I was delighted to attend the #50BestTalks presented by Miele at the Basque Culinary Centre during the World’s 50 Best Restaurants event in Bilbao, for a day of thought-provoking discussions and inspiring demonstrations by some of the world’s greatest chefs. Entitled Life Cycle the talks focused on values that both Miele and I consider extremely important – sustainability, provenance and putting families and communities at the heart of it all. The talks were illustrated by a beautifully curated, large arc from the ground up; from the very beginning at the sourcing of ingredients through to the place of indulgence in our lives.
The talks began with Joan Roca (Celler Can Roca), Eneko Atxa (Azurmendi), Gaggan Anand (Gaggan) and Nicolas Mound (Farm Africa) discussing their work with NGO Farm Africa. Their inspiring contributions have involved supporting food producers, from giving their workers equal rights (particularly women), to growing ingredients that might otherwise become extinct, to fostering sustainability in farming and food production. Each chef spoke about why the provenance of ingredients is so important in recreating particular dishes, and how their relationships with food producers create meals that are far more than only the sum of their parts. I loved that the story these chefs wanted to tell is one of celebrating the sustainable production of ingredients from the ground up, from local lamb to the recycled glass plates that Joan uses for his Heritage Tomato dish. By honouring those who grow, harvest and cook ingredients, food becomes increasingly more satisfying and a treat for the taste buds.
Award-winning chef Clare Smyth showcased the community of producers that supply her three Michelin star restaurant Core in Notting Hill from the British plates that she has commissioned from the potteries in Stoke, to the small grain mill that supplies flour for the bread. Clare spoke about her desire for guests and staff in the restaurant to feel like a family and for the space to feel like home, and demonstrated one of her signature dishes, the Lamb Carrot. Clare wanted to emphasise that although the carrot is considered humble, it can be as delicious as any expensive sought after ingredients in the hands of a good chef. The dish included sheep yogurt, carrot top pesto, lamb stock and crisped lamb fat in a real celebration of British produce.
Dan Barber of Blue Hill Farm looked further into the theme of sustainable production by focusing on his work with Row 7 Seeds, which aims on develop vegetables for flavour and nutrients in the way our pre-industrial ancestors did, rather than with drought and pest resistance as done by modern seed conglomerates. (Diversity is important to limit the plagues that can affect monocrops, which may need chemical interventions that damage our guts, immune systems and ultimately our taste buds.) On our seats we found a packet of Dan’s Badger Flame Beets, bred to be sweet, crisp and low in geosim (earth flavour), a delight to eat raw. Dan encouraged us to take them back home and plant our very own beets, allowing them to adapt to the environment that we live in rather than force them to conform to any particular location. As soon as I arrived home I did just that, glad to be part of a movement that puts plants at the centre of the plate.
Paul Pairet followed, famous for the spectacle that is his exclusive ten-seater restaurant, Ultraviolet in Shanghai. Paul focused on the sense of place in the experience of eating and told us about a sun-warmed peach he ate as a child after cycling around Perpignan, plucked straight from the tree and perfectly ripe, which he ate under the same and which then became the bar by which all other peaches would be judged. I found Paul’s talk unexpectedly moving, and I recalled a similar experience that I had on a sunny walk in Liguria when I tasted an apricot which had fallen onto the path in front of me, at the perfect point of ripeness. Paul calls it psychotaste – the experience of eating something and experiencing a connection to a place, sound, smell or anything that makes you more aware of where the food comes from.
Christina Tosi of Milk Bar finished the talks with dessert and the cookies that she is famous for. She spoke about nostalgia and comfort, and baking for others as a gift of love. Christina worked almost tirelessly for 10 years as a pastry chef in New York before realising that she no longer wanted to make fine pastry or fancy desserts that only a handful of people could enjoy. She wanted to reach out to people on the street with the universal appeal of cookies, confetti cake and her crack pie. Her bakes are unashamedly sweet, full of brightly coloured sugar strands and the kind of vanilla that I remember from my 1970’s childhood. Christina has tapped into incredibly important – speaking to the child in all of us, handing us a cookie and a glass of cereal flavoured milk and saying that everything will be ok.
I was left with a wonderful sense of community after the talks, inspired by chefs who are working to change the world for the better in their own particular way. Not all share the same vision, but all are trying to make the food we eat the best it can possibly be, striving for excellence which is truly inspirational.
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