This article was also published in the Financial Times.
On the night before I was to make my first appearance on the stage of Madrid Fusion, the annual gathering in late January at which top chefs from around the world demonstrate their prowess in the Spanish capital, I walked into the bar of the Hotel Ritz to find Ferran Adriá of El Bulli sitting on his own, cradling a campari and soda and demolishing a large plate of crisps.
After a warm embrace, he explained how much in particular he had enjoyed cooking in 2009 as, by extending his restaurant' season to 20 Dec, he had been able to introduce game on to the menu for the first time as the normal October closure was too early for it to be available. He then, tantalisingly, held out at arm's length his press release for the following afternoon when he would announce that he would be closing El Bulli for two seasons in 2012/13 while he writes a major book before re-opening in a new format in 2014.
For those who know Adriá well, this did not come as too much of a surprise. The pressure he and his business partner Juli Soler have been under as the leaders of the progressive cooking movement has been obvious for some time. And this apparently less active period seems likely to bequeath many new ideas to the world's chefs.
The following morning on the stage of Madrid Fusion, Adriá's influence was obvious. He has always maintained that it was his first visit to China that was the the greatest influence on his approach, and different Asian cooking techniques were promptly demonstrated by Cheong Liew, the inspirational Malaysian chef at The Grange in Adelaide, Australia; David Muñoz from DiverXo in Madrid, who spent three formative years as the first non-Chinese chef in the kitchens of Hakkasan, London; and William Ledeuil from Ze Kitchen Gallerie in Paris. Ledeuil's emphasis on quick grilling, bright Asian ingredients to add colour to dishes during a drab European winter, and the importance of acidity by finishing a dish with citrus, whether lemon or orange zest, could be easily, widely and effectively adopted by professional and amateur chefs alike.
I then climbed on to the stage alongside Ruth Reichl and Jeffrey Steingarten, eminent food writers from the US, Jean-Pierre Gabriel, the renowned Belgian food photographer, and Marco Bolasco from Slow Food in Italy. Our mission was to attempt to provide answers in 45 minutes to the topics that currently confront many chefs: the future of haute cuisine; potential new business models for the restaurants of the future; and the fact that this industry must show a greater responsibility towards the environment, an area to which many Spanish chefs seem particularly indifferent.
We also addressed a challenge confronting chefs and restaurant columnists simultaneously: the rapidly growing number of food bloggers and the increasing importance of the internet. What most frustrates the chefs I spoke to is the continuous use of cameras in their restaurants, which immediately send pictures around the world of dishes that have invariably taken a long time to create, often to their rivals. Reichl and I agreed, however, that bloggers, however inexperienced, are enthusing a younger generation of potential customers who will respond enthusiastically if the price, food and service are correct and the setting distinctive.
Madrid promptly provided two such restaurants, Sudestada and DiverXo, both of which have recently moved to more comfortable settings - although their origins are very different.
Sudestada (where I took this picture of Madrid's mineral water and my glass of white wine) is Argentine owned - the original branch is in Buenos Aires and the name derives from the wind that sweeps up the River Plate from the Atlantic – but the chef, referred to by one and all by his nickname of Tien, is Vietnamese. And its interior is one of the most simply stylish I have come across.
Although the restaurant is definitely not 'haute cuisine', each table is laid with thick white tablecloths, on which sit two white bowls waiting to be filled; the pillars are mirrored; circular ceramic lights generate extra warmth; and there is a thoughtful metal rail along two walls for personal belongings. The waiters in white with full-length, Argentine-designed, aprons tied around their shoulders and neck are equally distinctive.
The menu pulls no punches, with each description of the dozen dishes short, sweet and direct. The Vietnamese spring rolls were fresh and crisp; a red curry of slow-cooked ox cheek hot and spicy; their special crisp rice dish, 'com chien', a really successful blend of diced mushroom, Chinese sausage and rice that popped in the mouth; while the conversion of a mango lassi into the base of a dessert topped with lychees and an exquisite lemon sorbet was an excellent manifestation of skills in an area most Asian chefs overlook. Lunch for two with a glass of sherry and white wine each came to 120 euros.
Although a Madrileno, David Muñoz, 28, and his even younger partner, Angela Mentero, have set out on an even riskier culinary journey. Without a backer, they initially opened DiverXo in a small and rather scruffy setting before moving only a couple of months ago into the current modern, very black setting in the suburb of Tetuan, crucially close to a business and residential area.
DiverXo's current menu reflects Muñoz's obsession with Asian ingredients and techniques while the passion he instills in his eight other chefs, for a maximum of 30 customers, ensures a series of continually evolving dishes. Most memorable were a dumpling of black pudding and quail's egg; his reinterpretation of the gratin of mussels common to many Spanish tavernas; a reworking of the chilli crab found in Singapore; and another reinterpretation, this time of Peking duck, using thin tortillas rather than pancakes as the essential wrapping. Burn-out may eventually be Muñoz's biggest threat but it is certainly not a lack of talent.
Madrid is now home to a growing number of chefs combining the best Spanish produce with Asian techniques and flavours. Travel, a growing number of Asians in the city, and the ease with which the Iberico ham can be used for so many Chinese dishes are several, interconnected reasons. But so too is Adria's influence and the confidence he has given so many young Spanish chefs.
Sudestada, Ponzano 85, tel 91 533 41 54
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