Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Mexico City: Basque Culinary World Prize

Vegetable gardens and the canals of Xochimilco were the backdrop to the Basque Culinary Center symposium on biodiversity.

Vegetable gardens and the canals of Xochimilco were the backdrop to the Basque Culinary Center symposium on biodiversity.

Last week I had the good fortune to be in Mexico City for an event that combined biodiversity and the evolution of gastronomy.

The first was the announcement of the winner of the Basque Culinary Center World Prize 2017. The prize, which comes with a generous 100,000 purse, is awarded to a chef who has moved gastronomy forward in the past year, whether in the area of new skills, creativity, innovation, or social entrepreneurship.

Basque Culinary World Prize 2017 winner Leonor Espinosa. Photo courtesy of the Basque Culinary Center.

Basque Culinary World Prize 2017 winner Leonor Espinosa. Photo courtesy of the Basque Culinary Center.

The winner was Colombian Chef Leonor Espinosa, who has championed the food sovereignty of indigenous and Afro-Columbian people via rural development, routes to market, improved nutrition, and education. She’s reaching back into indigenous cultures and folkways to help revive and restore the dignity once inherent in them.

Last year's winner, Maria Fernanda di Giacobbe. Photo courtesy of the Basque Culinary Center

Last year's winner, Maria Fernanda di Giacobbe. Photo courtesy of the Basque Culinary Center

It was an especially impressive choice considering that this is only the second time the prize has been awarded and the second time it’s gone to a fierce Latina doing work in sometimes dangerous terrain to help empower grass roots farmers and entrepreneurs. Last year's prize was awarded to Venezuelan cacao evangelist and social entrepreneur Maria Fernanda di Giacobbe, who's crafted a network of small business entrepreneurship, research and development around the Criollo cacao bean.

This year's winner Espinosa faced stiff competition. Included on the short list of 10 finalists were celebrity California chefs Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi, who are bringing scratch-made fast food to underserved areas with Locol; David Hertz, whose vision of “social gastronomy” encompasses free culinary training to underserved children, youth and prison inmates, and whose network stretches across Latin America; and a Turkish social entrepreneur I’ll be writing about, Ebru Baybara, who offers culinary and cultural training to both Syrian refugees and Turkish locals on the southeastern Turkish border.

The ten judges, including a Mt. Rushmore lineup of chef heavyweights (Gaston Acurio, Michel Bras, Dominique Crenn, Yoshihiro Narisawa, Enrique Olvera, Joan Roca, Jeremiah Tower) and assorted writers, activists and agriculturalists, emerged from an all-day jurying session looking dazed, emotionally spent and filled with nothing but praise for their fellow judges.

“I don’t think there was one judge who ended up voting for the person they thought they were going to vote for when they walked into the room in the morning,” said judge and seed saver Matthew Goldfarb. “The discussion was so impassioned and emotional.” Basque poet and novelist Kirmen Uribe said, “I like this vision of gastronomy that’s linked to human values. Gastronomy can be elitist, but this award is for chefs who are connected to the world’s social needs.”

Biodiversity showed up on the plate, too: Heriloom corn tortillas, suadero of confit beef from Pujol chef de cuisine Coko Becker, salad of nopales (cactus pads), green beans and Oaxacan cheese. 

Biodiversity showed up on the plate, too: Heriloom corn tortillas, suadero of confit beef from Pujol chef de cuisine Coko Becker, salad of nopales (cactus pads), green beans and Oaxacan cheese. 

Taken from the canal ride to the symposium site. 

Taken from the canal ride to the symposium site. 

The next day’s all-day symposium on biodiversity took place in the beautiful Xochimilco Ecological Park, where chef Enrique Olvera's team had constructed a fittingly rustic outdoor stage and stand-up dining area, set amid vegetable gardens that help supply his restaurants. Conversations about industrialized food in Argentina, the refugee crisis faced by the UNHCR, the challenges of reviving native corn in Mexico, sustainable fishing and seed saving were all fascinating, and I’m sure will be the source of many conversations and stories to come.

It was the only gathering I’ve been to where at dinner, we could in one moment be tearing up at the table--over Maria Franchini of the UNHCR’s wrenching account of the 25,000 unaccompanied minor refugees who entered Italy in just one year, or journalist Soledad Barruti’s account of interviewing desperate Latin Americans who had fought their way to the U.S. border because life at home is far worse than all of the dangers and predations of the journey to the border—and the next moment exclaiming over a photo of Yoshihiro Nariawa’s latest creation, a precious jewel of a tropical-hued dish encased in glassine arrowroot gelee.

There were contradictions galore like this, the kind probably many of us feel when we go to a restaurant like those run by the chef judges of the Basque Culinary World Prize. The beauty of these two days, though, was seeing these chefs not just to engage with a wide range of humanitarians, artists, activists and farmers, but to put cash on the line to reward hard-fought efforts to make the world a better place through gastronomy.

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