Mesamerica 2014 “Cumbre Gastronomica de Mexico”

On the road again heading to one of the most well attended food events around the world that gets underway next week in Mexico City, Mexico from the 20th till the 22nd of May. This is the third  year of this conference initiated by Mexico’s most celebrated chef Enrique Olivera of Pujol restaurant in Mexico City. The Latin American food scene has been gaining a lot of attention and creating a significant buzz in the food world in the last few years.. Last September the first 50 Best Restaurants of Latin America were announced in Lima, Peru and Pujol was ranked at #3 followed by other names such as Biko, Pangea, Quintonil, Merotoro, Sud 777, Corazon de Tierra, and many others, an indication of this regions growing influence.

Last years roster of speakers introduced chefs from countries like Venezuela, Peru, Denmark, Spain, France, US, Italy, as well as many established and upcoming chefs from Mexico. Women are underrepresented on the roster at such events and last year Mesamerica was no different. This year Alice Waters, probably one of the most well known and celebrated female chefs, headlines the event  along with chefs Mario Batali, Danny Bowien, Vinny Dotolo, and Jon Shook, so it seems the focus will be more on the US food scene.

The theme of this year’s event is “Comida Callejera, Expresiones Urbanas” or “The Urban Expression of Street Food.” Mesamerica  is an exciting three days of lectures, cooking démonstrations and an opportunity to see up close some of thé most celebrated chefs from around thé world such as last year those present included Alex Atala (Brazil), René Redzepi (Denmark), Massimo Bottura (Italy), Andoni Aduriz (Spain), Daniel Humm (US), Eneko Atxa (Spain), Gaston Acurio and Virgillio Martinez (Peru), and David Kinch (US). A veritable “who’s who” of the world of international food scene!

This year the event is in a similar format for the first two days, followed by a day dedicated to the sweet world of pastry sponsored by Nespresso. Last year Jordi Roca of Celler de Can Roca, Spain demonstrated some spectacular deserts on stage and this year Pierre Herme the famous French pastry chef headlines the sweet section of the program.The Mexican culinary talent is well represented on next week’s line up of speakers with numerous up coming chefs, as well as others from related fields such as design, food journalism, food activists, film makers like David Gelb of Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame, and social activists like David Lida.

I am posting my dispatches from the event last year before I report on next weeks events, and my dining adventures with more chefs from Mexico. I have published interviews this year with Enrique Olvera, Pablo Salas, Edgar Nunez, and Jorge Vallejo, and I will be posting them here soon.

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Geeta conversing with Mexican chef Enrique Olvera

Geeta Bansal Reports on Mesamerica 2013 in Mexico City, Part 1

The most significant observation……
Most chefs love to demo dishes involving an egg actually three demos at least in three days based on egg yolks!

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Egg yolk brulee (top) and egg yolk on a stick (bottom)

Jokes apart it was a great culinary event held in the Auditorio Blackberry in Mexico City, Mexico. The real credit for initiating the whole thing goes to Chef Enrique Olvera, who has brought global attention to Mexico with his restaurant Pujol, placing 17th in the World’s Best 50 list. This second Mesamerica was organized by the Colectivo Mexicano De Cocina A.C with the involvement of the Secretaria de Agricultura, Secretaria de Turismo and numerous sponsors. In a conversation with Enrique Olvera on the last day of the event, he said in a conversation with me that he was unsure of how many of these events we would be attending in the future as he thought it would be replaced by some other format in the next few years (Never fear, the next one was announced during the closing ceremony this year).

Latin American food scene is becoming more distinct and significant part of the global food buzz. Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela and new in this conversation Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador amongst others. At this time there is a great culinary change occurring in Mexico and many young chefs have entered the fray bringing new flavor combinations and techniques while reintroducing forgotten ingredients and artisanal products. Culinarily speaking, it is an exciting time in Mexico and I have to say that in this respect, Mexico can hold its own against any other gastro tourist center in the world. This change is occurring at all price points and not just the fancy restaurants but permeating down to the street and the countryside. I will love to go back to enjoy the great food at restaurants like Quintonil, Biko, Pujol, Contramar, Azul Condessa, Paxia, and of course the tacos al pastor on every street corner.

