A culinary revolution has taken place in Spain: during the past thirty years the gastronomic capital of San Sebastian has generated no less than 21 Michelin stars - more than any other place on the planet. Leading French chefs have enormous respect for the 3 star Spanish vanguard of Juan Mari Arzak, Martin Berasategui and moustachioed Pedro Subijana. So much so, when New York's new French Culinary Centre opened last autumn it shunned the top chefs of Paris placing them in the cold store, while favouring their exciting Spanish counterparts. The star quality of el Bulli's Ferran Adria and youthful Latin brilliance of Quique Dacosta was simply too much to resist. Michelin continues to dole out epicurean peerages but within this rarefied world of luxury dining, Gallic chefs can sometimes appear worn down and in need of a re-tread. The Spanish often lead the way and continue to pioneer cutting edge techniques with enthusiasm and immense passion - it is an exciting time to be a world-class chef.
Chef Pascal Barbot on one of two large stages at the Kursaal CentreA Winter Pilgrimage: During four damp days in late November the world's greatest chefs gather together in San Sebastian's Kursaal centre, an ultra modern building of frosted glass and steel, situated hard against Spain's glorious Cantabrian coastline. The vertiginous Atlantic surf provides an unusually dramatic backdrop for a host of kitchen icons whose familiar names adorn the spines of so many cookbooks. Guerard, Marchesi and Arzak from the ‘old guard', along with young pretenders like Piége, Garcia, Blumenthal and Roca. Fifty legendary chefs with a combined star count sufficient to dazzle the Astronomer Royal, offer not a second glance toward the most beautiful urban beaches in Europe, cramming their not inconsiderable egos into this jarringly modern cube, they collectively cook up a storm. On the command of Rafael Garcia Santos, Europe's most respected gastro critic and editor of the LMG guide to fine dining (Spain's answer to the Michelin guide) - this galaxy of top toques assemble to perform their culinary skills before a congress of fee paying delegates and casual visitors. For the past eight years up to 50,000 food and wine lovers congregate annually to share ideas and epicurean passions, simultaneously increasing their knowledge and expanding waistlines.
Backstage at Lo Mejor De La Gastronomia 2006
In the anti-room: the gourmets and critics confer on the merits of each beautifully presented dish...
"...commentators say food rocks...well here it certainly does"
"one by one the chefs stand before a massive cinema screen beaming live pictures from the steaming subterranean kitchens of the Kursaal"
In this modern media age commentators say food ‘rocks', well here it really does; indeed, each chef takes his celebrity turn (no females on view this year) beneath the unforgiving beam of a stage spotlight - a situation more familiar to pop singers than cotton clad cooks. Within two capacious auditoria, each holding up to 2000 delegates, one by one the chefs stand before a massive cinema screen beaming live pictures from the steaming subterranean kitchens of the Kursaal. As each respective team of restaurant cooks perform their magic on screen, with multiple close up camera shots, we learn from the stage-bound maestro the secrets of his gastronomic success. It is a magical experience and the atmosphere is charged with anticipation and excitement. To be a part of this and meet so many legendary chefs is inspiring for anyone interested in food and fine dining.
CHEFS ON STAGE
Jean-François Piege of the famous Hotel de Crillon in Paris (left) and Dani Garcia from Spain
L to R: Nacho Manzano (Casa Marcial - Spain), Alfonso Iaccarino ('Don Alfonso 1890' - Italy) and Paco Torreblanca ('Totel' - Spain)
"Critic Rafael Garcia Santos: like the gastronomic Pied Piper"
L to R clockwise:Quique Dacosta ('El Poblet' - Spain), Alexa Atala ('Dom' - Brazil) and Jordi Vila ('Akimia' - Spain)
The greatest culinary show on earth is how one might describe Lo Mejor De La Gastronomia - ‘the best in food'. The brainchild of a seemingly indefatigable Garcia Santos, a man driven by a constant search for culinary perfection - who plays two hours of tennis each day to burn up the inevitable accumulation of calories. Repeatedly visiting the world's leading restaurants he marks each with points out of ten. Direct and fair, his judgement is clearly respected by the assembled throng, like the Pied Piper he calls the gastronomic tune and amazingly each invited chef departs his or her kitchen range from every corner of the globe, including Japan, Brazil, North America and all points European... heading swiftly down to northern Spain.
Heston takes modern gastronomy into another dimension...
THE REVOLUTION - EVOLUTION DEBATE
Michelin three star chef Michel Guerard (left) contemplates, while Jurgen Dolasse of ZDF magazine elucidates ..
Rafael Garcia SantosA Festival Atmosphere: In addition to the main chef demonstrations within the auditoria, a festival atmosphere is found throughout the event. Dozens of stands are arranged on three floors offering every kind of produce, from the finest marbled Spanish beef, magnificent Joselito cured hams, extra virgin olive oils, Iberico pork and the miraculous flavours of Dutchman Rob Baan's ‘micro-vegetables'. Rob owns a company in Holland named Koppert Cress and recently introduced me to the virtues of gourmet quality smoked salmon incongruously coated in dark chocolate! His latest collaboration with super chef Ferran Adria of el Bulli is a marriage made in heaven and no doubt destined for commercial success. Fine wine now plays a large part at LMG and is rapidly expanding a claim on available space within the Kursaal centre each year. Most of the leading Spanish producers are represented, though too few independent winemakers showcase their work at present - among the usual suspects on offer in November 2006 were: Marqués de Càceres, Bodegas Julian Chivite, Cordoniu (inc Scala Dei and Raimat). The star of the show was the exceptional ‘Cirsion' from Bodegas Roda in Rioja. Though priced significantly above many other Spanish offerings, it is without doubt a wine of great distinction. The inexpensive high quality Spanish white wines continue to provide valuable lessons, for the Bordeaux wine trade in particular. The outstanding white wine at LMG this year would have to be Belondrade y Lurton, ironically, as its name might reveal, this stunning wine from Rueda is made by a Frenchman! Now in its eighth year, LMG is a carnival of Michelin's elite, but seems to attract little attention within the UK and only this year did Garcia Santos invite his first English representative - Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck in Bray. Little is known of LMG in Britain, when one considers the tremendous boom in UK fine dining over the past decade this might seem rather puzzling. Though Britain may not have the father to son culinary culture of other European nations, it would seem sensible to join in and support such a worthy enterprise. Who knows, our chefs might gain enormous benefit from sharing ideas and observing these great artists at work. On a recent visit to the restaurant Akelarre in San Sebastian, the ever-jovial Pedro Subijana (3 star) questioned me as to why no British chefs had applied to join the pan European community of chefs known as Euro-Toques? He disappointedly explained that most European nations had representation, with the exception of Britain. On a more positive note, Heston Blumenthal was warmly welcomed by the majority of LMG delegates, he literally brought the house down with a memorable presentation involving shattered wine glasses, blowing bubbles and concluded by offering every delegate in the auditorium a free bag of ‘Fat Duck' handmade children's candy, complete with scented atomiser!
His command performance on the first day won the hearts of fellow chefs and delegates alike, as well as the admiration of many for his imaginative thinking and great sense of fun. Heston made the LMG congress his own - and as a natural communicator has the great skill to explain complicated ideas in a straightforward and entertaining fashion.
To his great credit, Rafael Garcia Santos is able to persuade many famous chefs to visit his hometown, by sharing their personal philosophies, techniques and theories with an enthusiastic audience of professionals and amateurs alike, culinary standards are raised and innovative theories explained. This year's LMG congress was a tremendous success - it is an event for food and wine lovers everywhere.
In San Sebastian, food is religion and a visit to Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia is a pilgrimage well worth making.