A School That Can Change The World

Brazilian Chef Alex Atala among the 9 world’s best

It was a foodie’s dream come true — nine of the world’s most famous chefs in the same room. Together, they hold the secrets to some of fine dining’s greatest mysteries: the recipe for the perfect ceviche, the ideal texture for an asparagus foam, the tastiest way to serve cod cheek. But when the group of top chefs — which included Spain’s own Ferran Adrià, France’s Michel Bras and Denmark’s René Redzepi — gathered in San Sebastián on July 26 to plan the curriculum for a prestigious new culinary school, not one of them, it seemed, wanted to talk about how to make a béchamel.

Instead, the meeting of the advisory council for the Basque Culinary Center was more like a culinary G-8. Sitting around a table in the elegant salon of a mansion that was once the summer home of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, with interpreters translating their declarations into five languages, the chefs debated the finer points of public health, environmental degradation and world hunger. When the school opens, set for the fall of 2011, it will no doubt offer instruction in sauce preparation and chicken deboning. But if these chefs have their way, it will also require students in its exclusive four-year program to grapple with the world’s most pressing food issues. See TIME’s special report on the science of appetite

Headed by Adrià, owner of the renowned restaurant El Bulli, located in northeastern Spain, the all-star council’s members are much more interested in shaping chefs into socially aware activists than in honing their knife skills — and they believe the new Basque Culinary Center is the perfect place to start. “We’re talking about the role of the chef in the future,” Dan Barber, the only North American chef on the council, told reporters at the meeting. “And in that sense, it’s not the revolution inside the kitchen that matters the most.”

The planning session represented a minor revolution of its own, at least in terms of a classic culinary education. The program, originally conceived by a separate board of directors comprised of many of the Basque Country’s best chefs, will include coursework in food preparation, styles of restaurant service and business management, explained director Joxe Mari Aizega. But he emphasized that it was also designed to fill the gaps in a traditional curriculum. “This isn’t a cooking school,” he said. “It’s an interdisciplinary school, with cooking at its heart.” See pictures of what makes you eat more food

The advisory council took him at his word. Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant Noma was recently voted the world’s best, argued that before students could fully appreciate the wonders of produce, they had to understand how to grow it. “They have to learn when things are in season, how plant biology works, the way how things grow influences whether it tastes good or bad,” he said. Brazilian chef Alex Atala called for the inclusion of studies in anthropology, so that students could learn how cooking was used as a tool for social integration. Heston Blumenthal, of the innovative English restaurant the Fat Duck, suggested that the program bring in specialists to train the future chefs in sensory perception. (He has worked with scientists to enhance the experience of hospital meals for children and the elderly by augmenting the umami — the elusive “meaty” flavor found in mushrooms and Parmesan cheese — of foods to compensate for their blandness.) See Josh Ozersky’s Taste of America food columns here

Read more by Lisa Abend / San Sebastian, Spain

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