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Chef Ricardo Munoz Zurita at the inauguration of Mesamerica

I always look forward to attending these events, as they give us chefs a chance to interact with other chefs, exchange ideas and experiences, meet old and new friends from around the world. How else can I be with Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz, Spain and David Kinch of Manresa, Los Gatos at the same time one night and with Massimo Bottura, of Italy, Bruno and Mikel from San Sebastian (and now of Mexico), Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park another evening or at a late night event with Rene Redzepi, of Denmark, Alex Atala, Brazil, Enrique Olvera of Mexico to name a few on another night? I had interesting conversations with Gaston Acurio, my friends Virgilio Martinez and Karime Lopez of Peru, Jorge Vallejo, Daniel Ovadia, Pablo Salas, my co-survivor Thelma Morgan, Ricardo Zurita of Mexico, Carlos Garcia of Venezuela, Jordi Roca, Eneko Atxa, and Sergio Puig of Spain, Inaki Izpitarte, France and many more that I will introduce in subsequent interviews.

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Carlo Petrini of Slow Food

The event opened with a very eloquent speech by Carlo Petrini of Slow Food. He was introduced by Massimo Bottura, a fellow Italian. Pettrini spoke passionately about the need to preserve the dignity and pride of small producers. He said the strategy of getting chefs together with producers is the only solution for humanity and mankind. He paid homage to mothers and grandmothers cooking in their kitchens keeping traditions alive. He was eloquent in expressing his concern about the prevalence of junk food and how it was destroying the health of people and the economy of small producers. He encouraged Mexicans in the audience to fight to maintain the true identity of their food culture.

I always love to listen to Petrini, being a member of Slow Food (Indian cuisine is the one of the earliest examples of slow cooking, as is true for any ancient culture), because he so believes in this cause and young chefs and culinary students in the audience hopefully took some part of this conversation back to their workplace to become the nucleus for change in their world.

The first day also had presenters like Rafael Ortega and Arturo Ortiz, Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli of New York who explained their chef in residency proposal (kind of confusing), Martin Kastner of Crucial details, discussing the design concepts.He showed slides of the custom serveware he has created for Grant Achatz at Alinea, Chicago.

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Gaston Acurio on Stage

After lunch, one of the highlights of the day was Gaston Acurio of Peru, who demonstrated some dishes with his sous chef and introduced some of the varieties of potatoes in Peru of which there are a few thousand or so. He said that every time he creates a dish, he is trying to tell a specific story through it. Gaston introduced his passionate involvement in the rural communities accompanied by a film clip. He said chefs need to venture out of their kitchens and get involved in their community for the future of gastronomy. (More in an upcoming interview with Gaston)

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A Dish Demonstrated by Gaston Acurio

Pau Arenós, food writer from Spain who along with Ferran Adria coined the term “techno emotional cuisine” (Really!), who as a part of his narrative said that without tradition there is no modernity!!!

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Sergio Puig of 41 Degrees, Barcelona by Ferran and Albert Adria, discussing their service philosophy

Sergio Puig of Ferran and Albert Adria’s restaurant 41 Degrees in Barcelona spoke about their concept of device accompanied by an interesting short clip of the restaurant. His narrative was accompanied by very informative slides and he had the audience engrossed in his descriptions of the food, service and decor of the restaurant. (My interviews with Albert Adria and Sebastian Mazzola, chef of 41 Degrees, were in OC Weekly earlier this year).

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Carlos Garcia of Alto, Caracas, Venezuela

Carlos Garcia the Venezuelan chef discussed how his cuisine as an homage to his homeland and its culture. His restaurant Alta, in Caracas Venezuela has gotten a lot of international attention recently. Garcia feels deeply about his country and its future was evident in his statement that “Our country is fractured and needs help.”

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Garcia’s Ossobuco Negro

His visuals of the beautiful countryside and his almost poetic representations of the landscapes on his plates was a highlight of the afternoon. I told him later that that was the next place I wanted to visit and he said to wait a while and come when things were better in his homeland. His honesty and concern made a fan out of me for this very talented, simple, gentle man.

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Massimo Bottura at Mesamerica

For me, the best part on the first day was listening to Massimo Bottura who along with his sous chef, David, gave one of the most interesting food demonstrations of the day. He is a very interesting speaker, artist, chef and person.

I particularly remember his encouragement to know your talents, acknowledge your habits, to guide your passion for food with rationality and emotion. He encouraged chefs to look at classic recipes with new eyes. He spoke about putting identity, poetry, technology all together while creating new recipes. I concurred when he said that as chefs we take ingredients that are raw and chaotic and transform them into orderly edible ideas.

I still remember the hilarious film he showed at the Gastronomika last year and his sense of humor is one of his most endearing qualities. His restaurant Osteria Fransescana in Modena, Italy has garnered the third spot in the worlds 50 best restaurants in the world.

