Madrid Fusion

The pleasures and perils of the Spanish gastronomic avant-garde

Oh, you mean the foam chef.” That’s how friends reacted when I mentioned that I was going to a dinner at which Ferrán Adrià, the idol of young chefs around the world, would for the first time dine at Minibar, a six-seat restaurant opened by his chief disciple in the United States—José Andrés, a successful restaurateur in Washington, D.C. El Bulli, Adrià’s restaurant in northern Spain, has been dazzling chefs since Adrià began a course of wild experimentation, in the late 1980s. Making the twisty two-hour drive from Barcelona for a dinner that lasts well into the wee hours has become a notch on every foodie’s belt—perhaps the notch, given the international derby to get reservations (the restaurant is open only six months a year).

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Adrià was recently the recipient of a tribute dinner in Miami, where some of the country’s best-known chefs, including Thomas Keller, of French Laundry and Per Se, and Nobu Matsuhisa, of the many Nobus around the world, cooked dishes inspired by his radical innovation. The Washington dinner was his expression of solidarity with a cook who apprenticed with him starting at age sixteen (at the time Adrià was just beginning to veer from traditional Catalonian cuisine) and made his name and fortune in America.

Radical innovation in cuisine has always gone clear against my grain. Although I had met Adrià at various events sponsored by Slow Food, and understood from his showing up that he valued the farmers and food traditions the group works to save, I had little interest in exploring his food. This could have dated from the initial, and lasting, trauma of a warm, fawn-colored savory foam presented at the side of an unsuspecting piece of fish at Restaurant Bouley, ten years ago in New York. Soon chefs inspired by Adrià’s relatively low-tech method of instant flavor delivery were pureeing anything and everything and loading it into a spritzer. Foams where you least expected them, lurid extrusions, and futuristic, unrecognizable food spread in waves across the tables of the country’s most ambitious restaurants. My mind, and my stomach, were sealed when a dimpled plastic tray appeared at a dead-chic Boston restaurant before the meal, holding beige bouffant sticks of what turned out to be liver-flavored cotton candy.

I decided to reopen my mind, at least, and understand why so many chefs now feel that they are mired in the past—or worse, the present—unless they attend Madrid Fusión, a conference now in its fourth year. Word has spread that the event, which takes place over three days in mid-January, usually a downtime for chefs, is the leading edge of the avant-garde. Many chefs from Boston, where I live, found the budget to bring themselves and some of their crew to watch three days of cooking demonstrations using the very latest technology. Adrià, unsurprisingly, was the keynote speaker. He began his presentation—a list of twenty-three “commandments” all chefs should follow—with a video of some of the derby winners dining at El Bulli, exchanging looks of surprise, delight, and deep meditation.

Juan Mari Arzak, another founding father of the new Spanish cuisine, showed big-screen pictures of a large and expensive freeze-drying machine, with Erlenmeyer flasks radiating from it collecting freeze-dried monkfish skin. He had brought from his restaurant vials of the granules to sprinkle over fried monkfish and monkfish liver served with ginger and chickpea powder beside a spoon containing monkfish marrow and little crisps of deep-fried shaved monkfish bone. He showed a pigeon leg served with melted beeswax made into a spread with apple, fried garlic and almonds, honey, and pollen. (He also freeze-dries clarified beeswax.)

Dani García, a sympathetic and enthusiastic chef from Andalusia, demonstrated how he uses one of the many high-tech industrial-capacity stainless-steel machines that appeared onstage throughout the conference like cult objects. This one could fry whole, ungutted fish like rockfish or sole at precisely 180 degrees Centigrade, such that the skin would balloon away from the flesh but form a hermetic seal that would keep out oil. The cooking is so sudden and complete, he said, that live fish curls as it does when plunged into simmering broth for truite au bleu. Under the fish, he said, he often serves candied cherry tomatoes with soy sauce.

Visiting stars like Thomas Keller and Andrés himself also spoke. (Andrés’s own guest star was the American guru of all chefs who wish to understand the science of preparing food—Harold McGee, the author of On Food and Cooking.) Sergio Herman, a Michelin-starred young chef in Amsterdam, exemplified the younger style, mixing together Japanese ingredients like soy and matcha green tea with oysters in aspic, oyster foam, wasabi mayonnaise, Belgian white beer, lime juice, and lecithin—all in one dish. Handsome and with gleaming, carefully sculpted hair, Herman gravely accepted applause for his multimedia presentation like an athlete bowing after a particularly virtuosic feat.

It was all a bit much, and during breaks I headed straight for the stands serving hand-cut Iberico de Bellota, perhaps the world’s best ham, and to the clublike Casa Lucio downtown for its signature thick-cut potatoes fried in olive oil with a sunny-side-up egg on top.

The Washington dinner unexpectedly brought me right to where both Adrià and Arzak repeatedly told the rapt chefs at the conference they needed to be every day: a state of surprise. At Minibar, Adria sat at his stool watching four cooks (for six diners) prepare a stream of small dishes, and ate each one with the receptive wonder of an eight-year-old boy. Andrés beamed.

Some of the dishes were conceits: carpaccio-thin raw Wagyu beef with sliced fresh black truffle layered over a mini-torpedo of crispbread filled with a thick cheese foam that is Andrés’s version of Philly cheese steak (it was very good, if lacking the original’s essential chewiness); “natural” lobster that combines all the liquid, fat, and goo that drips from and clings to a cooked lobster, steamed into a warm gel; dressing for a deconstructed Caesar salad served in a biomorphic little blob in the middle of the plate, the skin formed by adding algin, a seaweed derivative.

But I understood the flavors in each one, even if the temperature and texture were far from what I was used to, and I understood why they should go together (raw sea scallops with a raspberry-and-beet sorbet). And one dish leapt out at me: grilled cigala, the sweet, meaty Spanish langoustine also called Norway lobster or scampi, topped with a shard of salty, buttery, paper-thin bread in place of the traditional bread crumbs for frying. For the first time I could sympathize when Andrés said, “If I want to be a farmer, I’ll give you an apple. If I’m a cook, I have to do something with it. Sometimes I’m at a table and people will tell me how weird my food is and how much I move it around—and they’re having a Coke. And I’m the one who realizes Coke is amazing, because I don’t know how to do it.”

My own preference has always been to take the apple, not the freeze-dried skin or the crystallized juice. But I saw why young chefs scrape together the money to go to Madrid Fusión: they want to be part of the future, and they want to be artists. Andrés demonstrates every day at his other restaurants—Café Atlántico, serving pan-Latin cuisine; Jaleo, a more casual tapas bar; and Zaytinya, with Greek- and Turkish-influenced cuisine—that he knows the rules of presenting clear flavors and excellent ingredients, and he has earned the right to break them. At Minibar, his own laboratory (which the other restaurants subsidize), he has achieved the goal those young chefs long for—self-expression.

I asked Adrià at the end what he thought of the meal, and he answered indirectly. “Traditional cooking is the culture of the people,” he said. “In gastronomic cooking, it’s the culture of a person. Minibar is the way to understand the life of Jose Andrés.” If that cigala was the evening’s purest expression of his life, I’m willing to follow Andrés—and maybe even other Adrià acolytes—into the future.