Dreaming of Donostia: The Road to Madrid Fusion Manila

Marco Rodriguez celebrates the significance of the convention and traces his passion for Spanish cuisine from San Sebastian to the Philippines

by Rogue

Madrid Fusion Manila is one of the biggest culinary events to have come to our shores. Marco Rodriguez celebrates the significance of the convention and traces his passion for Spanish cuisine from San Sebastian to the Philippines

It might very well have been any mundane summer afternoon in the city—the one where extreme balminess hangs like a fog, bearing down heavily on one’s bare skin etching it with elaborate patterns of condensation. Yet, with all the unpleasant stickiness equated with summer, there was an unmistakable fever that gripped the air. It was mid-April and the Greenbelt mall grounds were awash with activity. Families out for a stroll with their brood in tow, adolescents wistfully staring into each other’s eyes—lost in saccharine-infused love over a round of iced coffee, a giant paella being cooked in the center of the sunken plaza. Wait—a giant paella? Now, that’s something you don’t see everyday.

Like how all good paellas are conceived, this one started with a smoking-hot pan—all 10 feet of it. Balanced atop a bed of burning embers, the pan was laced with pools of olive oil. It was the biggest cooking vessel I’d ever come across by any stretch of the imagination. The grocery list was a hefty one: 100 kilos of rice, 60 kilos each of poultry and seafood, 35 kilos of chorizo, 25 kilos of red and green peppers, 15 kilos of onions, 10 kilos of garlic, and more than enough chicken stock to fully tank up a large SUV. A cadre of nine chefs from Le Toque Blanche were tasked with preparing this gargantuan meal. Aided by their assistants, they worked in shifts using aluminum shovels long enough to keep a safe distance from the screaming heat given off by the coals and burning sheet of metal. As with road workers laying a fresh bed of asphalt, they vigorously mixed and tossed the ingredients together in order to ensure precise and even cooking. The day was a scorcher. The afternoon sun bore down on the hardworking chefs. The humidity coupled with the extreme temperature emanating from the cooking source made the heat all the more merciless. Far be it from them though to whither and disappoint the group of hungry spectators who gathered around, and with tummies a-waiting, cheered them on to fruition.

This was the opening salvo to Madrid Fusion, one of the biggest and most recognized gastronomic summits in the world. The Philippines was chosen as the next culinary arena of the 12-year event, showcasing the most progressive and avante-garde talents from Spain and across Asia. Such celebrated participants included Elena Arzak of Arzak (3-star Michelin), Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz (2-star Michelin), Quique Dacosta and his eponymous restaurant (3-star Michelin), Alvin Leung of Bo Innovation (3-star Michelin), just to name a few. Given our more than 300 years of shared history, these luminaries would come together with some of the best Filipino chefs such as Margarita Fores, J. Gamboa, Claude Tayag and Myrna Segismundo. All at the top of their game, in a harmonious exchange of ideas and cooking philosophies. The frivolity and blasé manner in which Michelin stars were being tossed around in conversation were just too much for me to bear. I was beside myself. And this was happening in a little under a week!

A rousing flamenco number punctuated by fiery rhythms and fierce heel-clacking was in effect as I made my way to share a table with some family members over  generous servings of that paella gigante. One would likely presume that a paella of such ambitious proportions would be nothing less than sheer spectacle—a visual come-on and pompous show meant to entice the mob; but lacking in such vital departments as quality and flavor. But truth be told though—after the first large forkful of arroz gained entry into my mouth; I was overcome with amazement at discovering that this gargantuan one-pot wonder was actually dead-on delicious! I partook of this made-for-dinner afternoon snack amongst pleasant company. Convivial exchanges always transpire over good food and amongst people with a strong appreciation for it. Deep inside; however was another matter altogether. Beneath the lively facade in which I allowed my companions to see was that of one sullen and forlorn individual.

