Friday, January 29, 2010

The Chef of the Sea

In cooperation with Blue Hill at Stone Barns, The International Culinary Theater hosted a demo and tasting with Spanish chef Ángel Léon of Aponiente in El Puerto de Santa María. Chef Ángel shared the latest techniques in Spanish cooking, using the freshest ingredients from the sea. More than just a creative and forward-thinking chef, Ángel is also an avid ecologist and preservationist—things he shares in common with farm-owning Dan Barber (executive chef/co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and NYC). He works on using lesser known fish and marine life in his cuisine to promote biodiversity in the ocean through creating awareness and demand. Chef Angel's favorite fish are breca, zalema, and baila. He uses bi-catch from commercial fishing in his cooking, as well as sea plankton,which he harvests to make into a flavorful and nutritionally dense component in many of his recipes. Fish eyes are used to make sauces; microscopic algae to clarify broths. The demo was followed-up with commentary and discussion lead by Dan Barber about the importance of thinking about what we eat and how it is produced.

Chef Ángel discussed and demonstrated a variety of his techniques, one of which is grilling fish over olive pit charcoal. This imparts a distinct flavor and is also a good use of leftover product. It takes many hours of heating to turn the pits into coals. He used bi-catch fish and grilled them over his hotel pan–sized pit, using a blow-dryer to start the fire. He rolled the fish to make a roulade of sorts, then sliced them into small rounds after cooking for serving with a simple sauce.








Another passion for Chef Ángel is working with plankton. After two hours of dragging a net on the ocean floor, he could only gather two grams. So he wanted to find a more efficient way to harvest it. He now can produce enough plankton to use in his cooking. Plankton is extremely nutrition, and Chef Ángel was drawn to cooking with it because he, " was curious to eat what the whales would eat."

For traveling to the United States, Chef Ángel powdered the plankton, which he reconstituted during the demo. Here he serves oysters with plankton as a sauce and enrobed in lemon-infused egg white foam. He also showcased the plankton in a simple risottolike dish. His descriptor of plankton is that it's like "biting into waves." Salty, briny, and something fresh and more indescribable, it's, indeed, like tasting the essence of ocean in the best possible way.




This was a unique and interesting event. Participating in topical food discussions with top chefs in the industry makes you think more closely about your own relationship with food and how much food enters in too the political, economical, and social landscape of our lives. What we eat is important. Not just for our health or our pleasure but in many, many ways for the world around us.

1 comment:

Olive Me said...

It was exciting to meet a Spanish chef as passionate about conservation and sustainability as he is about invention. Chef León is one of those people who works from his head and his heart, and that's inspiring, too. Both at FCI and Stone Barns events I was struck by how many times he started a description -- whether of a fishing practice or a traditional dish or his beautiful plankton-oyster-citrus foam creation -- with the word, "emotionally." I was working as his interpreter and am not sure I succeeded in getting that across, but I hope so. Maybe readers who want more about his session at the FCI would have a look at my notes about it here: In this entry I focus on the plankton story but his thinking on tuna deserves more reflection and attention too.