day two: San Sebastián Gastronomika 2011

Gastronomika today was....Mexico, a pretty disappointing use of 3-D technology, the local STARS of the worldwide food scene (Arbelaitz, Arzak, Berasategui, and Subijana), award to Spain’s best sommelier, gin and tonic in the press room...

But for me, the highlight was a tiny tertulia with chef Alex Atala.

In case you don’t know him, he’s the guy right behind Grant Achatz on the world’s 50 Best Restaurant list. He’s a 43-year-old Brazilian chef and runs the restaurant D.O.M. in Sao Paolo. And today, me and about a dozen other young people were in a room with him for an hour, with free reign to ask him whatever we liked.

I don't know about you, but in my experience its hard enough to get a chef to stop and sit for five minutes, much less have immediate access to him for an hour.

He had all kinds of insight into Brazilian cuisine, as well as chef life in general. "It's half dream, half nightmare," he said. "The higher you get, the hotter they give it to you."  The way he framed it, his rise to fame was rapid and unasked for. To hear him tell the story of the night of the Top 50 Awards was amazing. He was waiting with baited breath to be awarded 20, and had virtually given up when they called him for number SEVEN.

I asked him if he thought he had changed after the awards: yes, for better and for worse.

I also asked him how daily life was in his kitchen. He explained that he also has a bakery (!), and went on to describe a kitchen that sounds just about heavenly. Everybody happy, quiet, etc. But that, he revealed, is about fifteen years after previously shoving people's faces into the trash bin. So, maybe that one's a change for the better.

He's obsessed with Andoni (Mugaritz, what can I say, me too) and quoted him: "Truths are not absolute-they change with time. That's what makes them truth."

To wrap up the tertulia, he confessed to us that he thinks Brazil has a long way to go, but that they have a rich promise that lies in their raw product, as well as their culture.

These invaluable tertulias take place every day at Gastronomika. In fact tomorrow's is Achatz and Blumenthal. No way they'll let me into those.