Star participant Emil Bahr discovered Spain as ‘Food Mekka’ during eight-month program
Emil enjoys his prize in San Sebastián. Alejandra Garrido/©ICEX
Author: Emmie Declerck/©ICEX
René Redzepi of Noma got his inspiration in Spain, according to winner of ICEX contest.
It is Saturday in the old town of San Sebastián, and the pintxo bars are getting ready for a busy evening. I am standing in front of ‘La Cuchara de San Telmo’, one of the most famed bars in town. Emil Thybo Bahr has suggested this culinary spot as a meeting point. It must be one of the places the young chef from Denmark remembers from his gastro-travel through Spain, which is part of the Training of Foreign Professionals in Spanish Gastronomy program. Emil took part in 2009 and was only twenty-five when he won the ICEX International Spanish Haute Cuisine Competition, the culmination of a program which aims to expose young chefs from all over the world to the huge diversity and quality of Spanish gastronomic products.
Finally, Emil has found some time to come to San Sebastián and enjoy his prize, a 3-night-hotel stay and dinner at two Michelin-star restaurants. And pintxos of course.
It is a ‘busy’ gourmet weekend for Emil and his colleague and good friend Samat, who accompanies him on his reward trip. Today they have had lunch in Arzak and yesterday they had dinner in Mugaritz.
“There were no big surprises in Mugaritz, as I worked there as an intern, ‘military style’”, he smiles. “My internship there in 2009 was part of the ICEX program.”
Emil found out about the eight-month program three years ago, when he felt he needed a change: “I am keen to learn and always looking for new experiences. I had worked eight months in Paris before, but had been back in Denmark for several years. It was time.” It was Danish chef Lars Lundo, who won the very first edition of the competition in 2007, who told him about the program. Emil did not doubt for a second.
“The ICEX program gives young chefs the opportunity to do an internship in two of Spain’s finest restaurants. Lars advised me to mark El Celler de Can Roca as my first choice, as it is a great family-run restaurant where I got the freedom to learn different things.”
Mugaritz was recommended to him by others. “The advanced techniques that they use, are fascinating. However, some of the most traditional recipes can be the most interesting. Just look at the kokotxas al pil-pil (Basque dish of hake chins in oil and gelatine based sauce). It is so simple, but there is a great idea behind it.”
Denmark and Spain, Surf and Turf
For the ICEX competition at the end of the program, which gives all participants the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of Spanish gastronomy, Emil and the others were given a list of representative Spanish ingredients. They had to choose a minimum of three. Emil used seven of them to create his winning dish, which consisted of charcoal-grilled Ibérico pork belly with barbecue sauce, piquillo pepper, spring onion, tomato and anchovy salad, olive oil, basil and sherry. The main idea behind it was the connection Emil discovered between Denmark and Spain during his ICEX experience:
“Some parts of Spain and Denmark have certain things in common. For instance, we like our traditional ‘farmer’s food’. The combination of pork, onion and potatoes or white bread, for example, is popular in both countries. I wanted to use one great-quality local product which both countries have as the main ingredient, which is why I chose Ibérico pork. Spain has Ibérico ham but Danish pork is also renowned for its extraordinary quality and ninety per cent is exported.”
Emil also added an ‘international flavour’, in reference to the group of international participants on the program. “Everyone loves barbecue sauce.” He finished the dish off with pickled salad or ‘a taste of Spain’. “It’s the perfect Mediterranean touch.” The anchovy gave his recipe a Spanish approach, as fish and meat are often combined in one dish in Spain, for example, paella. “They call it ‘surf and turf’. Sea and earth.”
High quality in a Can and Ham
Apart from Ibérico ham, anchovy was another Spanish product which made a profound impression on Emil during his ICEX stay in Spain. “I was amazed by the great range of carefully selected canned products in shops, such as piquillo pepper, olives and all the different kinds of fish and seafood. In my country ‘canned food’ is looked down upon as inferior, whereas in Spain it can be an excellent ingredient in haute-cuisine. That was an eye-opener.”