Talk was rife around town about quasi-covert dinners being prepared by these star chefs along with their Filipino counterparts. As with any hot table, most especially the prized one-night-only pop-up variety, seating would undoubtedly be scarce. Given this fact, these events shouldn’t be advertised in the usual way lest the food-obsessed horde run amuck and beat down the establishment’s door. Everything flew well under the radar. Now, either I was too preoccupied with other matters at hand, or living in a bubble of my own making, I was forced to stand by the wayside and witness my once-present clout with industry insiders suddenly hitting the skids. I had only myself to blame for not having my ear close to the ground, this considering the personal anticipation that welled up inside of me for months. My sister-in law Roselen recounted her own experience in booking for the dinner prepared by Elena Arzak, who along with Andoni Luis Aduriz, were considered the hottest tickets in town. She recalled the selective reservation process and erstwhile waiting game she had to endure. After several follow-ups, her persistence paid handsomely as she was able to score two of the remaining seats at Vask for the Elena Arzak-Chele Gonzalez collaboration. Happy as I was for her to hear this bit of news, all it was doing was slowly chewing at my insides and underscoring the inadequacy of my own efforts. How I, a few days earlier, was scrambling for a chance at these coveted seats, only to be turned away at every vain attempt.

The paella’s once roaring fire had long been put out. But the continuous revelry wore well into the night. The chefs gave each other high-fives for a job well done, and scraped the bottom of the pan for the final precious bits of bright-orange socarrat. We said our goodbyes and parted ways at the plaza’s center. With a wry smile, Larry, my ever thoughtful brother-in-law, winked at me and promised to send me some pictures.

I first heard of the news back in January. It was a Friday afternoon, and I was getting some much-needed office backlog done over a latte. It was a slow and tedious affair as I, saddled by a persistent eyestrain, squinted at pages of construction reports and statistics. I distracted myself every now and then by glancing at patrons chirpily going in and out of the coffee shop, all done with work and eager to get the weekend started. Nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary that day. I looked away from my computer screen at one point and checked my phone—admittedly, a less than ideal remedy for someone at the onset of a throbbing headache. But what I saw on my Facebook feed rendered me speechless: Madrid Fusion was coming to Manila. After taking a step back and making sure that my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, I was hit with the realization that a confluence of talent was about to come to our shores. April 23 to 25 were the dates to watch out for. I was determined that absolutely nothing would stand between me and this modern day epicurean extravaganza!

 

I’ve always had a strong affinity for Spanish cuisine, especially the La Cocina Vanguardia movement. This new style was established by the two pillars of Basque cooking, Pedro Subijana and Juan Mari Arzak, when in 1976, Paul Bocuse visited Madrid and spoke at a Round Table of Gastronomy. This changed the face of Spanish food forever. No longer would they remain the heavy recipes of yore. Their mission was to apply the ideas of French Nouvelle Cuisine in order to further refine and elevate traditional Basque dishes. 2011 was a banner year in my culinary life. Not only was I to spend a good part of my honeymoon in sunny San Sebastian, where the movement was born, but I was going to dine at the restaurants of these legendary forerunners.

At the top of my list were the gold standards of Basque kitchens— Martin Berasategui, Arzak, Akelarre, Mugaritz, Etxebarri and Zuberoa, distinct sounding names that rolled off the tongue, each equated with excellence. As difficult as it was to narrow our picks, time, availability, and (most especially) budget dictated that we were to choose wisely and squeeze as much as we could from the experience.

Having just come in from Florence via Paris on a last minute reconfigured booking (budget airlines have the propensity to cancel flights even long after reservations have been made online filling an unsuspecting passenger’s heart with such loathing at the airline representative’s cursory shrug of the shoulders as if to say—shit happens), all I was thinking of on that busride from Bilbao were the prized reservations I almost certainly had to give up were it not for quick thinking at the airport and lots of blind luck. San Sebastian has the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world—fertile ground for the most creative minds who continue to fearlessly play and push the boundaries of cookery. A place I long considered the culinary center of the universe. A place I longed to be.

We pulled up next to an old, indistinguishable building on Avda. Alcalde Jose Elosegui. Its façade was lined with fired brick and a black awning that bore the restaurant’s name. We were ushered through the toast-colored bar into the dining room, its industrialized gray walls belying the structure’s 114-year old history. Its name “Arzak” (number 17 in the Best Restaurants list) was artistically written on one of the walls.

We feasted on a wondrously inventive parade of dishes, all meticulously and thematically plated: ham and tomato smoke, Kabraroka pudding with Kataifi, yellow crispy rice with mushroom, Cromlech with onion, coffee and tea, lobster coralline, lowtide monkfish with red seaweed, pigeon with orange and corn. The meal lasted for three hours, and offered us a glimpse of the immense talents of the great Juan Mari (considered the father of contemporary Spanish cooking) and his daughter Elena.

