Sanchez Romera2

The Neurologist and the Chef

The profession of chef was not spelled out in his destiny but Miguel Sánchez Romera knew how to read between the lines. Born in Argentina to Spanish immigrants, he first studied Medicine, specializing in neurology and certain diseases such as epilepsy. He then travelled to Spain to work as a doctor but soon felt there was something missing. His sense of frustration stemmed from not having studied art, a discipline he was keen to combine with another of his passions, cooking. His scientific training and his love of art led him to tread new paths in gastronomy, and he coined the term Total Cooking, reflecting a conception of life in which cooking leads to order, creation, harmony. The idea is that life should be lived using our senses to the full, and that this can be applied to cuisine. Sánchez Romera sees his work as culinary artistic constructionism, starting out with known elements and formulae but generating a very novel, artistic result. He aims to bring out the natural flavor of every ingredient, and his dishes reach the table as an invitation to almost pictorial appreciation by the senses. Another important element in this philosophy of gastronomy is that haute cuisine dishes be healthy. He is not in favor of competing with engineers from the food industry. In his small workshop, he works with a gas flame, a pressure cooker, charcoal, and standard gas ovens, and displays extreme care in the handling of food.

One of his creations, patented and used by chefs the world over is Micri, a neutral, tasteless, colorless and odorless base that does not interfere with the flavors, aromas and textures of the other ingredients in the dish. While his dishes look like modern-art compositions, and he utilizes surprising ingredients (“I use snapdragons and coffee flowers. Except poison ones, all flowers are edible. It’s a question of dose,” he says), he stands apart from leading exponents of Modernist cuisine, such as Adrià, Chicago’s Grant Achatz or Britain’s Heston Blumenthal, and is a critic of many of their core principles. On Romera’s plates, food looks and tastes of what it is—he doesn’t dramatically alter form or texture, saying unfamiliar foods provoke a rejection response in the brain—and he doesn’t do deconstruction, irony, or even foam.

Twelve varieties of grains with black-truffle shavings in a curry-accented sauce

Twelve varieties of grains with black-truffle shavings in a curry-accented sauce

He denies that molecular gastronomy is scientifically novel, taking aim at one favored technique: “Spherification—turning different flavors into imitation caviar—that’s Chemistry 101!” he says, pulling rank as a true scientist among dabblers. Sworn to the Hippocratic Oath, Romera considers it anathema to send diners home filled with fat, salt and booze. He uses a minimum of butter and other fats, relying on Cassavia for thickening everything from sauces to gelati. In a statement of restaurant-industry heresy, Romera says that wine pairing is a “complete fraud.” The way to ensure wine improves rather than inhibits the taste of food is not to drink too much of it, he says. Some Spanish critics have expressed outrage over how Romera has been overlooked. “The geniuses of gastronomic criticism have had no alternative but to concede his conceptual superiority, and, overcome by it, have opted to ignore his work,” wrote the Spanish-language newspaper La Vanguardia about Romera in 2005. Josep Vilella, one of the authors of the piece, theorizes that because Romera “appeared out of nowhere, as if by magic,” fellow chefs who had climbed the ladder through long, hard apprenticeships considered him “an intruder, a stranger in the profession.” Also, “he wasn’t media savvy,” and thus was largely ignored, Vilella adds. The James Beard Foundation became aware of Romera after its gala, when a participating Spanish architect lamented that he had not been included, says vice president Mitchell Davis, who subsequently invited Romera to cook at the institute. “I wasn’t a member of the club,” Romera concedes, with a nearly imperceptible wince. His explanation speaks to years of alienation in his adopted country: “Don’t forget, I’ve treated patients there for over 20 years, I speak fluent Catalan, but I’ll always be Argentine to them.” Jeffrey Shaw, marketing director for Foods from Spain, a division of the trade commission, says Romera “just wasn’t on the list of people who were on the radar” at the time.

For dipping, olive oil with black olive puree and pansies

I first came across Chef Romera a couple of years ago while reading Food and Philosophy, In a passage entitled ‘The Neurologist and the Chef’: “Let me introduce myself: I have been a neurologist and a neuro-physiologist for 20 years, and a chef for 6.” This is the matter of fact statment that opens  La Cocina de los Sentidos, the first book by Miguel Sanchez Romera, chef and owner of the renowned restaurant L’Esguard in S. Andreu de Llavaneres on the cost of Catalonia, Spain. Now in his fifties, Sanchez Romera has worked for many years in hospitals and scientific institutions, focusing particularly on epilepsy. He was always passionate about cooking and food, but the turning point in his career was his fortieth birthday dinner, when he cooked for fifty people together with his friend, the famous Catalan chef Ferran Adria. The dinner turned out to be such a success that the gatherings at the Sanchez Romeras became a tradition. It was only in 1996 thatthe neurologist decided to open a restaurant, namely, L’Esguard, receiving a good deal of attention throughout Europe, and recently, the world. In his book, Sanchez Romera’s diverse interests meet in the most intriguing and stimulating fashion on theories regarding the senses, the mind, and memory. Being both a successful chef and a respected scientist, he is in a privileged position to analyze the connections between cognition and recollection in the realm of food and flavors. His whole argument, which also influences his cooking style, hingeson the concept that the memory and other mental functions, at least inthe case of food, are closely connected with the emotions, through the senses, the body and its most basic need, hunger and thirst. When we eat and drink, e find ourselves at the juncture between biological necessity, the world of drives and instincts, the inputs from the outside world, and the tremendous landslide of thoughts, feelings and emotions resulting from uninterrupted brain activity. In a similar way Sanchez Romera, as a chef, is located at the crossroads between the material world of edible products and the culinary arts as a creative experience that connects human physiology to culture. His work enhances the notion that food is at the frontier between the biological and cultural.

 

Shellfish and seaweed cream in a daikon-radish wrapper decorated with pansies

Shellfish and seaweed cream in a daikon-radish wrapper decorated with pansies

No other organ in the human being embodies the complexity of this frontier better than the brain itself, where electric and chemical signals become the texture of perception, memory, thought, creativity and emotions. The fact that Sanchez focuses on food and its appreciation – that is to say, pleasure – is particularly relevant since taste and smell have been the less studies senses, whose importance and impact on mental processes and especially on memory have been often neglected. This connection between food and memory appears to be almost a fixation for the Sanchez Romera“.

 

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