'Spherified' juice? Controversy among Spain's top chefs

By Victoria Burnett

International Herald Tribune

MADRID: With inventions like Parmesan snow, chilled sauces that "boil"
with dry ice and olive-shaped capsules of "spherified" juice, the
avant-garde chefs of Spain have conquered the highest peaks of
international culinary acclaim.

Delicate foams and gels have replaced gazpacho and paella as culinary
hallmarks, and dozens of restaurants around the country boast stars from
the revered Michelin guide. Glossy gourmet magazines routinely feature
Spanish chefs, who many critics believe have replaced their French
counterparts at the vanguard of culinary innovation.

But after several years in the spotlight, Spain's normally collegial
star cooks have turned their knives on one another. Santi Santamaria,
one of the country's most prominent chefs, this month launched a
bruising public attack on his cutting-edge counterparts, accusing them
of producing pretentious food they would not eat themselves - and
potentially poisoning diners with chemicals that he said had no place in
the kitchen.

"We have to decide, as chefs, if we want to continue to use the fresh
products of our Mediterranean diet or opt for using additives," he said
Monday in Madrid.

Santamaria, who currently boasts six Michelin stars among his various
restaurants, fired his first salvo two weeks ago, when he called on
Spanish authorities to investigate the use of substances like liquid
nitrogen and methyl cellulose in restaurant kitchens.

"Some chefs are offering a media spectacle rather than concerning
themselves with healthy eating," he said as he accepted a prize for his
new book, "La Cocina al Desnudo," or The Kitchen Laid Bare. In it, the
burly, outspoken chef, who trumpets his own dedication to natural
ingredients, assails the proliferation of junk food as well as the
effete creations of the Spanish avant-garde kitchen.

He singled out Ferran Adrià, godfather of modern Spanish cooking and the
country's most celebrated chef, for criticism. Despite his "enormous
respect" for Adrià, he said he felt "a huge divorce, both ethical and
conceptual, with Ferran."

Santamaria's comments have unleashed a storm of recrimination from the
Spanish fraternity of avant-garde chefs, whose startling creations use
chemistry and technology to transform familiar ingredients: Adrià's
"olive" is made by immersing a spoonful of olive purée in alginic acid,
a derivative of algae, so that it forms a small sphere that explodes on
the tongue. The controversy has opened the door to debate about
technology versus tradition on a culinary scene that has acquired
baffling monikers like "deconstructivist" and "techno-emotional."

Adrià and other avant-garde chefs have dismissed Santamaria's claims as
ridiculous, arguing that many of the products they use are natural and
that those that are not are harmless. A spokesman for the Spanish Food
Safety Agency, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said additives
used by Spanish chefs met European Union standards. Methyl cellulose, a
jellifier extracted from vegetable cellulose and used by Adrià to
create, for example, magenta films of "hibiscus paper," is not
dangerous, he said. Liquid nitrogen, used to freeze ingredients at room
temperature, is not ingested, he said.

In a statement issued last week, the Spanish Euro-Toques Association,
which represents some 800 Spanish chefs, said Santamaria's comments
"damaged the prestige Spain has earned on a world level thanks, in part,
to its cuisine and chefs."

"We're really saddened by all this," Adrià said by telephone last week
from his three-starred restaurant el Bulli in Roses, in northeastern
Spain, which has topped the U.K.-based Restaurant Guide's prestigious
list of best eateries in the world for three years. "What Santi said
about our ingredients is completely untrue, and to lie about something
so important is very serious."

Andoni Aduriz, whose restaurant Mugaritz in the Basque Country rose this
year to the number four spot on the Restaurant Guide list, said
Santamaria was simply trying to scare people.

"Santi is the Hugo Chávez of gastronomy. He loves to spark controversy
with his populist talk," said Aduriz, a protégé of Adrià. Aduriz, who
forages in the local countryside for nettles and unusual herbs, said he
sees no conflict between a respect for natural produce and high-tech
methods.

"It's a false debate," he said. "Santi is seeking the recognition that
has eluded him professionally by creating a polemic," he added,
suggesting that Santamaria resents the fame enjoyed by the likes of
Adrià.

Santamaria's claims resonate for some. In a letter to the Spanish
newspaper El País, one reader, Jorge Gutiérrez Berlinches, said
Santamaria represented "all of us who like pasta with tomato, a nice
plate of potatoes, a fried egg and blood sausage."

"We need to return to simple things, what's natural and what taste's
good and what is affordable," he wrote.

Dan Barber, chef of the Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant near
Tarrytown, New York, and Blue Hill in New York City, said that the
dispute was reminiscent of the storm over nouvelle cuisine in France
after its advent in the 1970s and a more recent, nationalist debate over
the use of non-French ingredients in haute cuisine. Barber, who
cultivates much of the produce used at his restaurants on the
Rockefeller estate near Tarrytown, said the controversy was a sign of
maturity in the Spanish culinary movement.

"The fact that this debate is taking place is a sign of how far Spain
has come - and that is a credit to both Santi and Ferran," Barber said
by telephone. "Any kind of discussion about what goes into our food is a
good thing. Whether this was the best way to go about it, is another
question."