Journey to Catalonia With a CIA Chef
In 2009, Prodeca sponsored an immersion into Catalan culture for a select group of CIA alumni and faculty. The chefs were treated to a one-week whirlwind tour of the best that Catalonia has to offer.
My culinary experience is diverse and extensive, and has taken me all over the world, yet despite my travels, this was my first visit to Spain. This week-long cultural immersion, courtesy of Prodeca, was a surprising experience for me and the faculty and alumni who joined me.
Our first night in Barcelona was a holiday, a Catholic celebration marking the beginning of the Christmas season. The streets were virtually silent when we arrived in the afternoon. By the time our refreshed group ventured out for our introduction to Barcelona, the streets had come to life. Outdoor cafés and plazas were filled with people sipping drinks, dining, or just enjoying the festive atmosphere. Lights twinkled in the trees and the sounds of life in the street echoed off the beautiful stone walls. As we made our way down Las Ramblas, a 1.2 kilometer pedestrian promenade situated between Plaza de Catalunya and the harbor, the life spilling into the streets and the comfortable pedestrian-focused atmosphere immediately got us in the mood to explore. Our stroll through town was like a walk through time. Closer to the harbor the buildings were older and the architecture more traditional. The streets were narrower, so narrow only pedestrians could pass. Finally we found itself at one of Barcelona’s oldest and most distinguished restaurants, 4Gats. Streets of Barcelona Opened in 1897, 4Gats was founder Pere Romeu’s way of bringing “the most bohemian traces of Paris to Barcelona.” It was a place for the cultured, for the intellectuals and artists of the period, Pablo Picasso included. Today 4Gats is an amazing meeting of classic and modern. The dining room feels as though it hasn’t changed in years, with open beamed ceilings and classic tiled floors. The menu is classic and traditional, the perfect introduction to the cuisine of Barcelona. While the dining room gives an Old World feel, the kitchen has nothing but the newest and most modern stainless steel equipment. Old World meets New in this luxurious kitchen. I was amazed by the flavors, so true to the ingredients and the region’s history.
In contrast, our second day in Barcelona was an exploration of the new Barcelona, with its modern architecture, avant garde atmosphere, and modern twists on traditional dishes. Surprisingly, the old and new married beautifully, beginning what was to become a theme in our trip: Even the newest most modern cuisine in Catalonia honors its roots and traditions. While the portions got smaller, flavors, though reminiscent of their predecessors, were more intense. Foams and airs incorporated the freshest traditional ingredients into these reinvented dishes.
This theme of history being repeated and reinvented continued throughout their journey through Catalonia.
Next up on the trip was the Alícia Foundation. Founded by renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adrià and situated in the beautiful mountain town of Món Sant Benet, the Alícia Foundation strives to bring the scientific and culinary worlds together. Whether teaching science to local high school students through a basic vinaigrette dressing or researching and maintaining the perfect hog breed for the local hams, the Alícia Foundation’s goals are to educate, inspire, and preserve.
One of the days we visited the Alícia Foundation we participated in a hands-on experience in the kitchens. At the Alícia Foundation traditional recipes are quantified and analyzed scientifically, explained in minute detail, and their precise measurements recorded. The result is a detailed and step-by-step guide to recreating exactly the historic recipes of the region. What I found most surprising was how the pastry cream recipe (featured here) worked perfectly when followed exactly. Down to the exact degree and milliliter it was perfect, but if you were off by one degree it broke. The precision of the research, and the detail with which they documented each step so as to preserve the tradition for the future, is completely Catalonian. In the Kitchens at Alicia
After an intense and fascinating few days at the Alícia Foundation, we were shown the best of Catalonia. Visits to cava houses and charcuterie specialists were among my favorites.Cava
The juxtaposition of old and new continued to fascinate on this leg of the trip. Two charcuterie specialists opened their doors to our group, each producing traditional meats but using modern technology. While common ingredients and methods linked the two producers, the actual implementation varied. The larger producer used careful air conditioning and heating of the curing rooms to ensure the appropriate humidity and temperatures. At the smaller, family-run facility, meats were moved through a building with specially designed floors that allowed the air to circulate. Through years of use the family learned which rooms produced which climates at various times of the year, and moved the products accordingly. The flavors held true in both production methods, and the variations fascinated our group.
Food and wine, cooking and techniques, science and food: Our trip to Spain was all about tradition and innovation coming together. Old and new, modern and classic. Tradition reigns supreme, yet reinvents itself for the modern consumer. Health and wellness are a main focus, and our future generations will benefit. Our group was welcomed warmly by the people at Prodeca, and at every stop along the way. Food and wine are not just a means of sustenance in Spain, they are a lifeline, and connection to each other, to family and friends. A meal is not just nourishment, but a means of connection and communication, a calming center in the midst of a busy world. Prodeca and Catalonia shared this with our chefs, reconnecting us to the nature of our craft, a nurturing and generous one. Not only will this warmth stay in our memories, it will spill over into our kitchens for many years to come.
Thomas Wong '86, C.E.C., C.H.E.
Chef Tom Wong
Thomas Wong's culinary career has taken him to a variety of restaurants, resorts, and hotels. Prior to joining the Greystone faculty, Chef Wong was executive sous chef for the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows in Kohala Coast, HI. He was previously executive chef for several other Hawaiian hotels, including the Hotel Hana Maui in Hana, and the Waialae Country Club and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, both in Honolulu.
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