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Friday, June 23, 2006

Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen: José Andrés

making magic with Sodium Alginate

I'd been a little ambivalent about going to see José Andrés –I thought if I wanted to see a boy play with his chemistry set I could always go hang with Sasha- but Dana Cowin, Food & Wine magazine's stylish editor, convinced me with her enthusiastic recommendation the night before.

So, the next morning, with a slight altitude sickness -it wasn't a hangover, I swear- I fumbled my way into a crowded auditorium. José Andrés had already taken up his spot on the stage, accompanied by his two adorable daughters Inez and Carlotta, and also by Katsuya Fukushima, the Chef de Cuisine of his restaurant Café Atlantico.

Having one's children around was quite de rigueur at the Classic. Mario also had his sons with him when I was at his demonstration the day before. And there were a constant stream of kids and their respective nannies coming through the press room, who knew whom they belonged to, but probably some important people. José's daughters were far more than decoration though. They were right on stage, interacting with their father and adding quite a hilarious comic touch in the show.

José Andrés is an amazing spokesperson for what Hervé This calls Molecular Gastronomy, which normal people might refer to as the 'weird food' movement. The high priests of this movement are mostly from Spain, or es-spain as José charmingly called it.

Have you ever noticed that Spanish people can't say Spain, but always es-spain? Supremely cute, no? Ok, I digress again. Back to the auditorium we go.

Where were we? Oh, the high priests, yes. The highest one of them all is indisputably Ferran Adrià, whose small Temple of Gastronomy elBulli in a tiny -and otherwise unremarkable- beach town somewhere outside of Barcelona has got hundreds of thousands of people scampering for the few hundred available reservations each season.

Ferran's influence is the world over -was that Altoid I saw on your watermelon, José?- but I seriously doubt that the movement could find a better spokesperson than José Andrés, anywhere.

He was extremely funny, reassuring, and had an amazing rapport with the audience. I mean, it took some kind of snake oil salesman to peddle a plate of sea urchin, grapes, and watermelon foam to a room full of people and made them coo with delight. A first rate kind, don't you think?

Somewhere in the audience someone shouted, "Could you pair wine with this?"
"Yes", José answered.
"What would you?"
"No wine", José shot back, to roaring laughter from his fans, and went on to explain that this was more about food than about wine, and it would be difficult to find a wine that would fit all the different flavor profiles of the Watermelon: ten ways that he was doing. But, of course, if there were such a wine it would be a wine from es-Spain. Ha.

He really was remarkable, taking the audience on a molecular dance, through making foam to making a watermelon 'yolk' with the Sodium Alginate trick, without missing a beat. All the while he reassured them that it really wasn't all that weird, after all. Putting his philosopher cap on, he pondered the nature of strangeness, concluding that things were only labeled as weird when they're unfamiliar. He had a point there, don't you think? PB & J sandwich, anyone?


Quite pleased with himself, José set out to make his next trick, 'watermelon steak'. He cut a rectangular piece of watermelon then let it brown on one side on a hot sautéed pan. "When it's nice and brown like this we turn the steak over to brown the other side", he explained to the audience.

"That's not a steak", chimed his adorable daughter Carlotta.
"Yes it is, it's a watermelon steak.", argued José.
"No, it isn't"
"Yes, it is"
"That's not a steak", she insisted.
"Ok, it's a watermelon, but I call it a steak", José relented.
"Well, then it's a silly steak.", Carlotta concluded, "We'll just call it a Silly Steak."

Let this be a lesson to the hyphen-ised, italicized, and "quotation marked" menu writers everywhere. Took a nine year-old to call a spade a spade.

P.S. Just found another blogger's write-up of this same session at the Classic. Check out Augie's account of his time in Aspen.


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