The tandem has mastered local ingredients, using cutting-edge techniques in ways that engage and regale the senses. Their cuisine is wholly research-based, a product of their experimentation in their lab above the restaurant. We were then served “Playing Marbles with Chocolate and Soup,” a toothsome prelude to the futuristic mead and fractal fluid dessert. It forms a visually arresting pattern once the red liquid containing cochinilla dye (taken from a South American beetle) makes contact with the honey at the base of the bowl.

Elena Arzak came out of the kitchen with a smile, approached our table and greeted us “hola!” Gracious and down to earth, she proceeded to pull a chair and join my wife Rosanna and me in friendly conversation. She took great care in providing us with much insight into the rich history of Basque chefs, the legends and rising stars alike, as well as the high regard with which they held their cuisine.

The meal ended with the arrival of the Ferreteria Arzak, a whimsical “hardware tray” of bonbons and other confections, fashioned to look like nuts and bolts.

“I must apologize. Igor is currently not in,” Elena says, referring to Igor Zalakain, a key member of their research team who’s job it also was to tour visitors around the premises. We were thoroughly satisfied with the entire dining experience. Any more hospitality could be likened to the addition of yet another egg yolk to that already decadent helping of tocino del cielo your Grandmother has waiting for you. For me, the entire trip revolved around this leg at Donostia, a haven for people like me. And that meal was the defining moment. “Why don’t you come back later tonight so we could properly show you around,” Elena invited. I hesitated for a moment, concerned about the tapas crawl I had carefully mapped out for that night. “You will come as our special guests, of course,” she continued. My judgment immediately righted itself. I would have been foolhardy to decline and think that such a proposition would ever happen again.

We returned at 8pm and spent some invaluable time with Juan Mari, who served us simple and hearty fare, the type he’d serve to family and friends at his own home. Jamon Iberico, manchego, setas, hake al pil-pil—I couldn’t have cared less about my tapeo at that point. We talked about the Philippines and how he’d want to visit one day. He took special note of our people’s smiles, our beaches, our jeepneys. After several glasses of wine, I made him a standing offer: should he ever visit, we’d extend the same hospitality by hosting him over at our place. “Si! Por que no?” he replied.

The day of the Madrid Fusion International Gastronomy Congress was at hand. I hurriedly gathered my things as I made my way out the door. Pen: check! Notepad: check! Endorsement letter necessary to get me an all-access pass: hell, yes! I made it a point to render my schedule bereft of any unnecessary distractions, which meant putting my phone on silent for the day. Stealing glances on it only when necessary, but ready to be whipped out in the sudden event of a photograph. I was committed to immersing myself in this unprecedented culinary conglomeration.

I arrived at the SMX Convention Center sometime around noon, just in time to catch the presentations lined up that day. Anyone who’s held public figures in high esteem can relate to the immeasurable excitement felt upon meeting them in the flesh. The fact that they traveled halfway across the world to an island nation whose cuisine (certain quarters say) is on the cusp of global rediscovery, made it all the more compelling. Partner this with the priceless knowledge to be gleaned from their individual lectures and the strong possibility of personally talking shop. I would not in the least bit be bashful to say that my palms and feet were getting damp just thinking about it.

The venue was filling up nicely as I gave the crowd a once over, searching for people I might know. In so doing, a familiar visage came into focus as she and her female companion made their way down the escalator. I didn’t count on seeing her so soon. “Chef!” I called out as she passed me by. “Elena!” She swung around to see who it was. “Yes?” she asked. Mustering up enough confidence at a moment’s notice, I had to take a chance without being too presumptuous. “No estoy seguro, pero te acuerdas de mi?” To my surprise, her face lit up with immediate recognition as I proceeded to re-introduce myself. “Si!” she replied with a hearty smile. My day was made. A brief conversation ensued in the lobby with the since crowned Veuve Clicquot Best Female Chef in the World 2012. A title conferred on someone who remained unaffected in spite of it and her many other accolades, maintaining the same kind of warmth she did four years ago in San Sebastian. We chatted for a while and before parting, made sure to ask about my wife while extending her best wishes.

Many informative talks were given that day. Among those I attended were of Quique Dacosta who talked about rice, a daily staple, and the different ways in which it is presented: dry, creamy, and soupy. He proceeded to wow the crowd by deftly unpeeling an entire piece of socarrat from the bottom of a paellera in one single pull. There was also Fernando Arracama, who spoke about the kind of food he ate growing up in Negros, how it shaped him, and how he utilizes some of those strong childhood flavors to this day. And, of course, there was Elena who opened everyone’s eyes to the progressive and innovative style manifested in her cooking while demonstrating the strict science that goes behind it. Lunch breaks were equally inspired affairs as imaginative and refined versions of the very familiar were brought forth. Among the small bites offered were reinterpretations of food we hold dear: kinilaw, bringhe, morcon, balut, and crispy pata.

