Every week, Clay Oven Irvine executive chef/owner Geeta Bansal shares an interview that she's done with some of the heavyweights of world cooking. Today, she regales us with her dispatch from Mesamerica 2013, one of the world's premier chef conferences. Enjoy!
Mesamerica 2013 in Mexico City, Day Three
By Geeta Bansal, Clay Oven Irvine Executive Chef/Owner
Since we enjoyed dinners at local restaurants with friends every night and hung out with them till early hours of the morning, by day three we were feeling it. The final day of Mesamerica had all the top culinary stars of the food galaxy and had been much anticipated by the crowd in the auditorium.
My Peruvian chef friend Virgilio Martinez, accompanied by petite Karime Lopez (originally from Mexico, and currently at Senzo, Cusco another restaurant by Martinez) gave an excellent demo. In my conversations with culinary students in the audience, they mentioned that had not seen plating techniques like those before and I think it was a very inspiring and a great learning opportunity for them. That is the whole purpose of these meetings: to encourage dissemination of information and share revolutionary techniques and ideas.
Virgilio spoke about his Mater Initiative (you can read my interview with Virgilio from May in OC Weekly) and how he is attempting to bring his outside environment and its products into his kitchen. He regretted not being able to bring in the real deal (coca leaves) for his demo and tasting as customs would have had a problem with cocaine leaves; there were some disappointed spectators for sure in the crowd, judging by their reaction. Having spent time with both Virgilio and Karime I can say that they do practice what they preach (not talking about coca leaves here) and Central, Lima should be on every foodies list of restaurants in the world.
Then we heard from Eduardo Vasquez, who expressed his views about the perfect meal and was followed by Antonio de Livier of Mexico. Livier was on stage demonstrating a classic Mexican stew: birria, except as a seafood. He was clearly a crowd favorite as he had them going with shout-outs for his favorites such as his mentor Olvera, Pujol the restaurant, Mexicali, and an obscure question about any New Yorkers in the audience. A Mexican colleague explained not to take it literally that it was an inside joke in Mexico (if anyone gets it, please do let me know).
Then came a very colorful discussion about the dawning of the culinary era in Latin America amongst journalists from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico and Peru, moderated by Sasha Correa of Venezuela. It was an interesting inside look from people with a close eye on happenings in that part of the world.
Alex Atala, D.O.M, Sao Paulo, Brazil–the rockstar who really didn't need Enrique Olvera of Mexico to introduce him. I have seen him demo and speak at other such events and he has the audience engaged with his Hollywood looks, sense of humor, creativity and intellect. He said his interest in Mexico was sparked by his love for lucha libre. His cooking demo was setup like a wrestling match on the plate with shrimp and crawfish “wrestling” in front of an audience of rock shrimp and grasshoppers. Suddenly a bunch of Lucha Libre mask clad dancers joined him on stage to add to the fun. Needless to say he had the crowd eating out of his hands after that. He made them even happier by predicting that soon the top restaurant in Latin America could be from Mexico.
After breaking for lunch, we came back to listen to Alfredo Villanueva and Pedro Guzman on the subject of branding followed by Aquiles Chavez, the food television star of Mexico who also owns a restaurant, La Fisheria, in Houston. We had met earlier in the day, him surrounded by fans, mostly of the female kind, and I told him he looked like a Mexican Dali (ha ha). He said no one has ever said that to him but I will let the picture at the beginning of this post tell the story.
Chavez told the audience that T.V is another facet of being a chef (The world of reality T.V shows has certainly changed the perception of the man on the street if this is true.) Chavez then warned the culinary students in the crowd to not wait to be discovered by a T.V producer but just work on honing their craft. It seemed contradictory to me but, O.K! Then one of the superstars of the day Jordi Roca, of El Celler Can de Roca, arrived creating a buzz in the auditorium.
Jordi, accompanied by his young Mexican bride/sous chef, gave one of the most engaging (and, at the same time, thought-provoking) demos of the day. Roca credited his childhood memories of foods like the bon bons his aunt brought home from her job that inspired his version of the ones he created on stage. Jordi can certainly hold his own besides his two other famous siblings, Joan Roca (I interviewed him at his restaurant in Girona, Spain for an interview in OC Weekly earlier this year) and Joseph, by earning the title of one of the top pastry chefs in the world in close competition with Albert Adria (you can read my interviews with Adria earlier in February).
Jordi Roca's wacky sense of humor is certainly evident in his deserts and was in full form on stage as well. I have been fortunate to have tasted many of his deserts at his restaurant, such as his blown sugar fruits ( his wife demonstrated that technique which is similar to blown glass on stage), his recreations of various perfumes, etc., on visits to El Celler de Can Roca.
His very slick crazy video of how they sent a poor, unsuspecting chicken into orbit to have it cook on reentry when a kitchen staffer waited to catch it to deliver it to the kitchen was one of the more hilarious ones. The most memorable moment on stage was when he created a dessert that seemed to breathe. It was a classic Roca moment using science to create a living dough that served as a base for the desert he placed on it. It reminded me of the displays at the Dalí museums jewelry exhibits near Roca's home town. He was truly the mad scientist of the day.
Latest from the Roca brothers is their culinary opera El Somni, which debuted in Barcelona on May 6th of this year. A video about the backstory and scenes from their musical culinary performance enraptured the audience.
We had all lasted through an eventful day to finally see Rene Redzepi of Noma, Denmark on stage to dimmed lights. I had met Rene the day before when he arrived for the event and though curious about the title of his talk, 'Tacos Pastor,' I never broached the subject, thinking maybe it was his Nordic riff on a Mexican street favorite.
Redzepi spoke from the heart, moving the audience (some like me, tearing up) about his journey in the last few years and the toll that it took on him. He spoke candidly about his 'burnout' and how he came to Mexico to recuperate and gather himself. During this process, he ate his way through a lot of tacos pastor to 'find' himself again and in this sense the tacos and Mexico saved him and his restaurant.
He spoke of his journey through childhood memories of things like the simple life as a child in Macedonia, roast chicken, finding his passion for cooking and compared it to travel in a time machine. He said you are constantly absorbing flavors and deliciousness through your journey in life and according to him, “That is what makes life fun to live.” It was a sobering and inspiring speech to the audience, many of whom were from the business and had been in the same place at some point. His candid acknowledgement of his difficult experience hopefully will be an important learning experience for other young chefs and aspiring young culinaires. Kudos to him for putting it out there as a reality of this profession. Rene Redzepi is a very talented, emotional and honest man and he will find his balance and keep amazing the world.
The three day event ended with the announcement of Mesamerica 2014 from May 19-21 in Mexico City. The theme will be street food of which Mexico has some of the best, and an added bonus next year will be an entire morning devoted to the pastry chefs. Xau Saguer of Espaisucre delivered the sweet news about the Best Desert Competition next year to synchronize with Mesamerica. Thus ended three intense, interesting and informative days focused on the culinary arts.
Adios, Mexico City–see you next year!