January 14, 2020

Ángel León questions the importance of ingredients and Nacho Manzano turns the order of the menu on its head
Pitu Roca issues a call, on the second day at Reale Seguros Madrid Fusión, to tackle the challenge of allergies

Madrid. Ángel León doesn’t have birthdays but «madridfusiones», he joked as he came up onto a stage where he has triumphed so many times. He didn’t disappoint us. The sea chef once again became one of the undisputed stars of the second day at Reale Seguros Madrid Fusión, in which they explored the role of artificial intelligence in creative cooking, provided a response to the challenge of allergies and intolerances and even turned the order of the menu on its head, as we have known it up to now.

This time the chef from Cadiz didn’t come with a spectacular presentation; it wasn’t even attractive, like the time that he ordered the lights in the auditorium to be lowered in order to cook the light. In fact some of the dishes that he presented verged on the disgusting side, especially if we look at them without abandoning our prejudices. León encouraged the audience to stop looking through the glasses of cultural tradition «because they don’t let us see the larder that we have in front of us». Without them, a sea worm living in the mud in the marshes that fishermen use as bait becomes a delicacy that is on a level with the highly valued sea cucumber.

The chef made use of these disgusting worms yesterday to make us reflect on the value that we ascribe to food. «Why do we sing the praises of caviar if it’s not such a big deal either?», he dared to ask. He serves it up to the customers at Aponiente covered in mayonnaise to warn them which way the wind was blowing: never taking the easy route, something that the audience appreciates.

León also presented a sea stew with cold cuts of fish and algae noodle soup, a marsh onion or sea honey made from sea grass, but the message was always the same: there is a lot of food in the seas beyond the twenty or so species that reach the fishmongers. Look out, because it is also intended to raise the awareness of the younger generations, thanks to a new project to encourage the consumption of fish in schools through pastas, pizzas or chicken wings that actually conceal more than 75% of fish.

The thought-provoking presentation by Nacho Manzano also dealt with breaking down preconceptions, which might mean that many colleagues in his profession could consider turning the established order of the menu on its head. The owner of Casa Marcial sat the singer Víctor Manuel and the pastry chef Paco Torreblanca down on stage and served them a menu that started off with wild boar, continued with a woodcock, some ravioli or an eel salad, to finish off with a celery curd with sea urchins. The wine chapter also followed the same pattern the other round: first a Rioja gran reserve, then a sherry, a champagne, afterwards an alvariño and finally a txakolí.

«When you are hungry when you come to the table, you enjoy the wild boar and the gran reserva more, when you spend two hours in the restaurant you appreciate the eel salad and the txakolí», the chef explained. The reasoning behind this is compellingly logical. Why hadn’t it occurred to anyone earlier? Apparently, in eating matters we are not really used to questioning established ideas.

Manzano’s presentation complemented a study presented by Kiko Moya and a research team from Valencia University, who have been working on measuring the degree of emotional satisfaction of a diner throughout a menu. The result is extraordinarily revealing. In a menu lasting 2 hours and 40 minutes the emotional levels go down by 15% once the half-way point of the meal has passed, whereas if two courses are eliminated and the duration of the meal is shortened by 30 minutes, the positive perception of the experience increases by 14%. Take note all those people who still think that the more enormous the menu is, the better.

Speaking of making changes in a sequence of dishes, just imagine the challenge posed for the team at El Celler de Can Roca by having to deal with the needs of customers with allergies or intolerances. As Pitu Roca explained, 5.8% of his customers, 23% of the tables and 50% of the orders entail changes for reasons involving health, religion, philosophy or merely fashion. Faced with this challenge, the maestro of the dining room issued a call to «act forcefully, cordially, generously, hospitably and with understanding». Placing diners’ health in the hands of waiters and chefs is a huge responsibility, but «we need to enjoy the pressure, and experience it as a challenge; we cannot tell customers that we do not accept them because of an intolerance».

However what is a challenge is the one that the sommelier François Chartier and the technology giant Sony have set themselves, as they have developed an artificial intelligence tool that can establish degrees of harmony between different ingredients to spur on chefs’ creativity. They gave the result to Andoni Luis Aduriz to try out. «The machine has provided a few keys, but behind it there is a great chef. It can complement the talent that someone may have, but not replace it». Fortunately.

Guillermo Elejabeitia