Tuesday 29 October 2019

A culinary fairytale

I arrived in Spain in June of 2003, I was 25 years old.

The plan was very simple, I was to “stage” (or better known as “work for free”) an entire year at what promised to be one of the best food temples on the planet. Restaurant Arzak, which sits on top of San Sebastian’s gastronomic hill of restaurants, bars, markets, and international food events, was to be my pilgrimage. With San Sebastian boasting more Michelin-starred restaurants per square kilometer than anywhere else on earth, the food served in any one of them is brilliant. Local meats, cheeses, seafood, and vegetables come from a majestic landscape of turbulent aggressive coastal waters and vertical green mountain forests dripping with nutrition. The result is strong powerful ingredients that have personality and demand respect, and my job was to learn how to cook them with both one hand focused on tradition, and the other on evolution. It was to be an education in deliciousness.

During that year I spent at Arzak, the culinary circus came to town as it does every year in October. They call it “Gastronomika” and it is considered the most prestigious and important food event on the planet, with more than 1,5oo foodies, journalists, culinary groupies and students all showing up to see the ideas that set the trends for the year and direction for the future. The big attraction for Gastronomika is the individual acts performed by 20 chosen chefs spanning the globe that demonstrate what makes them and their restaurants stand out in today’s culinary landscape. Each of their 30-minute presentations must capture the soul of the massive audience who sit eagerly listening to the ideas, techniques, ingredients, and dishes they create. At 25 years old, I never had the time away from work, the financial means to afford the ticket or the skills to be able to grasp any of what was being taught, but later on I have wished, wanted and prayed for the chance to go back to this coastal town of culinary magic to see the circus of Gastronomika… one day.

That day came this month, when after 16 years I finally made it back to San Sebastian where it all began but this time not as a student, not as a spectator, but ironical as one of the 20 chefs chosen to tell their story. The rules are simple: 30 minutes, up to you, make a minimum of 2 dishes and during the presentation, you must serve 350 tasting portions of one of those dishes… Simple, right?

Day 1: October 6th
Pack everything you can possibly think of for the event from equipment, spices, fruits, vegetable, garnishes, stuff, lots of stuff! and fly Bali – Singapore – Amsterdam – Bilbao. First step: customs. Not good, everything searched and almost lost all the veg and fruit. That would have been a catastrophe but with bad Spanish, my answer of 150 sounded like 5 and my mistake was my salvation. From airport to Kursaal Trade and Convention Center to check the space, put everything in the fridges, eat and sleep. Day 1 done!

Team Cuca at the entrance of San Sebastian Gastronomika 

Day 2: October 7th
With Chef Pedro Subijana
9am – 8pm of preparation. Big hill to climb with 11 hours of cooking and putting things in place. Today was a big day with big chefs and big presentations. All the giants came out: Eneko Atxa, Arzak, the boys from Disfrutar restaurant in Barcelona, Dani Garcia with his last presentation for any conference and his retirement from “fine dining” with the closure of his 3 Michelin star restaurant and Martin Berasategui. I mean serious, serious, heavy-duty, proper chefs. An unbelievable day with all prep, for now, finished. Dinner started at 9pm but fished at 2am, an unavoidable late night as it was a collaboration of 6 chefs with each holding 3 Michelin stars. It was, in the world of food, a very rare meal that went very late. Bed.

Day 3: October 8th
Our day. A very good day! Very little sleep but ready. Morning prep and finish everything, not much appetite (with our presentation looming at 4:35pm) to do much more than stay close to all our food prep like a chicken would protect her eggs. Unnecessary, but very much critical to not making bad excuses for mistakes later on. With huge legendary chefs presenting again like Pedro Subijana, Joan Roca and Angel Leon, big, big names and huge stories to tell. Hours ripped by like minutes and before we had barely finished and organized ourselves, we were next, next in line. The kitchen lit up with action as our things all got moved into place like cars parking in a lot. It went from 30… to 20… to a quick pep talk with the boys we brought from Bali to crank out the four dishes we decided… 10… mike on… 2... go!
Ladies and gentlemen, members of the media, distinguished guests” my talk started “I know what you are thinking… Who the –u-k is this guy? My name is Kevin…” and it continued for 30 minutes. Telling of Indonesia’s most humble market ingredients, their fascinating properties, why we love them and what we create from them. Simple, powerful, clear. It went well. Celebrate. Late to bed as expected.

On stage

Day 4: October 9th  
No prep. Very happy. Our first day to see and watch and be students without the pressure of the presentation looming ahead. With many chefs still to go, the day was spent in the auditorium really listening and understanding the different ways great cooks make things taste better. Wonderful flavorful content that makes passionate professionals become great chefs, ideas that one person can only share one or two as each of them involves years of knowledge and deep understanding. Great day. The boys flew home and Virginia and I walked with friends, both exhausted from the rush of the week. “Nice to meet you again” I always tell her at the end of each pressure-cooking life experience, and we carry on.

As the San Sebastian Gastronomika 2019 comes to its end, it’s hard not to think about how 16 years ago I arrived here with the dream of a cook and how now today I leave with the reality of getting the most I could out of this remarkable foodie town.

Not back to Bali just yet! With 2 weeks needed to decompress and allow life to catch up, we are off to eat dishes we may have missed throughout the north of Spain. Wait and see how Cuca’s next menu gets influenced by what just might get eaten tomorrow.