By Pola Esguerra del Monte, High Life staff writer
A SQUAB LIES in the middle of the plate, its stiffened neck and dried-out eyelids a portrait of death. In place of the young pigeon’s heart is head of garlic, standing on a pitch-black streak of charred eggplant puree. Skull and bones are scattered on a beetroot gastrique where the “innards” are dispelled: morsels of latik and cashew. The dish harks, in a gustatory manner, to the colonial Spaniards’ execution of national hero José Rizal.
"NOLI ME TANGERE" by Rob Pengson
“Noli Me Tangere,” a dish by The Goose Station’s chef Rob Pengson, was flashed on a screen in front of Spaniards and Filipinos who sat side-by-side, wetting their lips. In another lifetime, friars would have flinched.
But the year is 2015. A century has passed since the American ships’ guns fired upon Spanish ships in Manila Bay, and today the bright orange sun warms the calm waters. On April 24, Pasay’s coconut trees, skyscrapers, and ubiquitous coffee shops were the backdrop to a new revolution in Manila, the city where 350 delegates to the three-day Madrid Fusión Manila listened as 20 chefs from la madre patria and the former colony discussed the future. More specifically, the future of food.
There is much to learn from Spain in terms of gastronomy. Spain is one of the countries at the center of the world of gastronomy, teeming with Michelin-starred chefs. Meanwhile, the Philippines, whose dishes are infused with traditional Spanish elements inherited from 300 years as Spain’s colony, has yet to discover how to move on from morcon to degustacion.
One of the most influential chefs in Spain, Andoni Luis Aduriz, who gave a talk entitled “Open Creativity,” defined the “new” as criticism. Sitting down with BusinessWorld before the congress began, the chef of Mugaritz said: “We think about how we can do what we do now in another way. An innovative way. Gastronomy derives meaning within a context, but the context is changing.”
The chef has followed in what seems to be a tradition of creativity in modern Spanish restaurants. He learned this from Ferran Adrià, considered one of the best chefs in the world, who put Mr. Aduriz in elBulli’s “creativity area” for three years. When the apprentice left his master, Mr. Adrià’s parting words were: “You have a gift in creativity. It has to be a center of your work.”
At his two-Michelin starred restaurant Mugaritz, the top floor is dedicated to creativity. There’s a special kitchen where a team of seven people -- two chefs, a chemist, and four people doing research on gastronomy -- work on different projects all year, all-day long.
Francis Paniego of the two-starred Echaurren has a similar system. For two months, four people convene in a special kitchen to contemplate trends for the next year. Speaking onstage at Madrid Fusión Manila, he likened the creative process to a mother delivering a child. “I don’t know how that feels but it must be painful. Creating has to be painful. It has to stress you. But then suddenly, eureka! It’s 2 a.m. and we’re working,” he breathed. “It’s amazing.”
Mario Sandoval, who holds the record as the youngest chef to be given a Michelin star, seconds this. “It’s very difficult to create new things,” he said. “New items are few. There’s a lot of copying. To create new avenues is difficult.” The key, according to him: “You have to be intelligent.”
For celebrated pastry chef Paco Torreblanca, “Art has to be provocative but if you don’t have the knowledge, it’s useless.” However, he considers the new as simply a reimagining of the past. In his lecture “Sweet World, Happy Ending,” he sculpted isomalt, a sugar substitute, into futuristic cylinders for dessert. Garnering a standing ovation, he said that what has been done doesn’t interest him anymore. Before turning his back on the crowd, he said firmly, “We have to move on, move on, move on.”
There was a recurring theme among the Filipino chefs’ lectures at the conference, peppered with references to the Philippine revolution against Spain. Paintings of yesteryears’ battles were flashed on the screen, followed by anecdotes on moving forward. It was in stark contrast to the Spanish chefs, who, if they ever even mentioned our shared history, would refer to the those 300 years as a “fraternity.”
Mr. Pengson, who crafted a tasting menu that retells the story of the national hero, is perhaps one of the more provocative Filipino chefs. Sticking to his belief that Filipinos should rediscover history through food -- a movement he calls New Filipiniana -- he dedicated his hour to talking about creating food around Rizal’s execution.
