Basque Culinary Centre, San Sebastian – Abstract Concepts and the Chemical Senses

 

Basque Culinary Centre, San Sebastian, Spain

Point of Contact: Berta Del Barrio

Overview

The Basque country in Spain is famous for the fact that it possesses the highest concentration of Michelin stars per capita in the world. With almost forty Michelin stars in the Basque country, it makes sense to ask what it is about this region that makes it such a special area for gastronomy. For me, the answer lays in the intensity of the Basque Country's political history - a distinctive cultural identity forged through self-preservation with a personality expressed through the 'language' of cuisine. I have seen a similar type of cultural expression as this in Poland, where the undercurrents of social tensions have been expressed through art; political protests, hopes and sorrows manifest on canvas and etched into sculpture. 

I identified the Basque Culinary Centre (BCC) as the institution that I wanted to host my research investigations. It was important for me that the idea of case study research with Basque restaurants was introduced through a familiar academic institution; the Basque Culinary Centre was the perfect institution to do so. I found it tremendously difficult to communicate with BCC, particularly at the initial stages. I emailed every address that I could find, including individual professors, to try to make contact with a person who would respond. The Head of Programming at Cervantes Institute, New Delhi, who was from the Basque region, also invested effort into opening a line of communication for me. After many months of emailing I was appointed a contact person to facilitate my visit. 

The Basque Centre arranged research investigations with three exceptional Michelin-starred restaurants: Arzak, Akalarre and Mugaritz. Arzak restaurant is home to Juan Mari Arzak, the principle founding father of New Spanish Cuisine - that special culinary tradition that launched the likes of Ferran Adria and Renee Redzepi into the international spotlight. Now run by Juan Mari Arzak's daughter, Elena Arzak, who was awarded as the best female chef in the world in 2002, the food of Arzak is playful and imaginative. Akalarre, under the leadership of chef Pedro Subijana, another of Spain's most influential chefs, is more classical in its expressions, however, his embrace of traditional elements does not detract from the importance of its voice. Finally, Mugaritz, fathered by Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, describe their food as techno-emotional cuisine. With an aim of providing sensory experiences with strong narratives, each menu item is an edible installation, realised through a mature process of multidisciplinary research and development.  In contrast to the stoic reverence of haute gastronomy in Denmark, in San Sebastian I discovered a provocative playfulness and expansive imagination.    

If there is truth to the notion that cuisine gives voice to the Basque regions cultural and political distinctiveness then the maturity of its gastronomy is a logical consequence; although I have seen inspirational food produced by talented chefs in New York, London, Delhi, and other global centres, I have yet to see food 'speak' with the potency that I discovered in San Sebastian. As such, it also makes then makes sense that the Basque Culinary Center is perhaps the most impressive culinary training institution in the world. More than a culinary trade school for enormously talented chefs, I discovered BCC to be a world-class research centre with its own Elsevier Journal, International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science, and a rallying point for the most accomplished chefs on the planet.   To be welcomed by the Basque center not only was an enormous privilege, it was also a great opportunity for me to realise my aim of discovering cuisine which communicates conceptually by way of the chemical senses.

 

Basque Culinary Center 

 

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Arzak Restaurant Interview

Chef Xabier Gutierrez

 

 
Arzak, San Sebastian
Case Study Investigation #1

 

Arzak was the first restaurant that I investigated and what I found was a contagious enthusiasm for playing with food. Throughout the time that I spent with Research and Development Chef, Xabier Gutierrez, I was impressed by the imagination and creativity that went into each dish that he showed me. Although I felt that I was getting very close to the conceptual conversation that I was looking for in Arzak's food, in the end, the conceptual potency of the dishes fell shy of artistic discourse. Arzak is a master of playing with the material of food, utilizing it to include diners in their beautiful and surprising fantasies; however, the dishes lacked the depth of conceptual complexity that is commonplace in conceptual art. My sentiment was that, although Arzak possesses the technical capacity and creativity to manipulate the material of food and their sensory properties to great affect, they have stopped short of engaging in artistic conceptual discourse. Perhaps the question is of the starting place; in art, the concept is most often the beginning of the development of the work, whereas in gastronomy, flavour/ingredient compositions of are often the starting place. While I believe that Arzak is certainly able to contribute to artistic discourse if they chose to do so, I was not given the impression that this was their vision for the restaurant. 

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Akalarre Restaurant Interview

Chef Pedro Subijana

 

 
Akelarre, San Sebastian
Case Study Investigation #2

 

Akalarre presented immaculate dishes, akin to classical artworks, however these dishes rarely entered into the conceptual realm. Although a few attempts were made to venture into the performative domain of Arzak, these conceptual excursions were more playful than philosophical. Akalerre's great strength is its classical compositions, that are presented in an exquisite modern way and which serve as a reference point for the modern Basque culinary dialogue. Without having understood Akalerre's cuisine I would have missed a critical dimension that forms the foundation for all of the mature Basque culinary endeavours. 

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Mugaritz Restaurant Interview

Chef Xabier Gutierrez

 

 
Mugaritz, San Sebastian
Case Study Investigation #3

 

When I arrived at Mugaritz, before even having examined their cuisine, I suspected that I had found the conceptual cuisine that I was looking for. This conviction didn't result from something that I recognised in their food, instead it was something that I recognised in their people. The mind of Ramon Perisé Moré, Research and Development Chef, was distinctively that of an artist. The difference that I discover at Mugaritz was the starting place for their "techno-emotional conversations"; Mugaritz does not begin with food, they begin with serious concepts and then harness the sensory properties of food to convey their ideas. In this way, Mugaritz presents concepts as complex as the nature of the seven deadly sins, classical philosophical notions such as drawing life from stones, or contemporary conversation such as our changing relationship with nature as a result of post-modern systems and technology. Each dish that Mugaritz composes is an artistic installation that not only transcends the boundary of our understanding of dining but, on occasion, even traverses gastronomy's gold standard of 'deliciousness' in order to realise a conceptual point. The Mugaritz canvas also extends beyond the plate, with sensory and conceptual interactions with material design, architecture, light and space, and even with the other dining participants. 

The experience that I had dining with Mugaritz wasn't just a hopeful precursor to how the chemical senses could be included in artistic discourse, it was a mature artistic conversation that harnessed the chemical senses with the purpose of conveying artistic concepts. Having said that, I felt frustrated by the lack of reference materials available to me while I dined my way through their exhibition. Although I could guess my way through many of the 'culinary conversations', others were lost to me. I could intuitively feel the presence of an artistic concept, yet I felt excluded from it owing to my lack of reference information.

Another conviction that I had was that most of the other diners were fascinated by the cuisine of Mugaritz yet were completely unaware of its sophisticated artistic dimension. This realisation is interesting because it highlights one of the main challenges of emerging from the gastronomic tradition and moving into a conceptual artistic playing field; that is, confronting the challenge of how to include diners and critics in the artistic dimension of Mugaritz' creations.

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