January 15, 2020

Millennials dipping into granny’s recipe book, veterans on the lookout for the be all and end all, and restaurants calling themselves “trans” bring an end to the most intellectual Reale Madrid Fusión Congress

It was a remark by a lad not yet thirty with tattoos all over his arms and the demeanour of a rock star, Floriano Pellegrino: “The real gastronomy revolution is how the chef’s role has changed”. Nail on head. The 19th century artisan, locked away amid pots and pans, zealous guardian of his secrets, has been transformed in the 21st century into a dynamic personage who travels the world and shares with it every idea buzzing around his mind. Skill in executing the recipe is no longer important. Now the main ingredient in the kitchen is identity, and an entire profession is out looking for it.

Contradictory identities, personalities projected onto plates and the search for roots were centre-stage at the most emotional Reale Madrid Fusión Congress yet. The event was wound up by Andoni Luis Aduriz with one of those outside-the-box presentations so typical of the restaurant. In a T-shirt showing the maxim ‘I don’t know’, the Mugaritz chef questioned the image people have of his restaurant – “sometimes people think we want to stir things up, but what we want to do is to show what we are”- or even whether it actually is a restaurant: “in a way Mugaritz is pretty trans”.

On stage he presented a frozen sigh, poetic and sensual, a live eel swimming around in consommé, which the diner can either pardon or sacrifice, a lust-provoking ‘trans’ honey-cured hedgehog and grapes caramelised with vinsanto conjuring up a trip to Santorini. But, as at his restaurant, what is really important is not what finally ends up on the table, but the reflections it induces. “If one hundred chefs visit the same place, and we all come up with something inspired by that place, it’s a safe bet we would come up with one hundred different recipes”. Identities that are defined more by the questions they ask than the answers that emerge.

At Arzak they take the identity discourse to more obvious terrain, and perhaps that is why they put their name everywhere they can, be it a bit of a potato or the peel of a lemon. “People like to be seen in photos”, Elena admits. Because sometimes visiting a restaurant is not just exploring the personality of the chef there, but building self-identity on the basis of suggestive experiences. Any visit to Arzak, and the legend it is, has an aspirational component. And the team there strives to surpass these expectations with ideas that wow, ideas people remember. This year they have been working with fruit enzymes to macerate meat and fish, in a bid to produce some interesting textures and subtle differences. The daughter of Juan Mari, a pioneer of turning what it means to be a chef on its head, feels it is important to convey the message that chef is still up to speed. Inherited identities.

Competition is rife, and embodied by the aforementioned Floriano Pellegrino and his partner Isabella Poti. Both of them gave the auditorium a lesson on how a millennial ought to behave. Their image is attractive, borne out by countless Instagram likes, their talk is packed with energy and inspirational sentences, and what they strut is being themselves, because that is what earns them a living. Their cooking borrows from grandmothers’ recipes: “We learned to do spherifications, but we’d forgotten about making chorizo”.

They could have set up a restaurant in London, where they met, but instead they decided to go for a place as traditional as La Puglia and open Lecce’s only Michelin-star restaurant, on the heel of the Italian boot. After all, their customers are not only those who can afford a place at their table, but thousands of followers who second all their actions on social media. After their presentation they released balloons and handed out the merchandising. Identities for mass consumption.

Roots always play a major role in the search for identity. Alberto Ferruz demonstrated this with his work on lamb from Aragón, the place he yearns for when he is in Jávea, as did Sergio Baillard, inspired by memories of his grandmother. But perhaps the deepest roots, literally, were presented by Begoña Rodrigo, who came up with a number of suggestions to remove tubers from the blender. The Valencian chef used turnips, sweet potatoes, parsnips, oyster plants and Jerusalem artichokes to fabricate a full menu where the absence of meat or fish goes largely unnoticed. Any underlying identity discourse here? “No, just that I can’t stand being bored in the kitchen”.