Joshua Niland’s aged fish, Joan Roca’s awareness menu and technique at the service of ideas, the high points of the first day of Reale Madrid Fusión

January 13, 2020

When Reale Madrid Fusión first came on stage in January 2003, cookery was undergoing a revolution – a technical, ideological and cultural revolution – that was to change our perception of chefs forever. It was the time of spherification, using air, liquid nitrogen. “The kitchen of the brave”, as journalist Pau Arenós called it. Eighteen years on the profession has matured, put away the fireworks, and swapped the need to impress the auditorium for the need to force it to think. Preservation techniques which make better use of the qualities of products, menus which represent environmental problems, cookery where the idea is much more important than the technique. All this could be perceived yesterday, on the first day of a congress which has come of age in its honour. The kitchen of the sensible has arrived.

One of the most mature talks at the IFEMA auditorium was by young chef Josh Niland, and this is not just a play on words in reference to the fish maturing process advocated by the Australian. “My speciality is fish, the most expensive protein there is – if I pay 220 dollars for a piece of fish, I can’t afford the luxury of throwing away 40% of it”. And nor can Mother Nature. The solution is an exercise in comprehensive utilisation of the fish, in which its eyes, liver, stomach and other organs are rapidly processed in countless processes, while the flesh of the animal is subjected to an ageing process that can be as long as one month.

“Once the fish leaves the sea it must never touch water again”, warns Niland, who cleans the fish with paper, removes the first layer of its skin, and hangs up the pieces to foil bacteria. The fish gains sapid nuances, and he gains precious time to work with it and develop ideas. He can ultimately use 92% of each animal: “It’s like having two fish in one”. Can you imagine the consequences this would have for the environment? Admittedly the technique still has to do away with a number of taboos, especially in Spain, where fresh fish is sacrosanct. Possibly this is why Dani García – who is currently carrying out similar experiments at Lobito de Mar and was with Niland during his talk – still calls them “matured fish, which sounds better”.

Joan Roca’s contribution focused on raising awareness. He explained the menu offered up to world leaders at the Climate Summit. Alongside a warning that ‘The Earth is depleting’, he served up a number of dishes to showcase problems such as the scarcity of drinking water, invasive species, sea warming, food waste or the environmental costs of producing animal protein. Challenges which, in Roca’s imagination, are transformed into a lyophilised horn-of-plenty mushroom stock, a blue crab fritter or a bleeding “gaia” of beetroot, water melon and red onion. “The objective was to transmit a message to their palates, but most particularly to their consciences”.

The theme at this year’s congress is essential cuisine, a discipline that Josean Alija has been practising for over a decade, well before it became a trend. The chef at Nerua, the restaurant in Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, dwelt on the concept of eating up time: “Time spent cooking, time spent on thinking about the dish, but especially all the time each product needs to be as good as it possibly can – if we understand that, we will have a better appreciation of what we put in our mouths”. An example of conscious gastronomy, such as that favoured by Pedrito Sánchez, chef at the Bagá restaurant, which cannot circumvent the limitations imposed by a 45 m2 eatery. “We value dishes in terms of the technical difficulties we have experienced, or of the prices of raw materials, when really the most valuable part is the idea”, claimed the Jaén chef. And he is not far wrong.

The “Disfrutar” team, which rounded off the congress with a new exhibition of talent, is certainly not short on ideas. Using such primitive techniques as cutting, or rounding off the texture of fish eggs using egg yolks, or sweet coal cookery, Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch again succeeded in producing a wealth of ideas both daring and usable.