona's 41 Degrees spoke next about the importance of service in restaurants and how it is part of the experience. 41 Degrees aims to stimulate the senses from its 50 dishes down to the "frosted rain" decor and the way servers present each dish. He also screened a great video of the 41 Degrees experience with all of its edible and potable creations.

Finally, Massimo Bottura of Italy's renowned Osteria Francescana brought it all home with a crowd-pleaser of a presentation that explained his philosophy on using culinary traditions to move gastronomy forward. Bottura explains that "the artist breaks the past in pieces" in order to bring everything back to the beginning. "Our kitchen is always looking backwards," he said, "but not through the nostalgic lens." As he demo'd a few dishes — including a Picasso-inspired dish that looks like an Italian landscape — Bottura gave credit to his hard-working front and back of the house team. Bottura also has the secret to happiness, in case you were wondering: resist the temptation of being trapped in reality, obsession and obligation, and don't forget who you are or where you came from.

Stay tuned for more from Mexico City as Mesamérica Day Two gets underway.

· All Mesamérica Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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