He demonstrated his camouflage plate and another dish to resemble a handful of leaves under a tree in autumn. The poetry of everyday under our feet. That night we were conversing after dinner and that we would be meeting in September in Modena and he said he would love to continue our conversation in his kitchen.

 

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Bottura’s Camouflage Plate

Thus ended Day 1 of the conference, with two more days to follow with a whole galaxy of international stars such as Rene Redzepi, Alex Atala, Daniel Humm, Andoni Aduriz, David Kinch, and many more.

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Geeta with Pablo Salas and their piggy friend…

Mesamerica Day 2
By Geeta Bansal, Clay Oven Irvine executive chef

The last image of the first day of Mesamerica in Mexico City that stayed with me till the next morning was chef Massimo Bottura (of the restaurant Osteria Fransescana, Modena, Italy, which is currently ranked #3 in 2013 according to San Pellegrino) showing his regard and affection for his sous chef David up on stage. Later that night I was able to spend time with the both of them and could tell that it was a very genuine emotion and was heartwarming to see. These are moments that show the true personality of these people and help understand why they are so highly regarded by their peers.

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Massimo Bottura and Sous Chef David

The second day began with Fulvio Eccardi who discussed ingredients, biodiversity and the value of origin. He was followed by one of the most interesting presenters that morning, our very own David Kinch of Manresa, Los Gatos. In my opinion he is one of the most talented chefs in our country and the nicest human being to boot.

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David Kinch of Manresa, Los Gatos, California

A highlight of his demonstration was the buckwheat popcorn he created. Squid ink, boudin noir, rice crispies (actually little fried cubes of cooked rice) were all part of his demo along with a video clip of the kitchens at Manresa and of Love Apple Farms that grows all of his produce.

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David Kinch’s Buckwheat popcorn

He was followed by Adam Goldberg, food blogger from ‘A life Worth Eating’ spoke about tasting menus and their caloric content. Lots of charts and diagrams, so he kind of lost the audience interest for a while. But the subject matter is of interest to chefs with elaborate tasting menus requiring a few hours at the table.

Gabriela Camara of Contramar the seafood restaurant in the city was one of the few women chefs represented on stage. Camara said that our hospitality industry is in fact the industry of generosity and stressed the importance of courteous service.

Then came chef Pablo Salas of Amarante, Mexico who demonstrated pork and its various presentations and had a little piglet as part of his demo. It created a mystery for a while in the green room as we all conjectured on the source of the squealing. I was with Gaston Acurio and Virgilio Martinez and we were guessing if it was a goat, a child or what till Pablo strode in with the little thing tucked under his arm!

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Inaki Aizpitarte of Le Chateaubriand, Paris

After lunch, Inaki Aizpitarte along with film maker Nanda Fernandez took the stage. Their film clip of Inaki strolling the streets in Andalusia, Spain with his kids and a little cooler with egg yolks that he brûléed with a blow torch and served on a daquoise like an open sandwich to passer bys was endearing and hilarious at the same time. Inaki is a talented Basque chef who’s Le Chateaubriand restaurant in Paris should be on everyone’s to do list. (more about that in an interview with him).

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Inaki serving his eggs on the street in Spain

 

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Jorge Vallejo of Quintonil, Mexico City, Mexico

Jorge Vallejo from Quintonil, which is now one of my favorite restaurants in Mexico City, demonstrated dishes using ingredients from the regional and traditional food cultures of Mexico including the herb quintonil after which his restaurant is named. His cactus sorbet tasting plates never made it to us there, but I was able to taste it at his restaurant later. Jorge and his wife Alejandra were some of the most interesting and talented people I enjoyed meeting in Mexico.

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Jorge Vallejo’s Cactus Sorbet

Will Guidara and Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park were next and told their story of how their restaurant (currently #5 on the World’s 50 Best) opened and the challenges they overcame to be where they are today. Chef Humm narrated an interesting story about how they started procuring Amagansett salt from Long Island and ended up partnering with the small producer and now source their entire salt for use at Eleven Madison Park from him. Their collaborative talk was aptly named “In Pursuit Of Collaboration” to emphasize the connection between the kitchen and dining room as part of the same team. Will Guidara gave an example of a busboy at the restaurant with a keen interest in tea and how they brought him in to take charge of the tea operations and selections at the restaurant.

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Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park, NYC–sorry for the blurriness!

