Top chefs go back to basics Top chefs go back to basics

The world's top chefs are looking to traditional recipes and the use of locally-sourced raw ingredients. Picture: Agency

Sunday, January 29, 2012

WILD herbs, leaves and even giant ants and tarantulas are in demand by the world's top chefs who are putting a renewed focus on traditional recipes and the use of locally sourced raw ingredients.

A number of leading chefs at this week's Madrid Fusion, an annual gastronomy fair that wrapped up Thursday, said they preferred to use primary products on their creations — and are in some cases even gathering them themselves.

Swedish chef Magnus Ek said he gathers leaves, bark and wild herbs each morning from the grounds around his award-winning restaurant, Oaxen Skargardskrog, on the Swedish island of Oaxen, for use in his recipes.

"Our cuisine is very natural, most of the ingredients we use either grow or live around us. I try to bring as much nature as I can into the kitchen," he told AFP.

His restaurant is part of a Scandinavian gastronomic revolution that defends the use of local cooking traditions. The movement is led by Danish chef Rene Redzepi, whose restaurant Noma in Copenhagen is currently regarded by food critics as the world's best.

The raw materials used at Noma are all local — either foraged from the sea, the shore or the forest — or grown by organic producers. Redzepi refuses to use air transport to subvert the natural rhythm of the seasons.

The trend stands in contrast with the "molecular gastronomy" made popular by Spanish chef Ferran Adria which uses hi-tech methods to take apart and rebuild foods in surprising ways.

Adria's acclaimed elBulli restaurant near Barcelona, which closed last year, was famous for serving items such as potato foam, parmesan crystal and foie gras noodles frozen with liquid nitrogen.

"We are not afraid to use chemicals if we are seeking a special effect, but for us chemistry can never be primordial," said Ek as he watched a dozen chefs decked out in white prepare a sauce made out of lichens.

Biodiversity offers cooks unlimited possibilities, said Venezuelan chef Nelson Mendez, adding that he had discovered in the foods eaten by Amazon Indians a "large pantry" of flavours little known by the "white man ".

Mendez gave up preparing French cuisine at luxury hotel restaurants in Caracas a decade ago to move to Puerto Ayacucho in the Venezuelan Amazon.

From the town he supplies himself with the products that are gathered and grown by three local indigenous communities — the Piaroa, the Yanomami and the Bare.

"In their cuisine they use jungle insects, palm worms, tarantulas and vachacos, which are giant ants," said Mendez who is a Bare.

He acknowledges that the use of these ingredients "can be a cultural shock for a Westerner" so he tries to combine these "atypical products" with classic recipes.

The indigenous tribes of the Amazon eat giant tarantulas that are roasted. Mendez, however, transforms them into an encrusted croquette that is served with a spicy guava sauce.

Palm worms are transformed into a mousse that is baked, wrapped in a puff pastry made with cassava flour.

"There are a variety of fruits and animal species in the Amazon that are not very well known," said Mendez, who advocates for the need to develop sustainable cuisine with a smaller environmental impact.

"We are not going to plunder this pantry, I would say it does not have one Michelin star but ten."

Ek is confident that "regional cuisines" are poised for a huge comeback.

"People are very proud of the dishes which have been prepared for generations. Of course they want to reform it but also preserve its roots," he said.

That is the case of Japanese chef Nishihara Masato who prepares Shojin temple food, an ancient cuisine developed in Buddhist monasteries, at his award-winning Kajitsu eatery in New York.

"After working for ten years preparing high end Japanese cuisine, I wanted to learn about an older and deeper world," he said.

"I use only vegetables, mainly roots like turnip, carrots, potatoes, or gobou because in Shojin cuisine the use of animals, eggs and milk is not allowed," added Masato.

AFP


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