6. 7. 2020

English version | De chef e de louco...

by Nuno Miguel Dias


In the kitchen world, madness is queen. Even if that was not the case, being a chef is, in itself, one of those jobs that has a lot of potential when it comes to the acquisition of many crazes and quirks, small embarrassments and an irascible character. Welcome to the crazy world of improbable recipes, the most bizarre restaurants and chefs with knives in hand, an image that we will not want to encounter.

Legend has it that Velho Brás, a resident of Bairro Alto, only had a few eggs, onions, potatoes and cod at home. To this he added his creativity and the very famous Bacalhau à Brás was born. Let's go ahead and break down this theory. It is very beautiful to have such a story to tell the tourist who sits at the table of the fado house and hesitates between an octopus lagareiro style or a deep fried pataniscas of codfish. Except that sometimes these tourists do know how to cook, since "abroad" the habit of men getting home and having dinner ready has been over for a century now. That said, we don’t think anyone actually believes this story. In fact, in order to make “his” cod, Ti Brás would’ve to have oil to sauté the finely cut onion, one or two cloves of garlic (indispensable, according to our poet Saul Ricardo), oil to fry the potatoes (at the time, there were no packed potatoes of this kind), pepper, bay leaf, white wine to sweat the onions, milk to bind with the eggs and parsley to chop on top and Cobrançosa or Galegas types of olives. All things considered, these are the basic ingredients for a good hundred examples of the Portuguese cuisine. But Brás was up for “that”.

Which is nothing more than a dish to please the Spanish tourist, those that get excited with cod and, if it is wrapped in eggs (huevos revueltos com todo y todo com huevos), even better. It is such a poor dish that even Franciscans dedicated themselves to making liqueurs with wild aromatics, observing from their convents, always located in places as deserted as beautiful, the landscapes of Serra da Arrábida, the forest of Sintra or the Sea of Caparica, just to see if they did not make a mistake like that, something that only afflicts the guys who look through the wicket and see only taverns with canaries in cages and, through the Rua da Rosa arch, a tram passing down there in Calhariz. Velho Brás is not, therefore, one of those cases in which the need develops the skill. It is another example that when you are hungry anything suits you, like the French onion soup, which was born at the time Napoleon made his own and his people ate what was left - but not what they could. Typical of despots. If we want to think in a more contemporary way, imagine that what the world is going through is due to the shortage of protein of the inhabitants of the most remote China, who are forced to consume meat of wild animals. The government itself encouraged it two decades ago, subsidized real farms for the creation of “animals” like the pangolin or civet, and today the whole world is grappling with a pandemic because someone wanted a “rare bat, please".

However, there are many recipes, ways of cooking and even gastronomic streams that, in fact, are born from a great deal of madness. At the very least, courage. Which is also often a kind of madness. In the early 90s, the studies of french Hervé This and hungarian Nicholas Curti took the first steps towards what would be called molecular gastronomy. Analyzing the chemical transformations that foods go through during their preparation, they used techniques specific to the food industry, such as applying certain chemicals on a small scale in order to cause molecular changes that translate into the modification of the texture and shape of food. The question is: "Who is interested in eating mango powder or kiwi spaghetti?" You have to be a little crazy to think that this will be attractive to the public. Which is the only thing that justifies putting in such work, especially at a time when criticisms of processed foods were beginning to raise, accusing, for example, preservatives of being carcinogenic. And that’s when Ferran Adrià Acosta comes to the scene, the famous Catalan chef who made El Bulli the El Dorado of gourmands with his three Michelin stars and the first place in the Restaurant magazine in 2006, dethroning the mythical The Fat Duck in England.

The man was one of the greats of molecular cuisine, after mastering, like no one else, the best kept secrets of Spanish cuisine since the 1980s. El Bulli, which before closing its doors after the epic “service” of June 30, 2011 had a two-year waiting list, only open from April to September. The rest of the year was devoted to Adrià's work in his laboratory in Barcelona. The cuisine at El Bulli was summarized in 23 points as basic as “giving preference to vegetables and seafood”, “all products have the same culinary value, regardless of their price”, “always preserving the purity of the food's flavor, regardless of its temperature, texture or shape ”and“ taste is not the only sense that must be stimulated”, true pillars by which the very extensive team that changed the history of the restaurant was guided. There are films and books about this real crazy world. A planet apart. This small house located in Roses, Catalonia, very close to Port Lligat, the fishing hamlet where Dalí resided, was the cornerstone of a “chain” reverberated throughout the world. The techniques used in molecular cuisine are often used today by so many chefs, renowned or mere aspirants, which lead us to believe that it is much more than a passing trend. Viscosity Control is, for example, the technique of making gels, using gelling agents or stabilizers such as agar-agar and xanthan gum. Freezing by Liquid Nitrogen, which evaporates at more than -196oC, causing that characteristic cloud that beautifies the dish, is also quite common in restaurants within reach of all. Air insertion produces foam (of almost everything) and spherification transforms food into small balls that decorate the dishes in an unforgettable way. There you have it, "flavor is not the only sense to be stimulated". It's crazy, isn't it? 

