Rethinking food together

On its 17th edition, San Sebastián Gastonomika-Euskadi Basque Country once again became the meeting point for the great chefs of haute cuisine. Maida Pineda was there

San Sebastián is known to have one of the highest concentrations of Michelin stars in the world, with 16 stars to a population of 200,000 people. But from 4 to 7 October, the number of Michelin starred chefs rose even higher, as Spain’s best chefs came together in this culinary congress to meet and learn. A total of 1,300 delegates attended this year, coming from 28 different countries.

The event is divided into four categories: ALTA workshops in the auditorium where the best chefs in the world show off their latest creations with live presentations and cooking demonstrations; OFF workshops, classes, and tastings for wine and restaurant professionals; MARKET where 150 Spanish and international companies promote their products through tastings and presentations; and POPULAR where the first day of the conference is open to the public.

ALTA’s theme this year was “Explosión Oriental,” looking to Singapore as the brand new gastronomic hub of Asia. As Rosser Torras, the Director of Grup GSR organising the event explained: “The big difference this year is Singapore. For the first time, we have been able to see on the stage all the Singaporean cuisines from the avant-gardist Western-Asian flavours to Peranakan traditions to the different fusions growing out of this 21st century Asian city.”

Putting the spotlight on Singapore’s cuisine was timely, celebrating the republic’s 50th birthday this year. Twelve chefs flew in to showcase Singapore’s diverse cuisine namely: Dave Pynt (Burnt Ends), Ryan Clift (The Tippling Club), Malcolm Lee (Candlenut), Justin Quek (Sky on 57), Willin Low (Wild Rocket), LG Han (Labyrinth), Jet Lo (Ding Dong), André Chiang (André), Wayne Liew (Keng Eng Kee), Pepe Moncayo (Bam!), Peter Teo (Les Amis) and Emmanuel Stroobant (Saint Pierre). Inside the congress, delegates were intrigued by Chiang’s creative use of fermentation and juices to make beverages with unlikely combinations like pine needle, charcoal, and apples. Outside the auditorium, they sold authentic hawker dishes like laksa noodle soup and coffee pork ribs for the public to sample.

There were also presentations by Jowett Yu, Margaret Xu, Yau-Tim Lai, and Torpham Nurdin from Hong Kong; Vladimir Mukhin from Russia; and Jose Avilles from Portugal sharing inspiration from their unique culinary approaches.

For Joan Roca from El Celler de Can Roca, attending the congress is akin to an annual home coming. “Gastronomika has changed all the chefs tremendously. It has made us grow. I think all chefs were born professionally in this congress,” he said. “It is important for us, not just individually, but it is also crucial for us to gather as a group, to share knowledge on Spanish cuisine, learning from international chefs as well.”

The congress works as a safe space for chefs to explore creativity, putting forward both the ideas that work, those that did not, or even work-in-progress concepts. Roca unveiled new creations inspired by his recent travels with his brothers and other ideas sprouting in La Maisa, their new farmhouse nursery for creativity. Andoni Aduriz from Mugaritz explained how food rituals generate a community, while Elena Arzak demonstrated her use of new ingredients like bee pollen. Albert Adriá openly shared the difficulties in mounting his latest project in Ibiza called Heart, collaborating with Cirque du Soleil to mix food, art, and music into an experience.

“It is time to rethink everything,” was the message Arzak conveyed in her presentation on the last day of the congress. Reading a moving letter she had written to fellow chefs, her father, and the audience, she articulated a call to action to rethink not just food but the role of chefs. “The future is in the heart of re-thinking,” Arzak said. “Ultimately cooking is only an excuse to share our stories.”

Maida Pineda

image credit: Coconut

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