Milan, Italy — THINK of Italy, and wild and crazy exchanges of cooking ideas are not what come to mind first. This is a country where each and every region is a world apart; the Tuscans in the center might as well be on Mars for all the interaction with the Piemontese to the northwest.
Which makes the frenzy of Identita Golose (literally "greedy identity") all the more extraordinary. For three days last week some of the biggest names in "molecular gastronomy" (Ferran Adria, Wylie Dufresne) were mixing and matching secrets with more traditional chefs from Italy, France, Scandinavia, even Japan. The result was a dazzling exploration of new ways to cook fish, present pasta and generally make a restaurant meal more like a night at La Scala. Throw in sugar surrealism for dessert and it was hard to remember this was all happening in the land of plain fruit and tired tiramisu.
This was a conference that brought together a radical contingent from Scandinavia and the famed father-son team of Pierre and Michel Troisgros from France, as well as wildly inventive chefs from Spain and quiet revolutionaries from Sicily. There were chefs quoting Kandinsky and Lars von Trier as comfortably as they evoked Escoffier. There were chefs filling balloons with spices to pop over dinner plates, and chefs demonstrating how to flavor the bread crumbs so ubiquitous in Italian cooking with lime zest and syrup. They were using all the new-wave toys -- agar-agar and sous vide and digital thermometers and no end of Pakojets -- but they were also sharing discoveries as basic as this: Baking butternut squash or sweet onions on a bed of rock salt will concentrate the flavor and texture.
It says everything that Adria, the man who set the world on foam at El Bulli in Spain, was most excited about explaining his revelation that shellfish such as lobster and crab are best approached like lamb or pig -- a whole one should be cooked differently than the parts. As he noted, "95% of the cooking at El Bulli is based on cooking technique" rather than mad science.
Adria, who was greeted like Mick Jagger by an auditorium full of chefs, food media and others, also demonstrated his new technique for turning seaweed into "caviar" by mixing chemicals to gel it and dropping it into liquid from a syringe. But that was just part of his larger point that seaweed is the ingredient of the future, given that no fewer than 500 varieties exist, many known only by their biological names at this point.
THE conference, the third incarnation of a dream by noted Milan food writer and blogger Paolo Marchi, was part kitchen Nobel ceremonies, part trade fair. Downstairs in Palazzo Mezzanotte, a conference center in the Wall Street of Milan, vendors were trying to seduce chefs and others with "normal" fare such as fish from New Zealand, salumi and wines from various regions of Italy and cheese and salmon from Scandinavia. But the busiest booths may have been the ones where Adria's company was promoting his various chemical agents and where another vendor was passing out little mouthfuls that looked like eggs but burst into passion fruit when tasted.
Marchi said he started Identita Golose (www.indentitagolose.it) to get beyond just eating and drinking at conferences, to show the world that Italian chefs are "not all fat, not all mamma mia." In the same way Italy leads the world in fashion, design, cars and more, he said, it should be making great innovations in food. And he was doing his part by bringing together chefs from nine countries who were willing to share their ideas. This year's emphasis was partly on dessert, which Marchi said has taken on growing importance in a country where drinking and driving are no longer acceptable and where sweetness will be needed to fill out a meal the way that last glass of grappa once did.
Moreno Cedroni, chef of Madonnina del Pescatore near Ancona, explained the new Italian approach to food by noting that his is the first generation not to have experienced starvation. And thus, he said, "We need stimulation" from food. One of the dishes he demonstrated featured a layer of balsamic vinegar reduced to a jam that was hidden under a tangle of tagliatelle, to be discovered as a surprise taste.
Many of the Italian chefs made the point that access to ingredients has changed the way they cook. "Twenty years ago," said Mauro Uliassi of Ristorante Uliassi near Ancona, "Italians more than 20 miles from the coast did not eat fish." Their cuisine evolved without it. Now chefs can get anything, from anywhere, and Italian cooking does not have to be constrained by regional divisions. As a result, they are open to inspiration from their contemporaries anywhere, whether Rene Redzepi of the cutting-edge Nordic restaurant Noma in Copenhagen or Yasuhiro Sasajima of Il Ghiottone in Kyoto, Japan.