Spanish chefs serve up a war of words

21st May 2008, Comments 0 comments

Famous cook's controversial comments spark furious responses within the cuisine community.

21 May 2008

MADRID - Spanish chefs are up in arms over recent statements by one of their own who has criticised "showbiz cuisine" and warned about the use of chemical substances that could be harmful to diners' health.

Santi Santamaría, one of Spain's top chefs and owner of El Racó de Can Fabes, a Catalan restaurant with three Michelin stars, lashed out against what he sees as the excesses of Spanish haute cuisine on 13 May, when he picked up first prize for his book La cocina al desnudo at the Premio de Hoy awards ceremony in Madrid.

Santamaría focused his criticism on his rival Ferran Adriá, owner of the exclusive El Bulli, which also holds three Michelin stars and was in April declared the best restaurant in the world for the third year in a row by the Britain's Restaurant Magazine.

Adriá, who is credited with putting Spanish gastronomy on the international map thanks to his experimental cuisine and tireless media presence, is famous for pushing back the boundaries of cooking and producing dishes such as carrot air, liquid olives and parmesan snow.

"Some chefs are offering a media spectacle and are seemingly unconcerned about healthy eating," said Santamaría, admitting that while Adriá and himself were once close, they are currently "conceptually and ethically divorced."

A proponent of traditional Mediterranean cooking versus molecular cuisine, or "techno-emotional cuisine" as he termed it, Santamaría was especially critical of Adriá and his followers' use of emulsifiers, gelling agents and other chemical substances "that even they wouldn't eat".

He even went as far as to say that their use of methylcellulose, a vegetable extract that gels when heated and thickens when cold, can be harmful and asked for public health authorities to exercise control over what goes onto people's plates.

"Consuming more than six grams of methylcellulose can be bad for your health. This substance is not recommended for children under six. Restaurant patrons should know the exact composition of the dishes they are served," said Santamaría.

"If this is about having artificial experiences, we already have drugs for that."

Methylcellulose is one of many chemical substances that are increasingly used in the food industry as an additive, although methylcellulose is also employed as a bulk-forming laxative by the pharmaceutical industry to treat constipation and diarrhoea.

On Tuesday, the cooking association Euro-Toques, which has 3,500 members worldwide, including 800 in Spain, released a communiqué condemning Santamaría for his "false" statements.

The group, whose members include Adriá and other top chefs such as Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana, said that Santamaría is "creating social alarm of incalculable consequences."

According to Euro-Toques, "the new gelling agents, thickeners and other ingredients have all the necessary legal and health guarantees, because they are ingredients that have been used in our daily dishes for many years."

The statement concludes that Santamaría is seeking "personal notoriety" for his book and that his position is "the epitome of selfishness".

Despite the intensity of the backlash against the Catalan chef, the Euro-Toques association - whose members jointly have 140 Michelin stars - was quick to deny the existence of any kind of "haute cuisine war." However, this is the first public show of internal squabbling in a community that until now had made a point of congratulating itself for contributing to Spanish cuisine's current trendiness.

Some of Spain's top chefs also spoke out individually against Santamaría, including the Basque Juan Mari Arzak, considered the father of Spanish nouvelle cuisine.

"I would recommend to Santi that he try to be humble in order to learn and reflect on the ideas of others, from the humblest tavern to the culinary genius of Adrià. Envy is a type of competition in which you always lose out. You have to observe what others do, not scorn them."

[El Pais / S. Urra / R. Rivas / Expatica]

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