Let us now do a very simple exercise. The purpose of which is to test our tolerance. Because in fact, there are foods or recipes that, for us, are just crazy. Or that we would have to be crazy to ingest them. But for other cultures, and not so different from ours, they are as common as a Portuguese stew on Wednesday in the cafe under the office where we work or some streaky grills by the pool in that house we rented with friends in Cabanas de Tavira. Too bad I am not going to discuss here the Dog Meat Festival in Yulin, China, or the roasted tarantulas from the Amazon or the fried scorpions in Bangkok. No! We hate the vulgar. We start with akutaq, the favorite food of the Inuit, aka “Eskimos”, served in bowls and, at first glance, with the appearance of red fruit ice cream. In fact, it is a mixture of fresh snow, fish scraps, reindeer lard and seal oil. Occasionally, they also add some berries. But these are so difficult to find in those latitudes that, most of the time, they are dispensable. It is thus a type of steak but without the egg. Relatively close, in Greenland, we have kiviak, a dish consisting of fermented auks (a local bird, feathers included) inside the seal carcass, which is buried for six to twelve months. Following this train of thought, the boodog, a typical Mongolian dish, consists of a goat (on celebration days) or a groundhog (more common) that is first skinned and then “stuffed” again, which thus resembles to a “bag”, not only with the meat itself, but also with hot stones. This is what will cook the dish. Shirako, much appreciated in Japan, is the cod sperm bag, which must be eaten raw, as required by the sushi law. For fans of Indiana Jones and the unforgettable monkey brain meal scene, let it be known that this is a reality in many places in Africa, Malaysia, China, Vietnam and Indonesia. In other words, Steven Spielberg is a crazy genius but not crazy enough to invent such a dreadful scene. In fact, he was quite smooth in his approach, since the monkeys were dead. It is not what happens in many latitudes.

Let us then return to the so-called “normal” food, but served in the craziest restaurants, which can only come out of a crazy brain... The Modern Toilet Restaurant, in Taiwan was an idea that came out of the current owners’ brain while sitting on the toilet reading Manga (Dr. Slump). It started by selling chocolate ice cream (very cold) served in a small... toilet! That's right. Some prefer Vista Alegre dishes, others Sanindusa’s. Surprisingly, it was successful. And drawing on the madness of others, they spread throughout the island, with several establishments with the same philosophy: serving innovative food in dishes in the form of bathroom equipment. The question that is asked is “why”? Another approach, completely different but also “crazy” is that of “Heart Attack Grill”. Where would that be possible? Exactly, in the USA. In Las Vegas, more precisely. The Heart Attack Grill, whose slogan is "Flavors that are worth dying for" is proud to say they "fight anorexia since 2005". With decoration that tries to make us believe that we are in a hospital (all employees are dressed as doctors and nurses, stethoscopes included), it promotes a diet that is highly harmful to our health, with hamburgers of inconceivable sizes. Customers are called "patients", the menus "prescriptions" and those who weigh more than 160kg do not pay the bill, provided they weigh themselves on a cattle scale at the entrance of the establishment. The Octuple Bypass Burger, for example, is very representative of the “quality” of what is served there, considering that each of the eight hamburgers inside the brioche is at least 250gr but can go up to 1.5kg. Normally, it is served with Flatliner Fries, french fries in lard. Those who fail to finish what they ask for, may get beaten by the “nurses”. “Crazier” is the Refuge des Fondus, in Montmartre, Paris, a very normal restaurant of that French specialty, but whose drinks, even those included in an enviable wine list à la française, are served in feeding bottles.

“Now, for something completely different”, as the crazy Monty Python would say. If we’re going for madness, we’re going for madness. Let's dive into what we all miss, post-confinement: alcohol! Ana Morgado was The Girl Who Didn't Drink Alcohol when she started working at Budha Bar, in Lisbon, first at the cloakroom and then at the bar. At the Eventing Bar Catering, she learned everything about cocktails, has been to almost every festival (Alive, Super Bock, Sudoeste, where she was in the VIP areas, making cocktails for the “stars”). Then it was Silk, Sasha, Olivier and, fortunately for connoisseurs, Gin Lovers: “I was super happy there, I started to create my own image, to create cocktails out of the box and to combine my skill with what I liked, my passion for cocktails and photography. It was there that I was nominated twice as the best bartender in the country and won an international cocktail contest that gave me an opportunity to go to Tales Of Cocktails in New Orleans, an event that brings together more than 25,000 bartenders from around the world, which was an incredible experience. There, I gained the visibility that allowed me to embrace this project”, she says, smiling. By “this project”, she means, her current job, which is a dream: Brand Ambassador of the giant Martini! She broadens the smile even more: “It was a challenge proposed to me by one of my best friends, Rafael Matos. I was very afraid, it is one of the most important brands in the world, but I decided to dive in and it was the most incredible step I could have taken in my professional life! I am extremely proud to represent this brand from the bottom of my heart”. In addition to Martini, we thought that Ana Morgado would also be the best ambassador in the world of bars, the ones where everyone considers the greatest madness to reside. Nothing like an insider to let us inside this world: “The craziest cocktail I ever drank was Negroni with Morcela, from Red Frog, with vodka, borsch, re-distilled black pudding, bitter and vermouth.

The craziest cocktail I ever created was precisely the one that made me win the competition, called Isabella, with ham syrup to give it a salty touch and a black cardamom bitter to lend it a smoky touch”, she reveals, always with a big smile, agreeing that “Yes, you have to be a little crazy in this world. I did a highly improbable pairing at Gin Lovers, to go with Chef Castro e Silva's Basil Risotto, from the restaurant Less, who shared the space with us, a Dry Martini but with a very special twist, gin, extra-dry Martini and syrup of green olives, the twist I can't reveal, of course”, she mocks. Before leaving for the crazy bustle of being the Brand Ambassador of one of the most famous brands in the world: “I even travelled from the south to the north Portugal on the same day, crashed my car on the rails on the way to Porto and didn’t even stop In order to arrive on time for the event, how crazy is that?”

*Originally published on Vogue Portugal's The Madness Issue.