Business Times - 25 Apr 2009
Younger, fresher, more exciting - Spanish chefs are arguably leading the culinary scene with their creative techniques and recipes. Audrey Phoon profiles four of Spain's best, who were here this week for the World Gourmet Summit
Sergi Arola Gastro
Tel +34 91 308 7240
HE looks like an old-school rocker, this silver-haired, earringed guy with the tattooed biceps, faded tee and ripped jeans. And in fact he is a guitarist, one who plays with Grammy-winning musician Miguel Bose to massive crowds in Spain. But Sergi Arola is also a chef, the two-Michelin-star-good kind of chef. Or, as they call him in his home country, a 'gastronomic god'.
The Catalonian was born in Roses, the domain of elBulli, whose owner-chef Ferran Adria is coincidentally Arola's mentor. As a youth, however, Arola picked up his guitar more than he did the pots and pans. 'I wasn't especially intelligent, never played football,' says the chef, who is producing a series of World Gourmet Summit dinners at The Sentosa Resort and Spa until tonight. 'I had many complexes, so playing the guitar was a way to express myself. I wrote my own songs and lyrics, and it helped me leave my complexes behind. I felt better about myself.'
At the age of 20 though, he enrolled in a Barcelona culinary school hoping to turn cooking into a side job (as a child he would sometimes cook for his grandfather, who 'never cooked but was a great gourmet'). But after graduation there was an invitation to join Adria, and after that, there was no turning back.
Today Arola himself is a brand in Spain, his latest and largest achievement being Sergi Arola Gastro, the first restaurant that he has actually owned. It opened just over a year ago and has already garnered two Michelin stars for its offerings such as a plump scallop showered with black truffle shavings then bathed in a creamy vichyssoise made from a type of Catalan onion called calÃ§ot. Not that the chef actually cares how successful he is. 'I don't want to be different, I don't see myself as a celebrity,' he says. 'I am a cook who very, very much enjoys his job, the guests, the people. I don't want to sacrifice my happiness to be number one or number 72. I don't mind being wherever I am.'
As one who's been in the gastronomy game for a long time and who's a leader in one of the world's most creative culinary scenes, Arola has seen the industry markedly grow and evolve. 'Think about where it was 10, 15 years ago - nobody talked about gastronomy, nobody wrote about gastronomy, just a few specialised magazines,' he notes. 'Now, gastronomy is a big, big success and there are chefs on the cover of the New York Times.'
The next chapter, he continues, will probably involve a revival of 'the classic techniques but with the new ingredients'. 'There are many ingredients that have been used in Asia for a very long time but are new in Spain - seaweed, for example, is the newest thing there,' explains Arola. 'And also in Asia there are things that are quite new here, like jamon (Spanish ham). So I think people will be going back to use the old techniques with these new ingredients.'
The Spaniard also feels that it's time more restaurants started looking at aspects other than the food. 'The guests are beginning to look at different areas of eating, and not just the food. I think it's quite important now to really focus on the service, the wine, the experience. Because when you pay a lot of money to go to one restaurant, you are expecting more than food,' he states.
'We've spent the last five, six years talking only about the cuisine, not the experience. I think it's time to change this.'
Estado Puro Plaza Cánovas del Castillo 4
Tel +34 913 302 400
GIVE a Spaniard some eggs and onions, and he is likely to turn out a tortilla de patatas, that traditional slow-cooked Spanish omelette that is so thick it can be sliced into wedges.
Alfonso Castellano, however, is of the belief that 'people like to taste something new but with a reference to something traditional'. So, at a dinner this week at The Sentosa Resort and Spa (which he will be cooking until tonight), his Spanish omelette came liquefied in a shooter glass with a wooden stirrer stuck in it instead.
Given Castellano's background, maybe that's not so surprising. The young Spaniard started cooking in a traditional, family-run restaurant but later moved on to one of Spain's top avant-garde restaurants, Martin Berasategui. In 2002, he opened his own restaurant in Madrid which championed avant-garde cooking as a way to express and revive traditional recipes.
Then late last year, he joined Spanish chef Paco Roncero - considered the most outstanding of Ferran Adria's disciples - at Estado Puro, a new tapas bar that Roncero set up to bring tapas back to its 'purest state'.
'It's about distilling and extracting pure flavours; taking the essences without the colours and impurities,' asserts Castellano.
On why he's chosen to focus on tapas, the chef says: 'Tapas is a way of eating. You're able to have more tastes and more things but also in different places, and I like the idea of that.'
As such, Castellano's dishes at Estado Puro - which has its own tiny garden of tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers - run the gamut in terms of taste and origins. There's foie gras sandwiched between delicate walls of crostini, cheesy ham croquettes that melt away in the mouth and vinegared anchovies, for instance.
Castellano attributes the forward-thinking style of Spanish chefs to the fact that more of the modern techniques were created in Spain, so 'there is a concentration of chefs who work with the new techniques there'. But while he emphasises that such techniques are essential to make the most of a good ingredient, 'our work at Estado Puro is not to make and find new techniques'.
The chef would rather rely on ideas rather than machines to create fresh recipes. Castellano's inspiration comes from 'everywhere, everyday', he says. 'It's in the work, from other professionals, from the ambience here.'