Emiliano Godoy the industrial designer explained his concept of sustainable furniture. It was an interesting presentation though by then, I was suffering from information overload. There was more to come. Elena Reygadas the bread maker par excellence and judging by the crowd’s reaction a clear favorite was next. According to her, making a profit should not drive your efforts, and the craft should be kept alive for professional and human satisfaction. The visuals and demos are great but I wish we got to taste her breads which all locals in the audience around me were admonishing not to leave Mexico City without tasting. My next visit for sure.

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Eneko Axta of Azurmendi, Spain

Eneko Atxa (the young chef from San Sebastian, Spain whose Azurmendi restaurant shot to prominence in two short years and who recently got his third Michelin star) talked about his creative process at Azurmendi. He is a charming unassuming young chef whose talent you have to enjoy by visiting Azurmendi (for all those requesting help with reservations I will do my best to get you in!).

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Andoni Aduriz and Oswaldo Oliva of Mugaritz, Spain

My favorite intellectual chef from Mugaritz, chef Andoni Aduriz with sous chef Oswaldo Oliva (who hails from Mexico) was the last presenter and came with his slick little film about the macaron de Caza that I had seen last year at the San Sebastian Gastronomika . He got some volunteers on stage to play his “Guess what’s in my grapes” game (the grapes were created out of melons with pips of seafood inserted in one instance) and then he tested their palate further with his macarons (I wrote about them in my interview with Aduriz earlier this year).

Members of the audience onstage with Aduriz

It changed my taste of chocolate macarons forever as he replaced fresh pigs blood for the albumen from egg whites. It was a pleasure to see how the local audience applauded for Oswaldo and he teared up. I told him later that he certainly made his Mexico and his family and friends like us proud.

The long exhausting but very interesting second day of Mesamerica ended on a high note. The next day would feature Rene Redzepi, Alex Atala, Virgilio Martinez and many other superstars.

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Geeta with Aquiles Chavez, the Dalí of Latin American cuisine

Mesamerica 2013 in Mexico City, Day Three
By Geeta Bansal, Clay Oven Irvine Executive Chef/Owner

Since we enjoyed dinners at local restaurants with friends every night and hung out with them till early hours of the morning, by day three we were feeling it. The final day of Mesamerica had all the top culinary stars of the food galaxy and had been much anticipated by the crowd in the auditorium.

My Peruvian chef friend Virgilio Martinez, accompanied by petite Karime Lopez (originally from Mexico, and currently at Senzo, Cusco another restaurant by Martinez) gave an excellent demo. In my conversations with culinary students in the audience, they mentioned that had not seen plating techniques like those before and I think it was a very inspiring and a great learning opportunity for them. That is the whole purpose of these meetings: to encourage dissemination of information and share revolutionary techniques and ideas.

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Virgilio Martinez with Chef Karime Lopez

Virgilio spoke about his Mater Initiative (you can read my interview with Virgilio from May in OC Weekly) and how he is attempting to bring his outside environment and its products into his kitchen. He regretted not being able to bring in the real deal (coca leaves) for his demo and tasting as customs would have had a problem with cocaine leaves; there were some disappointed spectators for sure in the crowd, judging by their reaction. Having spent time with both Virgilio and Karime I can say that they do practice what they preach (not talking about coca leaves here) and Central, Lima should be on every foodies list of restaurants in the world.

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Virgilio’s Plating Demo

Then we heard from Eduardo Vasquez, who expressed his views about the perfect meal and was followed by Antonio de Livier of Mexico. Livier was on stage demonstrating a classic Mexican stew: birria, except as a seafood. He was clearly a crowd favorite as he had them going with shout-outs for his favorites such as his mentor Olvera, Pujol the restaurant, Mexicali, and an obscure question about any New Yorkers in the audience. A Mexican colleague explained not to take it literally that it was an inside joke in Mexico (if anyone gets it, please do let me know).

Then came a very colorful discussion about the dawning of the culinary era in Latin America amongst journalists from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico and Peru, moderated by Sasha Correa of Venezuela. It was an interesting inside look from people with a close eye on happenings in that part of the world.

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Alex Atala

Alex Atala, D.O.M, Sao Paulo, Brazil–the rockstar who really didn’t need Enrique Olvera of Mexico to introduce him. I have seen him demo and speak at other such events and he has the audience engaged with his Hollywood looks, sense of humor, creativity and intellect. He said his interest in Mexico was sparked by his love for lucha libre. His cooking demo was setup like a wrestling match on the plate with shrimp and crawfish “wrestling” in front of an audience of rock shrimp and grasshoppers. Suddenly a bunch of Lucha Libre mask clad dancers joined him on stage to add to the fun. Needless to say he had the crowd eating out of his hands after that. He made them even happier by predicting that soon the top restaurant in Latin America could be from Mexico.

