Epicurean Excess: MadridFusion 2019

Hungarian bartender Zolton Nagy of Botique Bar in Budapest creating a mixed drink to pair
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A most colorful Chef Edu Quintana soup course
A most colorful Chef Edu Quintana soup course

Epicurean Excess – MadridFusion 2019

There is no other way to describe the over-the-top wining and dining I experienced at the recent food show I attended, MadridFusion 2019 (official site). Mine was a level of excess on the grandest scale.

the pop-up Michelin restaurant where Chef Edu Quintana of la Bicicleta served lunch one day
the pop-up Michelin restaurant where Chef Edu Quintana of la Bicicleta served lunch one day

Don’t get me wrong. MadridFusion 2019 was a GREAT show, brimming with enough innovation, rock star chefs, and El Bulli controversy to satisfy the record 13,000 attendees. But, there were also a nearly endless succession of vendor’s booths plying passersby with food and drink non-stop. That was on top of the many chef’s demonstrations and wine tastings to partake of, and the Michelin star chef lunches each day. I had a blast! And still, I managed to attend some great master classes and even learn something! Let’s start from the top.

The Most Newsworthy Chef’s Presentation

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Chef Angel León pouring “salt water” on barnacles to “cook” them
Chef Angel León pouring “salt water” on barnacles to “cook” them

Angel León “chef del mar” only serves seafood at his 3 star Michelin restaurant, Aponiente. His exploration of the possibilities of “alternate” edible products from the sea could have been a presentation in itself. His work to identify and serve 10-12 new ocean-based foods besides fish each year alone could have been the high note of the event. That is, until he started to talk about salt.  His liquid salt cookery stole the show. I don’t know whether it is culinary wizardry, hard science, or both, but Chef León combines four salts with water to create a liquid to cook seafood. Before the amazed eyes of the audience, he poured a beaker of his saline solution over a row of fresh prawns – and watched it turn into a solid crust of salt! In so doing, it generated a heat of 135 degrees C that cooked the prawns in minutes.

after the liquid salt solidifies and cooks the barnacles – Amazing!
after the liquid salt solidifies and cooks the barnacles – Amazing!

He did the same trick with a dish of barnacles, which could easily be removed from their shells after the salt was chipped off. The audience was stunned; the press rushed the stage, making this culinary spectacle the highlight of the show. And, it’s an all natural process that will be used at tables near you as early as this year. Yes – Chef León plans on marketing this process as early as this coming August. Soon home cooks will be able to astound their dinner guests with this culinary trick, but it’s only happening at Aponiente now.

The Disappointing Chef’s Presentation

Ferran Adria was more critical then creative
Ferran Adria was more critical then creative

After that, my patience was sorely tested when Ferran Adrià seemed to be angry about his critics claiming he hadn’t done enough since El Bulli closed eight years ago.

During his presentation titled: “El Bulli1846 Creative Team First Call”, he announced the relaunch of El Bulli as an experimental food lab and recited a litany of all the things he was going to do in the future. It was an impressive list: 35 new books, an encyclopedia, a library, a new web site . . . but by the third time he railed against his critics he seemed more on a defensive than a creative path. I felt badly for him when it was over.

The Best Chef’s Presentation

Chef Ana Ros with her assistant preparing trout 9 ways (in 35 minutes!)
Chef Ana Ros with her assistant preparing trout 9 ways (in 35 minutes!)

Other chef presentations widely fluctuated between impressive creations of dishes and menus, to impressionistic presentations of ingredients.  The presentation I enjoyed most (after Chef León’s salt cookery) was chef Ana Ros of Hisa Franko in Slovenia. She displayed a monster 20 lb trout dubbed “Martha” that they flew in from her restaurant. Even discolored, with exploded eyes from the airplane cabin pressure, it was a magnificent specimen.  I live in the famed fly-fishing region of the Catskill Mountains in New York State, and I’ve never seen it’s equal.

Trout roe dramatically framed by the trout’s backbone
Trout roe dramatically framed by the trout’s backbone

But what was most impressive about her presentation, besides her considerable talent, was her engaging candor. She announced a nine-course meal to be created from that trout in her allotted 35-minute timeslot. Then she said “This is the first time I’ve tried this” and did it! Many of the other presentations came off as either under-prepared or so over-rehearsed that they could have been prerecorded – not hers! And, in the process, she used every part of the fish, including the fins and the backbone.  Apparently, this trout is a rare, protected species with only a few allotted to her kitchen each year, so every bit has to be used, both to honor the fish and to justify its killing. She made it look easy.

The Rest of the Chef Presentations

Chef Najat Kaanache’s artist’s palette of colorful dabs, smears, and splashes
Chef Najat Kaanache’s artist’s palette of colorful dabs, smears, and splashes

Other chefs were less ambitious in their presentations. For an artistic look at an explanation of Moroccan cuisine, Chef Najat Kaanache of Nur in Morocco didn’t attempt a meal or even a dish. Instead, she created an artist’s palette of colorful dabs, smears, and splashes to illustrate the essential ingredients of Moroccan food. It was visually stimulating, and her comments about how to use some of the ingredients were helpful, but I did not come away with a recipe or a technique to improve my cooking.  However, I did gain an appreciation of what Chef Kaanache has undertaken. With her half Basque, half Moroccan heritage she would have been right at home in San Sebastian, Spain, where she could have the colleagues, the supply stream, and the freedoms female chefs enjoy there. (I’m talking about you, Elena Arzak.) Instead, as a Muslim woman in Morocco, she could not even go to the market without having a male escort. Then, once the buying was complete, everything had to be transported on the backs of mules to her restaurant.  She should be applauded for her success under adverse conditions.

