Turnaround Time After a Year of Culinary Excitement
German trainee Anton Glasner of Icex gastronomy programme, year 2007-2008, in La Broche restaurant in Madrid. Miguel S. Moñita and Lucía M.Diz/©ICEX
Author: Rodrigo García Fernández/©ICEX
They were the first on a training program that is here to stay. A year ago, 14 young chefs came to Spain to learn the secrets of Spanish haute cuisine. Before returning home with their suitcases full of memories, they met up with the next batch of ICEX gastronomy interns. To add spice to the hello and goodbye party, a contest was staged - a cooking competition combining tradition with the latest Spanish culinary ideas.
The surname Koch (meaning "cook" in German) seems like an unintended declaration of principles. Or perhaps a stroke of destiny. What is true is that Magdalena Koch is about to say farewell to what has been her most intense experience so far as a chef. She left Germany 12 months ago to take up a professional, linguistic and personal challenge which, she assures us, has left an everlasting impression.
Her case is a rather special one among the participants on the ICEX Gastronomy Internship Program. First, at 19, she was the youngest, and second, she worked throughout the 11 months in a geographical context that has its own well established culinary personality: the land of Don Quixote -Castile-La Mancha in central-southern Spain. "I've had the opportunity to get to know the two best restaurants in La Mancha, Las Rejas (Las Pedroñeras, Cuenca) with Manolo de la Osa, and El Bohío (Illescas, Toledo) with Pepe Rodríguez Rey, and to see how their avant-garde cuisine is based on local ingredients and traditional regional recipes." Among the many memories she will be taking home are the local products. "My favorites are the purple garlic from Las Pedroñeras, saffron, Manchego cheese, rabbit and partridge. And I wasn't accustomed to using so much extra virgin olive oil for cooking and for giving the finishing touch to dishes."
All the participants on this first ICEX training course are devoted young chefs and, when you ask them about their impressions, many of them inevitably speak of ingredients, culinary techniques and food-related experiences. Anton Glasner, also from Germany, spent six months at the restaurant Café de París in Málaga (Andalusia) and another six in Madrid at La Broche. Both offer haute cuisine, but their styles are very different. "What I loved at Café de París was seeing the fishermen coming along in the morning with super-fresh fish and shellfish", he says. "And I will always remember my visits to food markets in Spain. The explosion of aromas and colors they offer is something I had never seen back home."
The change from Málaga to Madrid was noticeable; from a relatively compact city on the sea to the bustling Spanish capital, and from a kitchen where it was impossible to squeeze in more than four cooks to La Broche, where there were over 12. The restaurant had just changed hands. The previous chef, Sergi Arola, had set out on his own and Ángel Palacios, who had been working alongside him for years, had just taken over.
Apart from some initial nervousness, Anton coped admirably with the change. "Ángel is a splendid chef, and the whole team at La Broche was very kind to me." And it just so happened that last April Ángel Palacios won the Spanish Chefs Competition and represented Spain at the Bocuse d'Or. While working alongside him, Anton learned how to work with textures using the latest techniques and to use seaweed, an ingredient from Galicia that is very much in vogue in Spanish avant-garde cuisine.
Innovation and Local Produce
All the young chefs were especially interested in the innovative techniques being used in Spanish restaurants. This is partly the result of the international fame and influence of Ferran Adrià. Ronny Emborg, a 28-year-old Danish chef, was able to gain firsthand experience by working first at La Hacienda de Benazuza (Sanlúcar la Mayor, Seville), and then at elBulli (Roses, Gerona), with a two-month period in between at Mugaritz (Rentería, Basque Country), alongside Andoni Luis Aduriz .
After their period of training, these young chefs have gained an overview of the techniques being devised, used or interpreted by Spain's best chefs. Rasmus Leck Fischer, also from Denmark, was placed on the team of Martín Berasategui (three Michelin stars) in the Basque Country, where he learned, among other skills, the vacuum technique for preparing new chocolate textures. His experience with the Basque chef enabled him to learn about ingredients that he had never previously thought of, such as fish offal. "I was most impressed by Martín's style. His cuisine is authentic, original, full of flavor and modern, yet its roots lie in traditional Basque cuisine." And not only that, but Rasmus also had the opportunity to work in the laboratory, the restaurant's testing kitchen, which he described as "very exciting".
These young chefs are fascinated by the culinary avant-garde, but what about traditional cuisine? Rasmus is certain: "My favorite dish is kokotxas al pil pil." Magdalena chooses Spanish tortilla, and Anton Eff, another of the course participants, selects a typical dish from Catalonia, where he was stationed for the 12- month period: buñuelos.