On the other hand, another Filipino restaurateur Margarita Forés, the lady behind Lusso and Cibo, raised the country’s flag by presenting uniquely Filipino food ingredients. Her philosophy, using the best local ingredients and putting them beside the best in the world, was reflected in her dishes which featured balut (fertilized duck eggs) and sperm bags from local tuna.
Claude Tayag of Bale Dutung discussed Philippine adobo, differentiating it from Spanish or Mexican adobo, and emphasizing that adobo is not so much a dish but a cooking technique that has been around even before the Spaniards arrived. That the technique persists today and creates versions as varied as the number of households in the country -- or even more -- signifies resilience.
As the chefs discussed their theories at the congress, next door was the trade exhibition, a festival of sorts. Booths overflowed with their respective products -- chili ice cream, nachos, caldereta, bread, wine, olive oil, rice, chocolate, liquor, blenders, candies, wine refrigerators, etc. The companies had all placed their bets on the gastronomical revolution that Madrid Fusión Manila was about to spark.
The International Rice Research Institute’s (IRRI) Casiana Vera Cruz, the head of the Heirloom Rice project of the Los Baños-based organization, has high hopes that interest in gastronomy would influence consumers to patronize heirloom rice. Heirloom rice -- black, brown, red, and varying in texture and flavor -- are varieties handed down through generations of small landholders, mostly in the Cordilleras. Currently, there’s a niche that patronizes heirloom rice, which costs at least three times the price of regular white rice. Chefs like Chele Gonzales of VASK and Robby Goco of Cyma have picked up the grains due to their rarity and uniqueness that makes them perfect for degustation menus. “They are the local champions,” Dr. Vera Cruz declared. The chefs are the influencers who will open doors for consumers to partake of the previously unknown varieties.
The future of the heirloom rice varieties is shaky. With changing times and more opportunities, farmers’ children are less willing to take up the family business. The lack of understanding on how to make an enterprise out of heirloom rice, which traditionally is grown by farmers to feed themselves and not sold commercially, also poses a risk in the continuity of the varieties. IRRI is thus working to provide assistance to farmers so they can create a market for heirloom rice, and eventually learn to thrive on its business.
The future of Philippine gastronomy is also shared by the Spanish food industry. On the occasion of Madrid Fusión Manila, Jose M. Ferrer, chief executive officer of Wingara Wine Group and maker of Freixenet Cava, is releasing the fruity sparkling wine produced in Catalonia. With more sophisticated palates for food, more sophisticated palates for wine are expected to develop.
Meanwhile, Spanish capa blanca, or white pork, is also expected to enjoy continued patronage. According to the Interprofessional Organization for Capa Blanca Pork, meat comprises a dominant section of the Spanish food and drink industry and around a million tons of pork, worth about €2.3 billion, is currently being exported.
To promote white pork, the group invited Kisko Garcia of Michelin-starred restaurant Choco to cook a pork dish. While there is nothing new about cooking pork, Mr. Garcia, like the other chefs at the congress, sought to inspire. He cautioned, however, that inspiration barely means anything.
“Today it’s with you. Tomorrow it’s gone,” he said of inspiration. To him, innovation is simply two things -- knowledge of the product and mastery of technique -- but “it takes a long time to become what one will become.”
The long-term effect of Madrid Fusión Manila rests in the hands and minds of the youth. On the sidelines of the event, students from the Magsaysay Center of Hospitality and Culinary Arts, Enderun Colleges, and other culinary schools were scanning IDs, ushering delegates, and from time to time, asking for photographs with the stellar foreign chefs who may only pass this way once. “This is heaven,” remarked one of them, as she followed the path of her culinary gods.
It’s a far cry from what Rizal might have imagined the future to be when he stood in front of the firing squad. Yet isn’t this what modernity is supposed to be? “Move on, move on, move on,” Mr. Torreblanca urged. But the revolution continues, the lives of squabs being sacrificed as a reminder that we are still the same nation the heroes left behind.
Originally posted in Business World Online (www.bworldonline.com)
April 29, 2015 06:51:00 PM