Indicating the greenery-surrounded tea lounge at The Sentosa that we're at, he concludes: 'Here, for example, it's very relaxed so this will come through on the plates some day.'
DiverXO Calle Francisco Medrano 5
Tel +34 91 570 0766
DAVID Munoz's first restaurant literally cost him the roof over his head. 'I bought my apartment when I was 20 and I lived there for seven years. But I had to sell it to open my restaurant and I moved into my parents' home,' he says. 'It was quite hard because I had been living out on my own for all that time, and then suddenly I was sharing a room with my brother!'
Luckily, the gamble paid off. The tiny, 20-seat DiverXO (in what Gourmet magazine called 'a drab part of town') became one of Madrid's hottest restaurants within a few weeks of its opening in 2007, and it's remained on the hot list since then. Perhaps more importantly, Munoz was able to buy another home of his own six months ago, so 'it all turned out fine in the end', he says.
What's got much of Spain raving about DiverXO is the Asian-inspired cuisine that the young chef is expertly producing there. (The name of the restaurant, in fact, features his favourite Asian ingredient, XO sauce.) At the World Gourmet Summit's Spanish Gala Dinner this week, we got a taste of this: a plump little oyster bedded on tender slices of coconut in a sweet broth, followed by a translucent carrot-skin-wrapped dumpling filled with a deliciously intense five-spice-braised rabbit (Munoz calls this dish The Rabbit and The Carrot).
The chef's love for Asian food stems from his first overseas stint at the renowned Hakkasan in London. He calls it his biggest experience; at the time he arrived in the English capital, 'Chinese food in Spain was not fine, we just thought it was fried rice and spring rolls'.
The way the Hakkasan chefs were cooking, 'steaming everything in a steam oven when in Spain we cook a lot in ovens and pans', was a whole new world to the young chef and inspired him to adopt the culture in his cuisine. This could mean, say, an XO sauce that he makes 'in a Spanish way', with Iberico ham instead of Chinese ham, and salted fish swapped with dried Spanish tuna loin. The sauce is then made into a sort of mayonnaise and brushed across the plate 'in a big line, we make it the principal focus in the dish' alongside a skate wing.
While Munoz notes that the opening of DiverXo was received with some scepticism ('A Spanish guy making modern Chinese food? People wouldn't come at first, they were quite scared.'), he also acknowledges that diners - or the Spaniards, at least - are far more open-minded now as compared to when Ferran Adria first started.
'I think Ferran Adria's job was very important for Spain. Imagine, he started to make modern food about 10, 12 years ago; everybody thought he was mad then. But he started showing people that there was a different way to cook, that you can have long tasting menus. He changed the Spanish mentality about food.
'Then Quique Dacosta and all of those generation of chefs, they were the second wave and it was still quite a struggle for them. But life is easier for us, the third wave.'
Indeed, Munoz is doing so well that he is moving to bigger premises in a month and a half. The new DiverXO, which will be close to Real Madrid's Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, will accommodate slightly more diners - '30 or 32' - but its kitchen will be nearly six times bigger than the present one. 'It will be better to make special food,' says Munoz
Oriol Balaguer Barcelona
Plaza Sant Gregori Taumaturg, 2
Tel +34 932 011 846
PERHAPS it is because of all the chocolate he has access to, but Oriol Balaguer is one happy chap. The chocolatier and dessert cuisine specialist says that he loves his work and bounces out of bed looking forward to going to his studio every day.
'I was born a pastry chef, I suppose,' shares the Barcelona native, whose father was also a pastry chef. 'My job is my hobby, my passion, my life. I think about it 25 hours every day - it's true! Whenever I wake up, I feel very happy to go to work and I never look at the time when I am there.'
It's fair to expect such great investment to produce remarkable results, and Balaguer does not disappoint. He is Spain's top chocolatier, with chic stores that resemble fashion boutiques in Barcelona, Madrid and Japan, and he produces what can only be described as edible pieces of couture: modernist Easter eggs big enough to feed a whole family for a week; or jewelled gems infused with wasabi or toasted corn or soya, for instance.
Just like the big fashion houses, Balaguer releases two cake and dessert collections each year, along with two to three chocolate ranges. (The chef, who was in town this week for the World Gourmet Summit, is returning home this weekend but his chocolates are available at the Grand Hyatt Singapore until next week.)
Recently, he says, he has been using a lot of olive oil, honeyed dark truffles and tonka beans in his creations, but he's also trying 'to use savoury things more and more, especially when I make desserts because I like to have a combination of sweet and salty'.
Such ingredients already make for unique pastries, but Balaguer quite modestly reckons that what makes his creations different is the fact that he pours a brew of his work experiences as a chocolatier, a pastry chef and a 'normal' chef into each of his recipes. 'I always think that I am three different chefs, and I mix everything together when I try to create one dessert. I have a lot of information and different philosophies from when I taught in a culinary school, then worked as a chocolate chef and also in a restaurant, so I suppose this is the difference. But I don't like to say that - the customers, they need to see it for themselves.'
When asked what the Spanish pastry scene will roll out in the future, the chipper chef grows serious. 'That's a big question. I think it could be one of two things: either we will go back again to traditional food and traditional flavours, or we will go far ahead. 'Now, I think in Europe we have a good moment for high-level gastronomic cuisine, and also for classic traditional cuisine. It's a great time for both, so it could go either way.'