Star chefs in Mexico to defend biodiversity

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Star chefs from around the world gathered in Mexico City’s ancient floating gardens for a symposium on saving the world’s threatened biodiversity, a bleak subject they peppered with breaks to savor the local cuisine.

Joan Roca of Spain, Michel Bras of France and Gaston Acurio of Peru were among the big-name chefs who took part in the event Tuesday at Xochimilco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site criss-crossed with natural canals and artificial islands first created by the Aztecs.

Munching on hand-made tortillas stuffed with organic beans and quesadillas made from local corn, participants used the idyllic setting to tackle a grim problem: the threats that climate change, industrial agriculture and overexploitation pose to the world’s plant and animal life.

“I believe that solidarity is in a chef’s DNA, along with the desire to create a commitment to preserve the environment and biodiversity,” said Roca, whose restaurant El Celler de Can Roca has twice taken top place on the prestigious list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

The chefs were in town to pick the winner of the Basque Culinary World Prize, a 100,000-euro award for food-related projects that have made a positive difference beyond the kitchen.

Roca presided over the jury that named this year’s winner on Monday: Colombian chef Leonor Espinosa of the restaurant LEO in Bogota, who is known for sourcing local ingredients and giving back to the communities that supply them.

That was also a key theme at the symposium.

To illustrate the point, participants toured the lettuce and cactus fields of Xochimilco’s famous “chinampas,” artificial islands created with age-old agricultural techniques used by the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican peoples.

The chinampas are one of the last reminders of how the Aztecs lived 500 years ago at the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas, when Mexico City was mostly covered in water.

– ‘Urban stain’ –

Today, the city has become a sprawling urban area of more than 20 million people.

Xochimilco is one of the area’s last vestiges of small-scale agriculture amid what the Mexican academic Refugio Rodriguez called “the growing urban stain of the Mexican capital.”

Seeking to help revive a more sustainable kind of agriculture to supply the city’s food, some Mexican chefs have started sourcing fresh, organic ingredients straight from the chinampas.

They include the likes of Enrique Olvera, owner of the feted restaurant Pujol, and Ricardo Munoz Zurita, of “Azul y Oro.”

Munoz Zurita, whom Time magazine has called a “prophet” of preserving culinary tradition, called for a return to niche local ingredients such as native Mexican corn, instead of the mass-produced basket of produce that dominates the world’s supermarket aisles.

“We’re going to be the ambassadors of critically endangered products. We have to start cooking with them so people don’t forget they exist,” he said.

To get to the event, which was held under a large thatch hangar, participants ventured to an artificial island by boat, a trip of about 30 minutes.

The symposium was sponsored by the Basque Culinary Center, a gastronomic university born off the back of a revolution in Spanish cuisine epitomized by the Basque country’s plethora of Michelin-starred restaurants and by Ferran Adria, the father of molecular gastronomy.

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