In most circles, when someone goes on stage at a culinary conference and cranks up a chainsaw, there might be cause for alarm. Not so at the annual Madrid Fusión, a gastronomic throw-down that for the last 11 years has thrived on the unexpected. At last week's 2013 edition, it took the form of Swiss chef Stefan Weisner of Gasthof Rössil restaurant in Escholzmatt (Switzerland) kicking off his presentation by carving a cherry wood plate on stage with a power saw, then reciting a Haiku, and finally dusting his finished dish with salt and ground cherry bark that had been placed on top of a throbbing 108-hertz speaker - there to be infused with the essence and beat of the cosmic Big Bang. And then there was the unexpected use of trout sperm as an ingredient by Italian up-and-comer Lorenzo Cogo of Restaurant El Coq in Vicenza in a dish enthusiastically dedicated to de-stressing "gestating mothers."
Lorenzo also employed another of this year's more interesting ingredients: milk or cream skin - the thin protein layer that forms on the surface of milk when it boils - which he draped over some type of yam that had been cooked in ashes in a special oven.
Madrid super-star chef David Muñoz of DiverXO restaurant also went the milk-skin route, in his case to cover a wild boar extract-infused stalk of white asparagus. Muñoz's dynamic and fast-paced presentation of 10 dishes in just 30 minutes also foreshadowed the emergence of a new trend. Though haute cuisine has always relied on the active participation of trained wait staff (think de-boning a fish or flambéing tableside), several of Muñoz's dishes took this concept to extremes. In one instance, when diners have emptied and "dirtied" their plates with sauce, a small box of fried rice is dumped on top. In another, diners have to take a few bites of the dish before the waiters let a few leaves of dried cabbage dusted with kimchi powder float softly down upon it.
Additional trends this year went one step beyond the "Foraging in Nature" theme that pervaded last year's congress. Instead of merely seeking out little known or used ingredients such as plankton or "bait" fish and turning them into masterful dishes, Ángel León of Aponiente restaurant in El Puerto de Santa María (Cádiz), actually transformed these humble flavors of the sea into flavors of the land, much as he did at the 2011 edition of Madrid Fusión with his "Sea Sausages" - fish products fashioned into amazing approximations of chorizo, salchichón and butifarra.
This year, the ocean-oriented chef demonstrated making "pork rinds" from dried moray eel skin, "ox-tail" out of almadraba tuna heads, "cheese" out of fish fat or hearts, and even "carrots" out of an unappreciated type of calamari (squid) called lula. I confess that to me it sounds somewhat like eating a tofurky (tofu-turkey) on Thanksgiving, but if the object is being inspired and having fun in the kitchen and the ocean, then León is your guy.
Of course, the idea of creating one thing out of another is nothing new to Spanish avant-garde cuisine, and the stakes to go one step further get higher every year. But beyond these fantastical inventions and dramatic presentations, Madrid Fusión is also a forum dedicated to the excellent products found in this country and the ways in which they become gastronomic inventions in the hands of top chefs.
This time around, Rodrigo de la Calle, Fernando del Cerro and Sergio Bastard had their way with broccoli; Josean Alija demonstrated gastronomic applications for coffee - the highlighted product of the 2013 edition - and Quique Dacosta, Sergi Arola and Miguel Ángel de la Cruz focused on Spanish cheeses.
All of these initiatives and the vast majority of presentations were closely tied to company sponsorships, but given the current economic climate, that is no surprise.
No, Madrid Fusión never disappoints, and this despite the new format forced on it this year by the closing of the city's Palacio Municipal de Congresos and the event's subsequent move to the IFEMA convention center. Held during January 21-23, this latest edition of Madrid Fusión has provided enough culinary novelty to keep us intrigued for quite a while, making good on the promise of this year's official theme, "Creativity Carries On."