Feeling the need to console myself while a privileged segment of the dining public ate like royalty, I opted for a backup plan and made dinner reservations later that night at one of Manila’s hotbeds of creativity: Mecha Uma. I was in the mood for Bruce Ricketts’s cooking—himself a young, hyper-inventive chef whose unexpected use of fish sperm as a key element in one of his dishes is at once disturbing and bold. Seeing how he’s not dictated by norm, he resoundingly succeeds in his brazen and gutsy interpretation. My first encounter with said delicacy years ago would’ve benefitted greatly by his touch, as it remains to this day the most bizarre thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. I haven’t quite recovered from it yet.

We arrived for the 8:30 seating that Friday night. The place was buzzing with excitement as we entered its doors, and the wait staff busy getting everything in order. We wondered what on earth was going on, and later learned that a VIP worthy of such commotion called in to make a reservation that night. None other than Andoni Luis Aduriz would be dining in our midst. I was unable to book Mugaritz on my last visit to Basque Country, and this development offered a different experience. I’ve always wondered what chefs did in their downtime, when they were one of us.

Aduriz is a multi-awarded chef hailed as one of the foremost minds in the industry. His restaurant is consistently ranked near the top of the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants (number six) list for the philosophical manner in which he approaches his cooking. A dozen smeared radishes, several layers of dressed Kokotxas, pulped eggplants and sharp leaves, cod tongues in a bone marrow emulsion, Lemon Succade with our herbs from yesterday and today, a sugary Porra—they sound like chapters in an imagination-laden work of fiction rather than a menu. This is a hallmark of his scholarly approach to cooking. Keeping his diners in rapt attention as the rest of his story unfolds. But tonight, he was the protagonist: people were watching what he ate, how he ate it, and whether he enjoyed it. How could he not know though? It probably didn’t matter much to him, anyway. We were given strict rules of conduct the night our food played second fiddle to the virtuoso: not to make a scene, not to stare, and to mind our own business.

I was led to the bar he was seated at the start of the meal. He was very accommodating and low-key. His voice was gentle considering how much of a titan he is in the world of cookery. “Un placer,” he said as I shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries. I wished him the best on his presentation the following day and mentioned how much I was looking forward to it. I left as abruptly as I came as I exited to the sidewalk both tired from the long day, but extremely fulfilled. Madrid Fusion, for all its segues and subplots, was turning out better than I could’ve dreamed.

I didn’t spend the desired amount of time I’d hoped at the convention center as obligations kept me away for most of that weekend. But what I took home from it was more from a personal standpoint. I witnessed the interaction between star chefs and those they’ve come to influence. I saw the potential of our cuisine as well as our place on the world stage. The time had come for all eyes to fall on us. Oft maligned by those who don’t understand it and overlooked by everyone else, our cuisine deserved this kind of exposure.

As noted Chinese writer and linguist Lin Yutang once said: “What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?” Nothing tugs at my heartstrings more than a steaming bowl of beef sinigang—the more sour the broth, the better. Or the nuttiest of oxtail kare-kares smeared with salty, briny bagoong. What about our national dish adobo with its many iterations spanning provinces and households? (I’ve recently taken a liking to the southern Luzon version: chicken fried crisp first then simmered in its sauce and thickened with the addition of coconut milk.) Who might be strong enough to suppress those primal moans of delight once a sizzling platter of sisig is laid before him? Certainly not me. However, it seems we’ve gotten complacent and somewhat sloppy. We all have some degree of preference as to how we like our food prepared and have gotten rather selfish. We fail to see the bigger picture, that these treasured recipes are good enough to share with other cultures who might like them, too.

It’s high-time we open ourselves up to the world. We’ve got a lot of work to do in order to get the recognition we deserve, but we’re surely on our way. Let’s start with the food, shall we? And it needs to be done right. These guys remain the best bet to take us there.

When not traveling in search of the next memorable meal, Marco Rodriguez could be found in the kitchen of his food outfit Xáncho creating some of his own. He considers Arancini al burro a genius takeout snack. “With every bite of that flavorful rice bomb, getting scalded by a burst of molten pecorino is part of the experience.”