"Spanish chefs have caught a creative fever," declares José Carlos Capel, the influential, forward-thinking food critic for El País, Spain's largest daily. In the late 1970s, a group of Basque chefs modernized Spanish cooking by borrowing nouvelle cuisine ideas from France. That prepared the way for the Ferran Adrià-led avant-garde revolution of the '90s, introducing groundbreaking concepts like smoke-flavored foam and Parmesan ice cream sandwiches. Today Spanish chefs continue to innovate, determined to translate Adrià's radical concepts into personal and increasingly accessible food. In this interview, Capel examines Spain's past, considers its future, and talks about where he eats when he needs a break from high-concept cuisine.
Why is Spain the world's most exciting food destination right now? Every culture has its own strength at a given moment: In Finland they do amazing things with cell phones, in Spain we cook. One of the main factors is the strength of our traditional cuisine. The best chefs reference regional classics, following the concept of memoria gustativa, or taste memory.
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But what inspired the wild culinary creativity that makes Spain so exceptional? In the late 1970s, a group of San Sebastián chefs, led by Juan Mari Arzak, created a new Basque cuisine inspired by French nouvelle cuisine, making traditional dishes lighter and more exciting. Not coincidentally, this happened in Guipúzcoa, the Basque province that's considered Spain's gastronomic capital. The Basques started a culinary revolution and everyone was watching. Meanwhile, the cultural revolution after Franco's death brought out iconoclastic figures like filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar; for the public, modern cooking represented their new freedom.