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Eavesdrop on culinary genius

Wired foodies can attend (virtually) an important gastronomic conference in Spain.

March 07, 2007|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

IF you want to know what some of the world's most cerebral gastronomes are thinking about the future of food these days, you could immediately jump on a plane to San Sebastian, the Basque city in Spain where a rather dazzling array of marquee names will be gathering next week for a meeting of the culinary minds at Dialogos de Cocina.

Or you could just amble over to your computer on Monday and Tuesday.

All the presentations and round tables on the outer limits of techniques and ingredients by such international luminaries as Heston Blumenthal, Michel Bras and Harold McGee will be available online, not live but very close to it. And the organizers are hoping 100,000 "participants" around the world log on to watch for free (www.dialogosdecocina.com).

The forum itself -- Kitchen Dialogues, in English -- is ambitious enough, with one entire afternoon devoted to "other ways" of seeing, thinking, understanding and cooking. The chefs ramrodding it are the Ferran Adrias of San Sebastian, which itself is the mecca of the food world right now because of its concentration of wildly adventurous, highly praised kitchens: Pedro Subijana of Akelare, Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz, Juan Mari Arzak of Restaurante Arzak and Martin Berasategui, whose restaurant bears his name. And the speakers they have lined up cover the food spectrum, from Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, to Davide Cassi, an Italian physicist who is one of the fathers of so-called molecular gastronomy.

But what sets this conference apart from the increasing number of techno-centered events lately is the technology itself. These kinds of conferences seem to be so popular -- the French held Omnivore last month in Le Havre; the month before, Italians organized Identita Golose in Milan -- that it's a wonder "molecular gastronomists" get any foam made with all the informational jet-setting.

Dialogos de Cocina, by contrast, wants to be the Oscars of the food world, with the whole planet watching what goes down on the stage in one city in Spain.

Without the Internet, the forum might be the proverbial tree falling in the forest. Scholarly papers and DVDs could be distributed afterward, but the actual event would be heard only by those in the chairs at Miramon Technology Park for a day and a half. And that is indicative of a sea change in an industry that once relied on public television series underwritten by sponsors to get ideas out into the world (and increasingly depends on commercial TV to send banality forth). Broadcasting on the Internet essentially costs the producer a server and bandwidth only; no advertising is needed. And anyone with Internet access can tune in, anytime.

Webcasts are steadily opening up new vistas in food in an era when online education has become so common that major universities such as Notre Dame and MIT are offering courses online. Two weeks ago, when Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," debated Whole Foods Chief Executive John Mackey, no one had to be in the auditorium at UC Berkeley with them. The discussion was carried online as they spoke; it remains available at webcast.berkeley.edu. American Express has started offering webcasts of its Food & Wine Classic chef demos at Aspen free through the iTunes store, although they could qualify as infomercials.

And in May, an American version of Dialogos, a forum called Taste 3, will be presented at Copia, the culinary center in the Napa Valley, with videos preserved online of such speakers as chef Dan Barber, winemaker Randall Grahm and blog pioneer Meg Hourihan. Webcasts from the inaugural program last year are already online (taste3.com/video.php).

Video is increasingly visible, and audible, on food sites all over the Web. Epicurious.com is running segments from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., easily the country's Harvard of food, but for mysterious reasons they are MySpace-quality, with aspiring chefs dunking chips in the dorm rather than sharing what they learn.

Television broadcasts are also too easy to find, as are webcasts from commercial outlets, such as the Wegmans supermarket chain in the Northeast, which has started offering recipe demos (wegmans.com).

But where that kind of "programming" can have all the truthiness of reality TV, a seminar beamed straight onto the Internet from a forum such as Dialogos de Cocina should be more like C-Span. It also should avoid the chirpiness of cooking demos aimed more at amateurs, if not voyeurs, than at serious professionals looking for a new method or a new ingredient, or rarer still, a new way of thinking.

Subijana is this year's head of the organization sponsoring Dialogos, Euro-Toques, which has 3,500 members, 800 in Spain alone.

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