Anton's mentor during his training period was Santi Santamaría at the three-Michelin-star Can Fabes restaurant in Sant Celoni, inland from Barcelona. Here the culinary philosophy is clear: to preserve the real flavor of products and, whenever possible, to obtain the raw materials from local suppliers. Anton's experience was a real immersion in the culture of Catalonia and in the local produce used in the restaurant: "I really enjoyed working with locally-grown vegetables such as asparagus, and the mushrooms and truffles collected from the local woods have tremendous culinary value."
Close to the Source
The near future for these young chefs is mostly a big question mark. Some of them plan to continue traveling to expand their gastronomic horizons, whereas others will be returning to their home countries to continue training or to work in top-tier restaurants. And some, like Takayuki Kikuchi, the only sommelier and Japanese participant on the course, found the year in Spain too short. Before he was selected to participate in the ICEX program, Kiku worked at Tokyo's most prestigious Spanish restaurant, Sant Pau, under Carme Ruscalleda (three stars in the Michelin Guide). He had already been to Spain and knew a lot about Spanish wines, but his year in La Rioja, at El Portal de Echaurren (in Ezcaray) under Francis Paniego, enabled him to deepen his knowledge of Rioja culture.
"In Japan", he says, "it was impossible for me to gain much insight into winemaking. I mean the way the vines are tended, what goes on in the winery and all the steps wine goes through before it reaches the table in the restaurant." The healthy balance maintained in the DOCa Rioja wineries between tradition and modernity is one of the factors that Kiku valued most. "Many of the Rioja wineries, including the youngest ones, are experimenting and searching for new profiles for new customers. I learned something new every day, and was delighted to be able to transmit some of that to the customers."
There were some key moments for Kiku during his stay in La Rioja. One that he will never forget was the New Year's Eve celebration in Echaurren. The Paniego family and the restaurant team were keen for Kiku to participate in the Spanish Christmas traditions, and he did. "At midnight, I did what most Spaniards do. I swallowed a grape with each of the bells ringing in the New Year, a total of 12. It was a very emotional experience."
September 2008. The time has come for the changeover. The pioneers make way for their successors, 20 young chefs who have come to Spain to take in as much information as they can about Spanish gastronomy. The end-of-course party and the inauguration of the new one took place in the medieval town of Sigüenza, home to the Spanish Institute of Gastronomy, a 2 hour drive to Madrid. But before the celebrations began, the newcomers had a chance to help their predecessors in the kitchen, as each prepared a dish for an end-of-course cooking competition. The challenge is to devise a dish based on both traditional and avant-garde aspects of Spanish gastronomy, to be judged by a distinguished panel of judges made up of top chefs, food writers and gastronomy professionals. The prize, though, was well worth the effort: a fully-paid weekend trip to the Basque Country, with lunches and dinners in the region's best restaurants.
It's a great goodbye for those finishing and a warm welcome for the new arrivals. A number of changes have been made in the program to help perfect what is a groundbreaking, unique, global initiative. Javier Sierra, director of the training program, lists some of the measures adopted for the second edition. "We have increased the number of places to 20, with chefs coming from Germany, Denmark, the US, Japan, Switzerland and a new country for us, China. We have signed collaboration agreements with some of the top catering schools in these countries, such as Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts in China and the Culinary Institute of America in the US, which will be helping us select participants.”
The list of prestigious Spanish restaurants has also been expanded to include some notable new names. All the chefs who acted as gastronomic tutors in the first edition will be repeating, but there will now be some other Michelin star-holders, among them Kursaal and Guggenheim (both in the Basque Country and members of the Berasategui Group), Calima under Dani García in Marbella (Andalusia), and one of the revelations on the Barcelona scene, Alkimia with Jordi Vilà. Finally, Oriol Balaguer will no longer be the only representative of Spanish avant-garde pastrymaking. He has now been joined by Paco Torreblanca (Elda, Alicante) and the world's only desserts-only restaurant, Espai Sucre, captained by Jordi Butrón (Barcelona).
The internship program family continues to grow with new students, restaurants and collaborating institutions. The goal is ambitious but more than worthwhile: to give enthusiastic young chefs the opportunity to get to know Spanish gastronomy, products and wines, and to work hard in haute cuisine. They are the real stars in this initiative.
Rodrigo García Fernández is a journalist and he is currently a member of the editorial team at www.foodsfromspain.com