One recipe, improved a hundred different ways.
Held over three days in April at the SMX Convention Center, the third edition of Madrid Fusión Manila Food attracted 1,400 local and international guests from China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Macau, Taiwan, Denmark, Kazakhstan, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA. Among this number were six Michelin-starred chefs. High Life sat down with Pedro Subijana, Paco Pérez, Jordi Roca, Julien Royer, Magnus Ek, and Gert De Mangeleer.
WORDS JOSEPH L. GARCIA
Pedro Subijana’s flared whiskers might make him look jolly (and he is, don’t worry), but this man cannot be more serious about food. In the 1970s, he and his contemporaries began a food revolution by introducing New Basque Cuisine, taking the flavors of the Basque region in Spain and molding them into the appearance and texture befitting French nouvelle cuisine. For all his efforts, the chef has managed to achieve three Michelin stars for his critically acclaimed restaurant Akelaŕe, as well as four Repsol Suns — the Spanish and Portuguese equivalents of Michelin stars awarded by The Association of Friends of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy (Real Academia de Gastronomía) and the Good Food Guild (Cofradía de la Buena Mesa).
Mr. Subijana was in town earlier this year for the 2017 edition of Madrid Fusión Manila. He sat down with High Life after quite a hectic day of speaking at the food congress. Overhauling Basque cuisine, filled with rich stews jostling for space with lighter seafood dishes, was no easy task. Known as a pioneer of the New Basque cuisine movement, we asked Mr. Subijana what was there in the Basque region — climatic and social, that contributed to his inspiration. He clocks it up to the seasons. “We are used to always using the product typical for each season,” he said. Madrid Fusión Manila, set in April, was right in the middle of spring in Spain, and he listed down ingredients that he craved for the season: asparagus, very tiny pears called “tear pears,” as well as mushrooms that only sprout from the earth in spring. As for the people, and the place itself, he said, “Inspiration is not something that comes from an origin. It can only happen while you work. Always trying to find different ways to do the same thing, working and working.” He paraphrases fellow Spaniard artist Pablo Picasso, saying, “Inspiration gets you while you’re working.” (The quote goes: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”) It’s not something you choose.
The autonomous region of the Basque Country has found itself in conflict with Spain itself as it sought, for several years and through several movements, the freedom to self-rule. Conversations about food, usually a safe topic, have not been spared from these political differences. Mr. Subijana, responding to a question about the differences between Basque cuisine and Spanish cuisine, corrected High Life: “There’s no such thing as Spanish cuisine. It’s regional cuisine. In each region, you can find the same recipe, for rice, for paella; and in each region, you have different recipes that are typical from that part, the same ingredient, and that happens with all recipes.”
Mr. Subijana’s daughter, who was acting as interpreter, spoke about her father’s reimagining of traditional Basque cuisine (think pintxos or perhaps fish stews) through Akelaŕe, now a three-Michelin-star restaurant: “What they do with all the recipes, they try to improve them in 100 different ways.” She added, “You can do a hundred tests, and if they don’t work, that’s it. You go to another one. But if it’s not perfect, it won’t come out.”
Of course, had Mr. Subijana done things differently, he may have come up with something new, but it could no longer be called Basque. Asking about the things he keeps, and the things he removes, his daughter said, “He really respects what others have done. That’s the reason why we’re here. We owe them a lot…but he likes to make cuisine that you can remember, that give you a touch of our history.”
But it’s not just Basque history on his mind. According to his daughter, one of the best things that has happened to her father was when an old couple came to dine at his restaurant, and they told him that what had been made tasted like something they ate years ago, in another restaurant in Spain: not knowing that Mr. Subijana was the same chef who cooked there. “That’s one of the best compliments he can get,” she said, “He’s so happy because they recognized him with the style of cooking.”
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