Rarely do I come back from a conference with such a good buzz, but Culinary Action the forum for culinary entrepreneurs, held at the Basque Culinary Center, ended on a high after two fast-paced and tightly-packed days.
Conceived as a forum for international entrepreneurs in the food world to tell their stories, encourage discussion about the challenges facing the sector and provide inspiration and encouragement for new projects.
Monday began with Xavier Güell of Sibarit.us discussing his projects including Mystery Box and Chef Box, which deliver culinary treats right to your doorstep. Chef Box is a particularly interesting project in conjunction with top Spanish chefs such as Ferran Adria, the Roca brothers, Andoni Luis Aduriz. Each chef designed his own box and the range from the ingredients needed for a dish to games which being all of your senses into play.
The adorable Fraser Doherty of Super Jam (a Scottish all fruit jam company) won everyone over immediately with stories of his first venture: a short-lived chicken farm that supplied eggs to neighbors till the chickens were eaten by a fox. He detailed the story of getting his Gran’s jam recipe to market, from his first homemade batches made when he was 14, through design trials (focus on one main message!) and clever give a ways, to fair-trade home-stays in Uganda. Even Jose Andres was captivated and shot off on his twitter feed:
“@fraserdoherty one of the best speakers ever! Smart, funny and witty….Great business story..@superjam”
Antonio Muiños of Porto Muiños demonstrated what’s in a name. Everything changed for the company when he started calling Porto Muiños products sea vegetables instead of seaweeds. Demand went from 50 kg to half a ton.
A lot of the new demand came from the innovative chefs of Spain’s top restaurants. Now, Porto Muinos packages 35 different types of sea vegetables, which you might find on the menu at Quique Dacosta and Arzak restaurants
Celebrity chef and Spanish food ambassador Jose Andres blew into town on an early flight after Super Bowl celebrations in Barcelona and turned up the volume. First, he needed a coffee on stage before jumping into debate with Michelin three-starred chef Martin Berasategui on the differences between being a chef and being an entrepreneur. But once he was up to speed – what a show! The guy is dynamite. His 20+ years in the States show in his philosophy and mindset. He is a true entrepreneur who cuts right to the chase detailing the reality of a bevy of restaurants from coast to coast and plans for a Jaleo empire – he sees dozens of outposts and is working with experienced franchise partner in the development of his project. Both chefs seemed to agreed that in order to be successful you need to work hard, surround yourself with good people, treat them well and make them feel like they are an integral part of the business.
Carlos Yescas of Lactography, is obsessed with cheese. He has turned that obsession into his life’s work: monger, educator, author, consultant, and businessman. He even answers all his own email. These days, he’s especially focused on artisanal Mexican cheeses and has a strong sense of social responsibility. His cheese makers are paid like lawyers!
Garikoitz Ríos of Bodegas Itsasmendi, talks even faster than I do! And no wonder it’s hard to keep up: In less a scant decade years, he’s taken his business from a farmhouse to an operation that produces 300,000 bottles a year. And he has found a Txakoli niche in the restaurant world.
After the presentations we splintered off into workshops: 48-hour food project incubator, finance, international gastronomic trends, creativity and business plans. In my design workshop, Bruno Oteiza made a guest appearance to tell his story: a Basque in Mexico goes from sleeping on a friend’s couch and selling street food to chef/owner of Biko on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 best restaurants list where he serves “gatxupa” cuisine: And thus, Basque-Mexican fusion was born.
In between presentations sessions were well-catered coffee breaks and a macro lunch, which allowed people to network, and network they did. The conference was a perfect size; we were 250 in all. So people got to know each other quickly. Ideas and business cards were exchanged readily. I have quite a handful myself.
The evening’s Pitch and Beer bar crawl (thanks, Heineken) cemented more relationships, especially since the nature of pintxo bars –hopping with a group means you are always going to talk to different people in each one.
Tuesday, 4 February. Day two!
Giannola Nonino of Grappas Nonino, is a pistol and I think has just been chosen as the next president of Italy. She is a shining example of why the Italians are so successful at marketing. She spiritedly described how her beautiful family from humble origins turned the once maligned Italian spirit into an elegant single vine distillate and founded an international prize to highlight the relevance of rustic life. She also exhorted the women in the audience to go forth and triumph. Brava!
Víctor Alarcón, the architect and entrepreneur behind the transformation of the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid described the challenges of converting a historic monument and the role of fresh food markets in society. Seven years in the making, it is the most successful market renovation in the country, and now it’s the city’s most visited tourist attraction.
Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz was the closing speaker. As many times as I have heard Andoni speaks, in public and when I’ve translated for him in interviews I always bowled over by the guy. His thinking cap is always on! His topic was entrepreneurship, so he chose to tell the story of his New Food Spray line, developed in conjunction with Azti-Tecnalia. He intends the line that currently consists of pancakes, tempura and churros for use by food service and at home to serve as an example of a project which combined technical difficulties, varied partners and a bit of fun to encourage younger people to dream and develop projects. “Be consistent, find the right partners and go into it knowing that any project is going to be a long walk in the desert before you find your way.” said Andoni, suggesting that creativity also happens on that walk.
Andoni is an inspiration. Despite his success, his head is still full of dreams and projects. While he creates what many consider to be the World’s best tasting menu he also reveals in the hours spent figuring out how to put churros in a can. All in a day’s work!
To close each of the workshop leader and the curator Maria Canabal re-capped their sessions and invited participants to join in with their experiences, which led to more lively debate. No one wanted to leave.
I, for one, can’t wait for Culinary Action 2015!