Madrid Fusion, G8 Summit for Chefs

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Photo by John Sconzo

I returned to Madrid for Madrid Fusion 2009 this year, after a year's absence (I had a few things going on last year...). Since 2004 I've been traveling to Spain to participate in these gastronomic congresses. The idea of a diverse group of the world's tops chefs coming together to show their latest discoveries and explain their philosophies is a romantic one, and something that excites everyone interested in cooking. The opportunity to bridge the boundaries of geographic distance, knowledge, and creativity makes these events highly anticipated -- at least it used to.

Maybe I am biased. After all I am in the position of both being quite young and cooking within the framework of modern gastronomy. Both of these qualify me for what I call the "Wide Eyes" syndrome of the Show and Tell. The desire to see the next great innovation was what motivated me to start attending these types of events in the first place.

Later, when I was invited to be one of the exhibitors, the game changed. I still traveled to Spain several times a year to attend the many culinary congresses taking place. I went so that I could watch the leaders of cooking wow the audiences with tricks, causing them to rise to their feet with applause after witnessing the transformation of a daikon radish into a wine cork, complete with an iron-branded label. Or taste a wafer that captures the essence of baby Christ as he lay in the manger. The idea was to solidify the essence of the holiday season in the minds of the diner while consuming a dish composed of quintessential ingredients of the holiday table. While eating the starch-based wafer laced with essences and perfumes, I wondered if this is what an infant laying in hay would taste like...if so, I will gladly pass.

As my career progressed, the pressure of providing these culinary fireworks increased.

But I understood the goal and the thought process behind it. And as my career progressed, the pressure of providing these culinary fireworks increased. The emails would come in 6-9 months before I was to appear on stage in front of hundreds of attentive foodies, journalists, and chefs: "Please send the theme and recipes of your demonstration no later than this date, etc..."

Of course, I didn't have the immediate solution to the inherent problem: What do I have that is worthy to show? I had the obvious reaction. I would ignore it the first month. The subsequent months would be conversations with sous chefs and trusted friends, "What can we show that nobody has ever seen before?" This would go on for months, until the emails from the organizers demanding material would overcome me and in a fit of frustration I would submit a vague sample.

In the back of my mind I hoped to come up with something brilliant within the next week, so I could change my topic. For the most part it worked. Well, in the eyes of the viewer that is. I continued to beat myself up right to the point of reluctantly pressing enter, sending the "idea" flying through cyberspace and into the hands of the enemy. The response to my first presentation in 2004 was favorable. Certainly we brought forth some ideas that had not been explored by most and perhaps people were inspired. I dodged a bullet somehow, and it earned me some credibility.

My expectations from both the attendee and demonstrator perspective have changed since then. Now instead of hoping to be levitated out of my seat and fed bites of food shot out of a food cannon from a chef playing the piano and a movie to compliment the food's flavor, I simply want to learn, explain and collaborate. I must be getting old...

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Grant Achatz is chef and owner of Chicago's Alinea. He grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with restaurateurs as parents and grandparents. More

Born in Michigan in 1974, Grant Achatz grew up in the restaurant industry, literally, with his parents and grandparents being restaurateurs. Naturally curious and always driven, he could be found in the kitchen by his twelfth birthday and over the coming years spent most of his free time there, learning and developing the very skills that would allow him to become one of the foremost innovators in the field. Early on he realized he wanted to become a chef, and upon graduating from high school, he immediately enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. Excelling at the CIA, Achatz graduated and ascended the culinary ladder at several prestigious restaurants, including the acclaimed French Laundry in Napa Valley. Achatz worked closely with owner Thomas Keller, and thrived in his highly creative, dedicated environment. After two years, he became Keller's Sous Chef. In a decisive move to broaden his knowledge and experience, Achatz accepted a position as Assistant Winemaker at La Jota Vineyards after four years at The French Laundry. Then in 2001, he returned to the Midwest when he accepted the Executive Chef position at the four-star Trio in Evanston, Illinois. Achatz flourished at Trio, garnering accolades including being named the James Beard Foundation's 2003 Rising Star Chef in America and one of ten "Best New Chefs in America" by Food & Wine in 2002. Under Achatz's lead, Trio received four stars from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine and was honored with five stars from the celebrated Mobil Travel Guide in 2004. Known worldwide in culinary circles as one of the leaders in progressive cuisine, Achatz realized a lifelong dream by opening Alinea in Chicago in May 2005. From day one, Achatz and Alinea received extraordinary attention and unprecedented accolades. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine both awarded the restaurant four stars within months of opening, and the James Beard Foundation nominated Alinea as the Best New Restaurant in America within a year. In September 2005, The New York Times identified Achatz as the "next great American chef." In October a year later, Alinea received the coveted Five Diamond Award from AAA, and Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine declared Alinea the "Best Restaurant in America," an honor bestowed only once every five years. Under Achatz's leadership, Alinea continues to receive worldwide attention for its hypermodern, emotional approach to dining. In both 2007 and 2008, Alinea was named one of "The S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants" published by Restaurant magazine, and Achatz himself received the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef in America award, the culinary equivalent of an Oscar, in 2008. Achatz has appeared on the Today show, CBS Sunday Morning, the Food Network, the Discovery Channel, and PBS, and has been featured in dozens of periodicals across the US and the globe including countries as far away as Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, the Philippines, and France.

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