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Luche Libre On Stage

After breaking for lunch, we came back to listen to Alfredo Villanueva and Pedro Guzman on the subject of branding followed by Aquiles Chavez, the food television star of Mexico who also owns a restaurant, La Fisheria, in Houston. We had met earlier in the day, him surrounded by fans, mostly of the female kind, and I told him he looked like a Mexican Dali (ha ha). He said no one has ever said that to him but I will let the picture at the beginning of this post tell the story.

Chavez told the audience that T.V is another facet of being a chef (The world of reality T.V shows has certainly changed the perception of the man on the street if this is true.) Chavez then warned the culinary students in the crowd to not wait to be discovered by a T.V producer but just work on honing their craft. It seemed contradictory to me but, O.K! Then one of the superstars of the day Jordi Roca, of El Celler Can de Roca, arrived creating a buzz in the auditorium.

 

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Jordi Roca on stage with his wife

Jordi, accompanied by his young Mexican bride/sous chef, gave one of the most engaging (and, at the same time, thought-provoking) demos of the day. Roca credited his childhood memories of foods like the bon bons his aunt brought home from her job that inspired his version of the ones he created on stage. Jordi can certainly hold his own besides his two other famous siblings, Joan Roca (I interviewed him at his restaurant in Girona, Spain for an interview in OC Weekly earlier this year) and Joseph, by earning the title of one of the top pastry chefs in the world in close competition with Albert Adria (you can read my interviews with Adria earlier in February).

Jordi Roca’s wacky sense of humor is certainly evident in his deserts and was in full form on stage as well. I have been fortunate to have tasted many of his deserts at his restaurant, such as his blown sugar fruits ( his wife demonstrated that technique which is similar to blown glass on stage), his recreations of various perfumes, etc., on visits to El Celler de Can Roca.

His very slick crazy video of how they sent a poor, unsuspecting chicken into orbit to have it cook on reentry when a kitchen staffer waited to catch it to deliver it to the kitchen was one of the more hilarious ones. The most memorable moment on stage was when he created a dessert that seemed to breathe. It was a classic Roca moment using science to create a living dough that served as a base for the desert he placed on it. It reminded me of the displays at the Dalí museums jewelry exhibits near Roca’s home town. He was truly the mad scientist of the day.

Latest from the Roca brothers is their culinary opera El Somni, which debuted in Barcelona on May 6th of this year. A video about the backstory and scenes from their musical culinary performance enraptured the audience.

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Living Dessert

We had all lasted through an eventful day to finally see Rene Redzepi of Noma, Denmark on stage to dimmed lights. I had met Rene the day before when he arrived for the event and though curious about the title of his talk, ‘Tacos Pastor,’ I never broached the subject, thinking maybe it was his Nordic riff on a Mexican street favorite.

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Rene Redzepi in the darkened auditorium

Redzepi spoke from the heart, moving the audience (some like me, tearing up) about his journey in the last few years and the toll that it took on him. He spoke candidly about his ‘burnout’ and how he came to Mexico to recuperate and gather himself. During this process, he ate his way through a lot of tacos pastor to ‘find’ himself again and in this sense the tacos and Mexico saved him and his restaurant.

He spoke of his journey through childhood memories of things like the simple life as a child in Macedonia, roast chicken, finding his passion for cooking and compared it to travel in a time machine. He said you are constantly absorbing flavors and deliciousness through your journey in life and according to him, “That is what makes life fun to live.” It was a sobering and inspiring speech to the audience, many of whom were from the business and had been in the same place at some point. His candid acknowledgement of his difficult experience hopefully will be an important learning experience for other young chefs and aspiring young culinaires. Kudos to him for putting it out there as a reality of this profession. Rene Redzepi is a very talented, emotional and honest man and he will find his balance and keep amazing the world.

The three day event ended with the announcement of Mesamerica 2014 from May 19-21 in Mexico City. The theme will be street food of which Mexico has some of the best, and an added bonus next year will be an entire morning devoted to the pastry chefs. Xau Saguer of Espaisucre delivered the sweet news about the Best Desert Competition next year to synchronize with Mesamerica. Thus ended three intense, interesting and informative days focused on the culinary arts.

Adios, Mexico City–see you next year!

 

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