Sidebar To Success

Hungarian bartender Zolton Nagy of Botique Bar in Budapest creating a mixed drink to pair
Hungarian bartender Zoltan Nagy of Boutiq Bar in Budapest creating a mixed drink to pair

An interesting gimmick, or nod to the burgeoning importance of cocktails and sommeliers in modern cuisine, was a sidebar (literally – the bar was on stage to the side of the food presentation) where the perfect pairing for each dish – be it wine or cocktail – was prepared and presented with the finished food. Because these were master classes on such a grand scale (there were thousands of people in the audience at any given time) only descriptions of the drinks were offered, no tastes or aromas were available to reinforce the words.  An exception I have to cite was by Hungarian bartender Zoltan Nagy of Boutiq Bar in Budapest. In two presentations he nimbly created a cocktail and then offered a taste to a few audience members. But his saving grace was his announcement that upstairs, at the Hungarian booth, he would be serving these drinks to anyone who showed up. It was a generous offer I took him up on both times.

The Real Epicurean Excess

Mallorca booth where festival goers enthusiastically consumed the aperitif ‘Herbs de Majorca’
Mallorca booth where festival goers enthusiastically consumed the aperitif ‘Herbs de Majorca’

These presentations were part of the 11 demonstrations and panels each morning, with more running through lunch and into the evening. They were on two stages located on different floors, with the gamut of vendors to run between them.  That’s where the debauchery comes in. Even going to my Michelin lunches meant eating and drinking my way through the crowded corridors. There were floors of vendors promoting over indulgence along with their brands, handing out samples of everything you can imagine, from caviar to jamon, and oysters to water. Plus, all manner of booze flowed, especially in the press section.

A most impressive Encinegra jamon carving lesson
A most impressive Encinegra jamon carving lesson

One afternoon, searching for the press lunch I was promised, I unwittingly fell down the rabbit hole of libation excess just by accepting all that was offered to me. In a scant hour I consumed a glass of champagne, a shot of Chivas Regale, a Hungarian mixed drink (thank you Zoltan!), three different white wines, an elaborately made Roku gin & tonic, two glasses of beer, the aperitif ‘Herbs de Majorca’, and finally, a glass of Cava. With that I had a cup of coffee, many helpings of passed hors d’oeuvres, a sous vide egg, and a plate of Spain’s famed jamon iberico. I guess I found the promised press lunch after all! Then I retreated to my room next door at Hotel Pullman to use the bathroom and take a nap. Eating and drinking can be exhausting!

Vendor applying bacon foam on a sous vide egg dusted with toasted bread crumbs for breakfast in a bite
Vendor applying bacon foam on a sous vide egg dusted with toasted bread crumbs for breakfast in a bite

Views of a Modern Kitchen

colorful Casa Décor tiled room – crazy!
colorful Casa Décor tiled room – crazy!

Another afternoon some fellow journalists and I took a side trip to Casa Décor, an avant-garde design show house, to see how modern kitchens will look in the future. It was five floors of stunning, silly, freakish, bizarre, impractical and fabulously decorated rooms – some of them kitchens. I loved it! There was a fur room, one with a cascading plant ceiling, one with a mosaic of tiny colorful tiles covering the walls, floors, and ceiling – crazy things like that.

closing the pocket doors turned the kitchen into a chic dining room
closing the pocket doors turned the kitchen into a chic dining room

It was fun, but the kitchens were the best. Expect to see multi-functional kitchen islands with no hoods over the grills, wok holes, and burners, just a hidden countertop vent to suck the smoke and fumes out so quietly you won’t notice it is on. The open pantries and shelves all had hidden pocket doors to close, hiding any clutter behind them. One could go from a busy looking kitchen to a clean-lined dining room, with the island becoming the table. In Europe, the thinking appears to be housing will be smaller and multi-functional, and they are cleverly designing for it.

The Takeaway

Chef and cookbook author Joan Roca did a great presentation on the future of sous vide
Chef and cookbook author Joan Roca did a great presentation on the future of sous vide

But it really was the chef demonstrations, the lectures, and the panels that showed me our food future. More sustainable farming and harvesting practices, coupled with more plant-forward menus of hydroponic and organic exotic fruits and vegetables are coming to a restaurant near you.

The takeaway: Food shows serve an important function. They show us the innovative techniques of our top chefs as they introduce us to new concepts and products becoming available. We network with colleagues and share perceptions, all the while having a ball. When you have the opportunity to attend a food show of any kind – GO – and prepare to be amazed!

Thanks to the Madrid Tourism folks for putting up with me. The Casa Decor visit was part of the Gastrofestival, a three week
culinary extravaganza you have to attend.

Also see: Where to Stay in Madrid: Hotel Catalonia Gran Via in Madrid, Spain

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