Aoife Carrigy reports on a recent trip to San Sebastián Gastronomika, one of the world’s most prestigious hospitality industry conferences.
It’s not every Monday that your dinner gets cooked by one of Spain’s eleven three-starred Michelin chefs, let alone seven of them. But then this had been a pretty special Monday so far.
I had spent the day at the 21st San Sebastián Gastronomika, a gathering of chefs, journalists and food professionals from all over the world. That afternoon, as my Twitter timeline fizzed and sparkled with the announcement of Michelin stars for Ireland (with five new entries bringing our national total to an unprecedented 21 Michelin-starred restaurants), I got goosebumps listening to veteran Basque chef Martín Berasategui reminisce about what can be achieved “if you believe in success”. It made me wonder where our own Irish food story may take us yet.
Berasategui was born to restaurant folk – his parents ran San Sebastián’s Bodegón Alejandro restaurant – and his father often questioned why Basque cuisine was not world-famous. Determined to help change that, Berasategui began cooking at 15, training with French masters like Alain Ducasse. He went on to secure a Michelin star for his traditional Basque cuisine at Bodegón Alejandro, followed by three stars at Martín Berasategui Restaurant (named after his father). Today, Berasategui has 10 Michelin stars – more than any other chef in Spain – between five of his 15 restaurants spread across Spain’s cities and islands as well as in Lisbon, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
In between long and loud standing ovations, he spoke movingly about the journey that his native Basque cuisine has taken in his 44 years of professional cooking. “It used to be that when you told your parents you were becoming a chef, they would be unhappy,” he remembers. “But today? Just look at the tourism that we’ve generated through gastronomy! And the best is yet to come.”
The key, for Berasategui, is to never stop learning – and he had come to the right place, as each chef’s presentation revealed some new idea or pioneering technique.
Chefs Eduard Xatruch and Oriol Castro of Barcelona’s two-starred Disfrutar (number nine in The 50 Best list) demonstrated their experimentations with a conching machine, typically used in chocolate making to blend, refine and emulsify fat (cocoa butter) and flavourings (cocoa solids). At Disfrutar the conching machine transforms various vegetable-, nut-, seed- or animal-based fats into vehicles for new textures and new flavours: a frozen bar of clarified foie gras fat, perhaps, flavoured with freeze-dried figs; intensely flavoured butters or completely homogenous and stable oils of remarkably concentrated colour and flavour, based on dried, ground flavourings such as orange peel, hibiscus or horn of plenty mushrooms.
Catalan chef Martina Puigvert Puigdevall of Les Cols (the three-star restaurant near Girona where she works alongside her father Fina Puigdevall) explained how rancidity, “if it is treated properly”, can be harnessed with delicious results, such as for curing trout within rancid lard.
Various chefs spoke about the effects of climate change on the resources of the land and sea and the need for chefs to respond in innovative ways, such as transforming invasive marine species or discarded off-cuts like fish bellies into truly delicious dishes.
That night, at the Basque Culinary Centre, a gala dinner was held in honour of 67-year-old Catalan chef Carme Ruscalleda, who had more Michelin stars than any other female chef internationally before she closed her three-starred Sant Pau restaurant last year. (She still oversees Moments in Barcelona and Sant Pau Tokyo, both two-starred.) The dinner was cooked by seven of her Spanish contemporaries, all of them three-starred Michelin chefs.
We kicked off with snacks from Jordi Cruz of Abac Restaurant: exquisite nigiri-style squid wrapped with cooked tuna skin, and wild salmon with cured egg yolk, trout roe and soy butter on crispy nori seaweed. Next, Joan Roca of El Cellar de Can Roca wooed us with truffle macarons filled with confit quail egg yolks, before Angel Leon of Aponiente Restaurant presented ‘sea bacon’, super-thin strips of smokey nuanced flavour comprised of pressed bellies of plentiful Mediterranean fish.
Eneko Atxa of Azurmendi served a gorgeously delicate plate of prawns set in vegetable gel with a tomato emulsion, and father and daughter team Juan Mari and Elena Arzak presented local fish draped with miniature sea grapes atop a shio koji flavoured emulsion. Pedro Subijana of Akelarre Restaurant concluded the savoury courses in style with pristine wild seabass in an umami broth, before Martin Berasategui sent out his show-stopping dessert of lemon with basil sauce, green beans and almonds, followed by petit fours of ‘Corazon berry’ strawberry gumdrops and crunchy hazelnut toffees.
On a day that felt like a coming of age for Irish food, in terms of international recognition, it was an extraordinary thing to experience this celebration of Spain’s place in the gastronomic world – and to remember that just one generation ago, that celebration was no more than a seed of a dream.
Aoife Carrigy travelled to San Sebastián Gastronomika as a guest of Turespana.
Author: Aoife Carrigy
Aoife’s first proper work experience (if you don’t count a formative stint as the milkman’s assistant) was a TY placement as a commis chef in The Wishbone in Glasthule, where she caught the restaurant bug. From her teens and through her 20s she worked front-of-house in restaurants around Dublin and beyond, before a freelance gig as restaurant columnist for the Dublin Event Guide and then Totally Dublin turned into a five-year full-time editorial stint in FOOD&WINE Magazine. She has been freelance since 2010 and keeps herself busy co-writing and editing cookbooks as well as writing on food, drinks and travel. Aoife is WSET-trained and is currently researching a Masters on ‘Cultural Representations of the Irish Pub’ at TU Dublin.