Spain as one big Playground of Food
When Emil participated in the program, it was his first time in Spain. He and the other twelve participants started with one month of language training in Madrid, followed by one month of travelling to explore the gastronomic culture of each region. Emil, who began visiting the Spanish markets as soon as he got to Madrid, became especially fascinated by Iberian ham.
“It is very hard, if not impossible, to get it in Denmark. In supermarkets you may find Serrano ham, but Ibérico ham is a real delicacy, served in Danish top restaurants, and definitely one of the first products I started to order from Danish companies who specialize in Spanish food products after I got back home.”
However, Emil does not think it is quite the same to order Spanish products from his home country. “You can only really find the great selection of Ibérico products here. The sausages, for example, are amazing. On our gastronomic trip, we also learnt to distinguish the different cuts, such as the presa Ibérica. That is great knowledge to take home.”
Emil especially enjoys surprising his customers using Spanish products they don’t know. “I served them presa Ibérica once, and because the meat was so dark in colour, the customers were convinced it was veal. I love to make them guess and then explain.”
He is thrilled to be back in Spain and see the hams hanging off the ceilings again in tapas or pintxo bars. “You could never do that in Denmark. It is simply not allowed. Here you can really feel the love of food. Spain is like one big gourmet playground!”
A farmer’s meal of meat and onion
On his food journey, Emil discovered that Spain had a lot of the things he liked. “We went to Salamanca, where they served traditional countryside dishes, similar to the kind we have in Denmark. One excellent product, served with onion, was suckling pig. We visited a restaurant which had been doing only that for over a hundred years! I think specialising in one thing in order to excel is beautiful in cuisine.”
In Denmark, Emil worked in a ‘farm-style restaurant’ for years. Now he is going to start working as the head chef in another Danish restaurant, where they wanted someone young to bring in fresh ideas. Spanish food products will of course be part of those new ideas. “In fact, I was so impressed by my experience in Spain that I went back after the program to work in a restaurant in Málaga. Unfortunately, the restaurant was in financial trouble and after three months, I had to go back home.”
From Spanish cuisine back to Danish roots
Is it easy to import when he gets hungry for Spanish products in Denmark? “It is very expensive. We have to order big quantities from specialized companies if we want them for a better price. When I first got back, I slowly started to import Spanish products. Although you always have to work with the offer you can get from home, it is good to have the knowledge to make the right selection. I also enjoy teaching the people I work with about Spanish products and techniques.”
Is Spanish cuisine ‘hot’ in Denmark?
“Definitely. It has gone from French to Italian and from Asian ‘fusion’ or mix of flavours to Spanish cuisine, which is all about texture and technique. Now Danish cuisine is really in, thanks to Noma, the number one on the list of Best Restaurants in the World. But in fact, René Redzepi is only doing what Spain has been doing for years, which is using local and seasonal products. He got that idea during the time he trained at elBulli and took it home to apply to Nordic products in Denmark. His formula really caught on.”
So Noma is inspired by Spanish cuisine? It is the Danish version of local and seasonal cuisine in Spain?
“Absolutely. People love it because everybody got so tired of trying new things all the time, of making a carrot taste like something completely different. Now they want a carrot to have the maximum carrot flavour. And although they’ve come to push it really far, carrying out studies to see what people in Denmark ate more than two hundred years ago, and actually want to go back in time, you could say that Denmark has found its own roots again. Thanks to Redzepi, who got his inspiration abroad, in France and Spain. You see, the greatest chefs today have often travelled the world. That is why I think the ICEX program is a fantastic idea.”
Still, René wouldn’t use any Spanish products in his kitchen?
“No, because Noma is quite extreme. Personally, I think that if a product is better in France or Spain, you should just admit that and use it.”
It’s time for Emil to continue his food journey and sample new flavours in the renowned pintxo bars of San Sebastián. There are numerous pintxos to try, both in traditional and modern bars. The food journey in Spain never really stops, does it? “It is definitely a food Mekka to always come back to.”
Emmie Declerck, is a culinary guide, writer and translator. She lives in a small fishing village near San Sebastián, Northern Spain.